by contributor Brian Hoover.
Editor’s Note: Please take a moment to read this longer form piece on child behavior. As a parent, when you think critically about how you respond to your children’s less-than-ideal behavior, you can help reinforce the good kind and reduce the bad kind. Take a few minutes for this, you’ll be glad you did.
Like approximately 900,000 other people over the past two-plus months, I have run across a video on YouTube called “Ellie’s amazing vocabulary pt. 2” or something to that effect. In it, a toddler (Ellie, we’ll assume) is sitting at her high chair with a sippy cup and a bib, rocking a hoodie; a poppy Modest Mouse tune jangles faintly in the background. The clip only runs twenty-seven seconds, but Ellie doesn’t waste a one, uttering a certain two-word phrase that means “the heck with it” (but just a tad saltier) a total of nine times. On screen, she’s a natural. Her diction is fantastic. She glows as she delivers her line directly to the camera, blue eyes bright and wide and searching.
Ellie’s father can be heard from immediately behind the camera: “Don’t say that anymore, okay?” She waves him off with a frustrated whinny and then glares right back at him. She hits him with her line again. And again. And again. Dad warns, “We don’t say that anymore.” And Ellie drops it again. “Ellie—no.” But he ought to concede. He’s lost this one already. She gets one more in before the video cuts off.
We have a useful tool in my field that helps us determine the function of behavior: the A-B-C Chart. “A-B-C” in this instance stands for Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence; the chart essentially allows a behavior analyst to identify the causes and outcomes of a given (undesirable, usually) behavior so that a plan can be formed to modify (or eliminate) it.
A couple of strictly hypothetical scenarios to help illustrate the point:
Scenario 1: For homework, Roger has a color-by-numbers worksheet. When I ask him to come sit at the table to begin his task, Roger backhands the box of crayons off the table and across the room, scattering them to all corners of the room. I tell Roger he needs to pick up the crayons and put them back in the box.
Scenario 2: As I record data in Roger’s logbook, Roger is trying hard to open a large container that has several of his favorite toys in it. He can’t do it by himself, but knows that if he needs help, all he needs to do is ask me. Roger growls and kicks at and shakes the container as I continue to fill out my paperwork; ultimately he engages in some sustained shouting and turns over a chair. I put down my pen and intervene; Roger stops shouting.
In Scenario 1, the antecedent is my placing a demand on Roger: “Come to the table, Roger, thereby leaving whatever fun thing you’re doing, and do your homework instead, which, I’m going to guess, is near the bottom of your list of things you’d like to do, if it makes the list at all, which, I’m going to guess, it does not.” The behavior is smacking the crayons across the room, and the immediate consequence is that Roger then has to clean up his mess. In Scenario 2, the antecedent is that Roger wants a toy that he cannot gain access to by himself. The behavior is an honest-to-goodness tantrum, and the consequence is that I come to see just what the deuce is going on here.
So what is the function of the behavior in each scenario? It might help to know that the vast majority, by which I mean quite nearly all, of the behaviors we encounter fall into one of two categories: escape or attention-seeking. In the first scenario, Roger’s swiping the crayons off the table is an unmistakable attempt to escape the demand. In the second, his tantrum, is designed to get my attention, as evidenced by the fact that it stops once he has it.
The reaction that Ellie is looking for in her father’s viral fame vehicle is, pretty obviously, I think, laughter. It isn’t difficult to imagine her antics having resulted in laughter once before—she says, “F—k it,” Dad reinforces it with attention (and the best kind of attention at that—laughter and the video camera!) and so she says, “F—k it” again.
But, now, Poor Ellie! She must be thinking, Wait a minute—where’s my laugh? What’s with the stern reproach? This isn’t right. I know—I’ll say it again, and this time, it’ll work like it did before!
Back to Roger. The “C” portion of the A-B-C Chart is perhaps the most important—what happens in response to a behavior. The consequence is what reinforces the behavior for better or for worse (and ultimately determines whether you’ll see that behavior again). This is worth spending a minute on.
In Scenario 1, the consequence for Roger’s swiping the crayons off the table is that he has to pick up the crayons. But if the behavior was aimed at avoiding his homework, then Roger can fly a big “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” banner above any aircraft carrier in his fleet, ’cause, clearly, he ain’t doing any color-by-numbers worksheet while he’s picking two hundred crayons up off the floor. And in Scenario 2, going all Hulk on the furniture does exactly what it was supposed to do: divert me from what I was doing so I could pay attention to him.
