Dating back to the 1800’s, many theories have developed in reference to Child Development. There have been theories that have become classics and those that continue to cause controversy. Doing research on these theories one of them really stood out to me and that is the one of B.F. Skinner. Skinner believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. He called this approach operant conditioning. The main principles of operant conditioning, as defined by Skinner, are reinforcement, punishment, shaping, extinction, discrimination, and generalization. Reinforcement is the key element in Skinner’s theory. A reinforcement is any characteristic in the environment that serves to increase the probability that a person will repeat a behavior in the future. It could be verbal praise, a good grade or a feeling of increased accomplishment or satisfaction (Cook). An example of a positive reinforcement is a child receives their report card and brings it home to mom and dad. The child received four “A’s” and one “B”. For every “A” received the parents reinforce that child with money. In middle school “A’s” are worth twenty dollars each but moving into high school they are worth fifty dollars each. This child will be highly motivated to bring home as many “A’s” as they can! What happens when that reinforcer does not work?
That is when the next element in Skinner’s theory comes into play, and that is punishment. Punishment is defined as the opposite of reinforcement since it is designed to weaken or eliminate a response rather than increase it. Like reinforcement, punishment can work either by directly applying an unpleasant stimulus like a shock after a response or by removing a potentially rewarding stimulus (McLeod). For instance, let’s say that child who brought home “A’s” is now driving. They broke curfew because they were out late with their friends. To punish undesirable behavior the parents take away his or her driving privilege for a week with the exception of driving to and from school. According to Skinner, children operate on their own environments, adjusting their behaviors to attract more reinforcements and to avoid punishment (Cook). Next comes shaping, extinction, discrimination, and generalization. Shaping is the technique of selectively reinforcing certain behaviors while ignoring or punishing others. This element has been applied to the learning theory of language development.
Extinction is referring to the elimination of the behavior by stopping reinforcement of the behavior (Bauer). Next we have discrimination, which in Skinners theory is referenced to learning that a behavior will be rewarded in one situation, but not another. Generalization is the last element made up in Skinners theory. In generalization, a behavior may be performed in more than one situation. Skinner divided behaviorism into respondent conditioning and operant conditioning, the latter of which he defined as explaining how the consequence of a behavior controlled the future occurrence of that same behavior. He believed all behavior could be explained by an action performed and the valence of its consequence (Schacter). His work remains extremely influential in the worlds of psychology, behaviorism, and education. This theory compares and contrasts with experiences and beliefs in my life very easily. One event just happened two weeks ago. My son, who is only six years old, got mad at school and so he punched one of his classmates. He even tried to justify his actions by saying the kid was being mean to him. Well, I don’t believe in telling my kid “don’t hit” and then I go ahead and spank him. I’m sorry but that is just about the most hypocritical action to take. So instead, he was grounded for a week.
He could not play outside with him friends, he was not allowed to play with any toys unless they were educational or artistic, and he was not allowed to watch any television. Since then, the teacher has reported back to me that he has been keeping his hands to himself and has not gotten into any trouble since that event. My next example is about my son as well, it is from when he was a baby. Potty training, yes that tricky thing! How am I going to get this kid to use a toilet? I came up with this great idea, each time Rush (my sons name) used the “big boy potty” he got a sticker. When we filled up the boxes on the page with stickers we would go out and buy a hot wheel. Trust me a hot wheel is pretty much gold to this little boy. So eventually he automatically used the big boy potty. After he had it down, the element of extinction was initiated so I didn’t have to buy any more hot wheels! Ethical issues that have arose from Skinners theory is Behaviorism is manipulative. It seeks not merely to understand human behavior, but to predict and control it. From his theories, Skinner developed the idea of “shaping.”
By controlling rewards and punishments, you can shape the behavior of another person. There is belief that Skinner only wanted to manipulate his patients and by doing operant conditioning you can manipulate the person and their behavior. My interactions with children have already without my knowing been similar to the theory developed by Skinner. I will just continue to do the reinforcement and punishment with my child when need be. Bribery can go a long way with a child! Two pieces of parenting advice I would give to a new parent is that the reinforcement element of operant conditioning really works well when it comes to potty training, and trust me that is something you want to get done as soon as possible because diapers are expensive. Reward them for using potty, it gets it done faster. Another piece of advice for a new parent is, don’t threaten to punish them because when you don’t actually follow through with their punishment they are going to know you are lying so eventually those empty threats will have no meaning at all and you will lose control.
Bauer, Amy, and Christine Maracich. “Conditioning and Learning.” Niu.edu. N.P., 2003. Web. 03 Oct. 2014. Cook, Joan Littlefield., and Greg Cook. “Chapter 1.” Child Development: Principles and Perspectives. Boston: Pearson A & B, 2009. 12+. Print.
McLeod, S. A. “B.F. Skinner | Operant Conditioning | Simply Psychology.” SimplyPsychology.org. N.P., 2007. Web. 02 Oct. 2014.
Schacter, Daniel L., Daniel Todd. Gilbert, and Daniel M. Wegner. Psychology. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Worth, 2011. Print