The Missing Manual: From Hunting and Gathering to Toddler Time-Outs

Ruthanna Gordon
Jun 13, 2013

My 4-year-old son, having just decided that calling his mama a “fool” is a good idea, is in time out.  I’m leaning on the door as he rattles the handle and informs me loudly that “Time out is evil!”  I bite my tongue on the urge to argue with this dubious claim, and try to remember my lessons on operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning has had a bad rap since the first time B.F. Skinner put a rat in a box with levers and lights. However, you probably use it every day, on yourself or others—and you could probably use it more effectively than you are now.

The basic principles of this type of learning are incredibly simple. If you do something that results in a pleasant outcome, you’re more likely to do it again. If you do something that results in unpleasant outcome, you’re less likely to do it again. But it quickly gets more complicated.

Complication #1: Most people, even those older than 4, are impatient when it comes to conditioning. A positive outcome that shows up after an hour matters less than one that shows up after a minute. A positive outcome that shows up after months or years—a college degree, a paid-off credit card, a polite child—can be hard to focus on at all. 

How to use this: If you’ve got a long-term goal, plan for small, short-term rewards to keep you going. Those rewards can be physical (ice cream after a few hours studying) or mental (getting praise from a friend, or imagining long-term results). Just be careful with the latter—if you don’t also imagine what you’ll need to do to get those results, daydreaming about them can actually be counterproductive.

Complication #2: Rewards trump punishments every time. This is frustrating for the parent who’s just yelled at their kid (punishment) for eating a stolen cookie (reward—yum).  But the reason is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history.  Most of the things you need to do to survive are, in part, unpleasant.  Whether you’re hunting the elusive mammoth, or spending a long day at the office, at the end of the day, you have enough to feed your family—and you’re exhausted, your legs hurt, and you’ve probably gotten scratched by thorns, given an unpleasant task by your boss, or chased by something that wants to eat you.  If tasty mammoth meat doesn’t outweigh pain and fear, you won’t survive long.

How to use this: Reward behaviors that are incompatible with the ones you want to stop—for example, when my son manages to be polite even when he’s frustrated, I praise him for it. And look for ways to take away rewards before looking for ways to punish—for example, not giving extra attention to bad behavior.  Which is why, standing on the other side of this door, I am not getting into an argument about the nature of evil with a 4-year-old.

Image from Savage Chickens, Doug Savage 2009.

Reviewed by Stephanie Byng.

Ruthanna Gordon


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Comments (2)

Lynn Adams (not verified)
June 19, 2013 at 11:17 am
I am not an expert on the brain, but I did read that the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until people are in their 20's. So when you say to your child, "what were you thinking?", they literally weren't because they can't (effectively anyway). This adds another level of complication to the issue of molding behavior, doesn't it? What do you think?
Stephanie Byng (not verified)
June 20, 2013 at 10:40 am
You bring up a good point. I think asking a child a question such as "what were you thinking?", knowing that they are not going to have a good answer, could encourage the development of their prefrontal cortex. It challenges the child to pause for a moment and practice critical thinking. When I would misbehave as a child, my father would "punish" me by making me write an essay outlining what happened, why it happened and what I could do differently the next time. Rather than yell, he helped me learn self-awareness - and develop my writing skills. I wish he had kept those essays, as I'd love to see the thought processes of my nine-year-old self.

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