(Baby Gangnam Style Benjamin‘s website)

Children can be cute, creative, and overwhelmingly frustrating with their screaming meltdowns over the tiniest things. Everyone can probably think of a time when you are standing in the check out line and down the rows they could hear the shrieking of an inconsolable, unhappy child wailing about their latest problem. Parents, teachers, and baby-sitters alike eventually resort at some point to that “magic” trigger or set of words which seem to console the child into perfect behavior.

My “magic” words as a child were “candy,” “ice-cream,” “Do you want to _____?” and, “I’ll let you _______.”

They were extraordinarily dangerous words to use around me–and all of my cousins. Play time was the perfect opportunity to swap stories and brag about how we got what we wanted, and was a prime time to concoct our next batch of plans. We thought we were unstoppable–and perhaps you didn’t realize you might have been trained by a child.

Photo credit: redjar of flickr

Today will be candy, tomorrow–the car.

As sweet and innocent as they look, children can be quite cunning and learn much quicker than adults do. Creativity flows through their veins and they can pick up on patterns, constantly encouraged by adults to fill in the blanks and find what’s next– major stepping stones for learning math and establishing order in their lives. They are brilliant little masterminds–but there are times when the student becomes the teacher.

There are dog trainers out there that are adamant about no-treats during training because they believe the treats are just bribing the dog to do what they want. As long as that treat is present, the dog behaves perfectly and idolizes every word until they are given what they want–but that won’t stop Fido from bolting after that tastier looking squirrel or chase that amazingly fun car. They say not to bribe the dog.

This is true, even with positive reinforcement training. You are not supposed to bribe the dog, but instead reward it for good behavior. It can sound like the same thing, but when do you know if your action is bribing or rewarding?

A reward is something earned for doing a task or behavior that is liked. Children are rewarded with gold stars for good behavior, and dogs are often lavished with praise and petted. It’s a simple interaction that can make a world of a difference for enforcing good behavior and promoting good habits. The trick with a good reward is the unexpected prize–after all, if once in a while you were randomly given fifty extra dollars and a basket of flowers for just showing up to work early or on time, you’d be much more eager to try and show up to work without being asked.

When good dogs go bad.

When good dogs go bad.

A bribe is something promised in order to stop a negative action. Candy given to a screaming child, or offering Fido a hotdog to stop digging or chasing the neighbor’s cat is bribery. Yes, this is reinforcing the behavior of stopping–when the treat is shown. This can lead a smart Fido–or a creative child–to thinking “what else can I do to make them give me ______.”

This bribe is initially thought to reinforce the “stopping behavior”–which might seem good–but now the child or dog will think of other ways to make someone stop their bad behavior to get more rewards. Ever notice children or puppies getting into more trouble when they’re left alone? This bribe was not a reward for the stop as it was intended, but instead a reward for catching attention of adults while doing something bad.

This can lead to attention seeking behaviors that are not welcomed. Dogs learn to tear up the house when their owners are away, and children learn to throw things off the table or throw tantrums at the most embarrassing times. It’s a difficult cycle to break.

Children learn quickly that flustering adults can make them more willing to cater to them–and the adults might learn that it’s faster to just appease them–but perhaps with a bit of work, they can learn a surprise reward for good behavior can be even more rewarding than the 30 extra seconds of quiet received with the piece of candy.

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