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2 min read

Picture this, a routine familiar is almost every household with young children...

You've just started to make dinner, you've got one or more children underfoot, and they're all begging for snacks.

If you're like me, your response to these snack requests can vary depending on your energy and mood.
  • Some days you make them wait for dinner
  • Some days you offer a healthier snack, and
  • Some days you give into ANY snack request, just to give you 10 minutes of peace

Ideally our kids would understand they're just not allowed snacks while dinner is being made.

But the biggest hurdle in learning this (and ending the daily snack requests at this time) is OUR varying responses - some days they get exactly what they want.

This is what's known in as intermittent reinforcement - when boundaries and rules are only enforced some of the time.

Intermittent reinforcement is confusing for anyone, not just children. Behavioural studies across different animals, children, and adults, all indicate the same result - intermittent reinforcement prolongs negative or undesirable behaviour.

Trust Building 101

In the short term, it can harder to be 'a broken record' and consistently enforce certain boundaries and rules BUT... in the long run, consistency is often a much easier way to change negative behaviour.And not only that, it's also a better way to foster trust between parent and child.Young children have a strong need for order and predictability, as they're trying to figure out the complex and changing world around them.They thrive when they can anticipate what will happen next.When routines and rules are consistent, children better understand what is expected of them and consequently, feel more secure in their environment.Intermittent reinforcement is the opposite of what they crave. It creates instability, insecurity, and can develop mistrust between children and parents.

YOU Are Their Biggest Test Subject

Like Montessorians always say, children are like little scientists, always running experiments and testing reactions.And while young children deeply crave stability and consistency, they are still drawn to experimentation and limit testing...With parents as a child's biggest test subject -

  • "How will they react when I do X?"
  • "What happens when I say Y?"
  • "Can I get what I want if I try Z?"

When we enforce boundaries some of the time, children learn that there's always a chance they'll get what they want.Just knowing they could get that cookie, means it's unlikely they'll stop asking.So whether it's screen time, a nighttime routine, or snack requests - consistent and clear rules will get you the best results.

What About the Effects of Intermittent Reinforcement on "Good" Behaviour? 

It's also worth noting that intermittent reinforcement prolongs ANY behaviour, not just negative behaviours.

So what does this mean for our children?

Once a behaviour is well established and understood then it doesn't need to be reinforced every time.

In fact, behavioural studies indicate intermittent reinforcement patterns maintain the behaviour more strongly than rewarding every single time. This is great, when the behaviour is desirable!

After all, one of the main goals  of parenting is for children to evolve from regular consistent reinforcement into self reinforcement with only intermittent reinforcement from the parent. 

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