If You Give A Child A Cookie…

There is only one universal of parenting I provide to my students: the only “good” parenting is parenting that attends and responds to the child’s needs, because each child is unique. Of course, there is an exception to every rule, and there is one law of parenting I will declare universal, which is that giving in to a child’s demands just once is setting yourself up for even more insistent demands in the future.

This was originally observed in rats, who were trained to press bars for food; rats were trained with either continuous reinforcement, with every single bar press producing a food pellet, or intermittent reinforcement, with bar presses producing pellets only every so often. Obviously, rats with intermittent reinforcement had to press the bar more often to receive the same amount of food, but the interesting behavior happened during what’s called an “extinction” period, when the food reward was turned off. The rats that had received food every single time they pressed the bar soon starting ignoring the bar, having learned fairly quickly that it was no longer going to produce food. The rats who had received intermittent reinforcement, though, persisted in pressing that bar, seeming to believe that sooner or later pressing the bar would again produce food.

Let them eat cake for breakfast once, and prepare for them to ask for it every day. Photo by Katharine Blackwell.

Let them eat cake for breakfast once, and prepare for them to ask for it every day. Photo by Katharine Blackwell.

Now I know no parent wants to see connections between their beautiful children and rats – unless that parent thinks rodents are adorable, intelligent creatures – but when children are very young, the learning mechanisms are quite similar. Preschoolers (in the 1950s, I admit) shows the exact same pattern when they are trained to put a ball in a fancy box to receive small toys. When children had received a toy every time they put the ball in the box, and the box stopped producing toys, they tried about 10 times more. The children who had only received a toy once for every five balls in the box, however, tried 25 times more, over twice as much, on the off chance that a toy would appear.

The connection to giving in to a child’s demand should be clear. Say you’ve given in once or twice to a particular demand, like Oreos for breakfast, but those were exceptional circumstances when you were sick or suffering from ego depletion. Now, you are recovered and ready to see to your child’s nutritious start to the day. Unfortunately, you have your work cut out for you, because your child is going to beg for those Oreos, and is going to whine more often and possibly harder than if you’d handed out Oreos every single day, just like those rats pressing that bar nonstop hoping for food.

This is not to say that giving in to Oreos for breakfast once makes you a bad parent; there are potential advantages to providing unexpected joys in a child’s life that are much harder to quantify than how kids learn. I just urge parents to take a moment before giving in to a child’s demand, or deciding to offer a one-time treat, and recognize that keeping it a one-time treat is going to take some extra vigilance in the following days.

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