Eliza's Reward Jar

You’re about to learn how I use my sociology degree in my everyday life.

It’s weird to think about, but a big part of parenting is operant conditioning, or modifying behaviors based on consequences. We use a combination of positive reinforcement (adding an appetitive stimulus to increase a behavior) and negative punishing (taking an aversive stimulus to decrease a behavior) in our parenting. Negative punishing is always in the form of time-out or a mild grounding around here (grounding is always taking away a specific privilege, like television, for a specific amount of time).

Sticker Book

When Eliza was itty bitty, we used a consistent positive reinforcement system in the form of stickers. Eliza had a big box of stickers and a handmade book to put them in. I even wrote a little poem to put in the cover:

When you do a job well done,
You get a sticker (only one)!
And if you fill every square,
You will get a prize that’s fair.

She’d get new stickers to put in her box when we went shopping with her (which distracted her and kept her happy while we were shopping) and she’s get a small tangible prize or fun thing to do when she filled up a page. This was really useful as we were potty training her; we’ll probably do something similar with Jonas.

There’s a point when it doesn’t work very well, though. When a child starts saying, “If I do this, will I get a sticker?” or “Why didn’t I get a sticker for that?” or “I don’t want your stupid sticker anyway, I’d rather dump cereal on the floor!”, you’ve got a problem. Enter random positive reinforcement.

Eliza's Reward Jar

How we came to our reward system is actually pretty depressing: in one of my senior level Sociology Courses (Program and Policy Evaluation), our class was studying the high attrition (drop out) rate of a local batterer’s program. Most batterers were legally mandated to finish the program after being charged with abuse, but the majority did not finish the program and were instead sent to prison. To understand why the batterers had a high attrition rate, we first had to do an in-depth study of abuse. Needless to say, this class was super depressing and was very difficult emotionally.

One of the things I did take from it, though, was that random positive reinforcement works. Many people stay in abusive relationships because of the positive reinforcement present in the relationship (displays of affection). When this positive reinforcement is randomly applied, the receiver doesn’t know when to expect the positive reinforcement, so they continue their behavior (in this case, staying in the relationship) in hopes that the positive reinforcement will come at some unexpected time.

It might seem weird that I translated that into parenting, but I did. I explained the concept to Jake (who majored in Software Engineering and Business Management) and we came up with a system that fit the principle. We filled up a reward jar with awesome stuff (right now there’s a lot of Pez, which Eliza collects, Spiderman socks, bubblegum, and a few small Spiderman toys) and she gets to pick something out of it sometimes when she’s done something nice without us having to ask her to.

Eliza's Reward Jar

This works so well. She can’t do something nice in order to get something out of it. If she wants something from the jar, she just has to keep on cleaning her room, playing with her brother, and being a good Samaritan until we randomly decide to give her something. We also like that, in addition to this being excellent conditioning, this prepares her for the real world. You don’t get a prize every time you do something good, but keep at it and someone will notice! We’d also like to add that we also technically give her positive reinforcement every time she does something good in the form of verbal praise. So we mix consistent positive reinforcement and random positive reinforcement, really.

This has the added bonus of not adding a lot of useless stuff to her room. Can you imagine how much junk she’d have if we gave her something every time she did a good job?

And to anticipate your questions, yep: we do put this amount of nerdy thought into most of our parenting decisions.

How did your parents encourage good behavior? If you are a parent, how to you reward your kids?