How Intermittent Reinforcement Makes Parenting Harder

I apologize, to cover intermittent reinforcement, we are going to stop discussing children, and we are going to start discussing lab rats. We’ll come back to children at the end of this post.
Intermittent reinforcement is the strongest pattern of reinforcement there is. Let’s compare lab rat A and lab rat B. They are living beside each other in cages that have a lever to push for food pellets. Lab rat A gets consistent reinforcement. Every time he pushes his lever, a food pellet drops out. Push, pellet, push, pellet, push, pellet. It’s not very exciting. In fact, after a while, it’s boring. Lab rat A will only push that lever for pellets until he is full. After that, he’ll leave it alone and only come back when he is hungry again.
Lab rat B gets intermittent reinforcement. As much as he pushes, there is a pellet every once in a while. Sometimes, it takes two pushes to get a pellet, sometimes it takes eight, and sometimes it takes as many as seventeen pushes. Then, four pushes gets the next pellet. It is unpredictable and exciting. In fact, after a while, it’s downright addictive. Lab rat B will push that lever long past the point of being full. He will push that lever until he’s exhausted, and then come back later to push some more. He will stock pile pellets because sometimes this thing works and sometimes it doesn’t. Every time it works and a pellet drops, he is happy and a bit surprised.
Let’s say the pellets stop altogether, no more pellets. Lab rat A will push a few times, but he thinks, “oh, this thing is broken. It used to always work and now it doesn’t. This thing is broken.” He’ll walk away and come back only when he is hungry again. Even then, he’ll only press it a few times.
When the pellets stop, lab rat B will push that lever until he keels over out of exhaustion and then, he’ll get right back up and push it some more. He thinks, “darn it, this thing’s got to work. Sometimes it took two pushes. I remember it took seventeen presses one time; that’s my new goal. Eventually this thing will work. Maybe it’ll be the next press.” He’ll keep at it for a quite a while, and he’ll come back far more often than lab rat A.
Now, let’s go back to children. Child A gets consistent reinforcement for tantrumming. Going down the candy aisle, she starts to tantrum, so you give her a candy bar. Tantrum, candy bar, tantrum, candy bar. It’s not very exciting; in fact, it’s boring. You’ll see that behavior when the child feels it is warranted. If the parent wises up and decides, “no more candy bars at the store,” child A may tantrum a little while, but she thinks, “wow, you are broken. This used to always work on you and now, it doesn’t.”
Child B gets intermittent reinforcement for tantrumming. Going down the candy aisle, she starts to tantrum, so you give a candy bar, tantrum, say you’ll leave the store, tantrum, you ignore her the rest of the trip, tantrum, you say “no,” she tantrums six more minutes, you give in and say, “whatever, it’s just a candy bar.” If the parent wises up and decides, “no more candy bars at the store,” child B will tantrum way longer and harder than child B because she thinks, “sometimes this works with you. I remember it took six minutes one time; that’s my new goal.”
What I am saying is that, if you give in to tantrumming every tenth time because you are tired or it’s just a cookie, you are more strongly reinforcing tantrumming than if you gave in every time right away. I am not telling you to give in every time, right away. I am telling you to never give in because when you do, it makes your job harder. It encourages your child to tantrum more often. Giving intermittent reinforcement to negative behaviors is a disservice to all involved. When my children tantrum, it makes me firm to never reinforce their tantrumming behavior. I think, “I can’t give that to you, even if I wanted to. It would be bad for you; you would behave that way more often.”

Author: Dr. Rene Hackney

With a MA in school psychology and a PhD in developmental psychology, I founded and work as a parent educator at Parenting Playgroups. Somewhere in there I trained in the Developmental Clinic at Children's NMC and in the public schools. I have two beautiful, funny children who make me practice what I preach most everyday.

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