If Roger is picking crayons up off the floor, isn’t he just stalling? Isn’t he winning the battle here because he’s not, in fact, doing his color-by-numbers worksheet? And the tantrum—it was designed to get my attention, and sure enough, I’ve set down my pen and am now dealing with Cyclonic Action Roger.
It’s like my dad used to tell me all those years ago when he taught me how to pitch: you’ve got to make sure you’re following through. The consequence of Roger’s throwing the crayons all over the floor must be two-fold: 1) Throwing your crayons on the floor is an unacceptable response to my asking you to come and do your homework, and so you’re going to need to clean them up; and 2) But, guess what! You still have to do your color-by-numbers sheet first! The consequence of Roger’s tantrum is that I attend to him, but it’s all about the details here. Attending to Roger’s tantrum by opening the container and giving him access to his toys? Bad. Attending to Roger’s tantrum by letting him know that I won’t tolerate his violence, that he needs to restore the furniture to order, and, when he is calm enough to do so, ask me for my help? Better. You’ve got to make sure there’s a meaningful consequence, and you have to make sure you follow through with it.
Here is the part of behaviorism that every parent, guardian, and caregiver, bar none, needs to understand: If the consequence of Roger’s tantrum is that I get his toys out of the box for him (without first taking steps to redirect the behavior as I mention above), then I have just taught Roger that pitching a fit is an effective way for him to get his toys. If the consequence of Roger’s chucking a box full of crayons across the room is that he gets out of doing his homework, then I have just taught Roger that he won’t have to do his work if he makes a huge mess. If your daughter caterwauls in the checkout line because she wants a Kit Kat bar, and you cave and buy her one because it’s embarrassing and you just don’t want to have to hear it anymore, you better believe she’ll remember that if crying worked once, it’d probably work again.
And if Ellie got a great laugh out of Dad by saying “F—k it” that one time, well, why wouldn’t she just see if she couldn’t get a repeat result?
Lest you think I’m some kind of killjoy, or that I am convinced that I’m this great father myself, let me add this: I think the Ellie video is absolutely hilarious. I’ve watched it a dozen times at least, and it gets me every time. I completely understand her dad’s impulse to get the episode on camera for posterity.
I’ll take my mea culpa one step further: my wife and I have been anxious for our daughter to reach the stage of her language development where she repeats everything we say; we figured there would be a very entertaining month or so where we could make her say all sorts of distasteful things without lasting consequences.
I realize now, in light of the Ellie video and what has very suddenly started happening our own home, that this is folly. At seventeen months, Leslie has what we have been told is a remarkable vocabulary. Among the ways she augments it is by listening to her mother and I as we talk, isolating specific words of interest, and then repeating them. The rapidity of this process has increased by a factor of ten, it seems; she learns new words, plural, on a daily basis, and often with only a few exposures. The word of the day? “Disaster.” As in, “They’re saying North Carolina had several hundred tornadoes over the weekend—what a disaster,” or, “Can you load the dishwasher? The kitchen is a disaster,” or, “If you don’t take a nap this afternoon, you’re going to be a disaster.” I guess it’s a word we’ve thrown around a bit, and Leslie has caught on. She stands in the middle of the living room, surrounded by what looks like every toy on earth, shrugging and saying, “Disaster!” (It actually sounds like “disasshole,” but we’ll leave that one alone for now.)
There is also something to be said for picking your battles. Sometimes it is just easier to buy your kid the Kit Kat and call it even. I totally get that. I’ve had my cave-ins, for sure, and I’ve reinforced behaviors I almost instantly wished I hadn’t. It happens.
Ellie’s dad wrote a lengthy introduction to the clip on YouTube, defending his parenting from the internet trolls and shedding some light on the circumstances that led to his eighteen-month-old’s rant. In it he states, “If I were a perfect parent (and who is?) I should have ignored it.” (Correct. That, we call putting the behavior “on extinction”—but that’s a lesson for another day.) He concludes by saying that there are many ways to raise a successful family, but that “Love is the only requirement.”
And I’m inclined to agree with that.
But knowing my A-B-Cs has been a big help so far, too.
* Since 2003, I have worked as a behavior therapist for children on the autistic spectrum. I want to stress, however, that the behavioral concepts I discuss herein can be applied to just about anything on earth that exhibits behavior.