It’s a question that reader Carl is grappling with:
I know it’s been a [week] since the last note in your parenting discussion, but I have a three-year-old son, and something he did earlier today made me wonder about how to positively reinforce a particular behavior. I know from first-hand experience that positive reinforcement works. It’s easy enough to apply the technique when he does something I want him to do like letting me change him from his pajamas into clothes in the morning before nursery school without kicking and screaming, but what about when it comes to something I don’t want him to do?
He likes throwing things—toys, pillows, books, whatever. It doesn’t seem like he’s doing it out of frustration or anger, but just because sometimes it’s fun to throw things. I understand where he’s coming from, but how do I positively reinforce a behavior when the behavior I want to reinforce consists of not doing something impulsive?
I’m not a parent yet, so if any readers with young kids have good advice for Carl, let us know. Perhaps he can glean some wisdom from this piece by Elissa Strauss, who writes about parenthood for Slate. She is “having a hard time buying” the theory of positive reinforcement advanced by Alan Kazdin, whose interview with Olga spurred this discussion thread. Strauss talked to some childhood psychologists, including Ross Greene: