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Punishing Little Children and Bunnies

Applied behavior analysis can provide gentle, loving methods to reduce the frequency of unwanted behaviors in vulnerable creatures. This is when it becomes important to keep in mind that punishment, defined as reducing the frequency of an unwanted behavior, need not involve electric shocks, pain, or any other aversive stimulus. A punisher is just something that reduces the frequency of a behavior it follows, by definition.

A first step is to minimize the need for punishment. For young parents, that means avoiding the punishment trap.

The Punishment Trap

The punishment trap occurs when stimuli intended as punishment instead function as reinforcers. How can you tell when something intended as punishment is functioning as reinforcement? Observe the frequency of the behavior.

If the behavior becomes more frequent, the intended punisher is actually a reinforcer. Sometimes a child responds to "punishment" by doing more of the same misbehavior. If so, the parents are caught in the punishment trap.

What is the "punishment trap"?

How could such a pattern occur? Consider these facts. The average parent is very busy, due in part to having children. The parent enjoys peace and quiet when children are being good or playing peacefully.

Therefore, when children are well behaved, parents tend to ignore them. By contrast, when children misbehave, parents must give attention. Parents must break up fights, prevent damage to furniture or walls or pets, and respond to screams or crying.

Most children are reinforced by attention. So there you have all the necessary ingredients for the punishment trap. Children learn to misbehave in order to get attention. One student noticed the misbe­havior-for-attention pattern while visiting a friend:

I was at my friend's trailer one weekend visiting with her and her small daughter. I played with Jessie, the little girl, for a while.

Then Dee-Ann and I sat down to talk, leaving Jessie to play with her toys. She played quietly for a while, but all of a sudden she got up, stuck her hand in the potted plant, and threw dirt on the floor. Dee-Ann quickly scolded her and got her to play with her toys again.

Dee-Ann then sat back down and continued with our conversation. In a few minutes, Jessie was throw­ing dirt again. Again, Dee-Ann got her to play with her toys, and then sat back down. But in a few minutes Jessie was throwing dirt.

Dee-Ann could not understand why Jessie was acting like that. I then remembered the story about the parents hitting the kids for messing with things, but the kids wanting attention and doing it more often.

So I thought maybe Jessie was being reinforced for throwing dirt. Each time she threw dirt, Dee-Ann's attention reverted to her.

I explained this to Dee-Ann, and the next time Jessie messed with the plant, Dee-Ann simply ignored her, picked up the plant and sat it out of Jessie's reach. That ended the dirt-throwing problems. [Author's files]

Little Jessie probably got lots of loving attention when her mother was not engrossed in conversation with a friend. But some children receive almost no attention unless they are "bad."

In such cases, serious behavior problems may be established. One student remem­bers this from her childhood:

When I was a little girl, I always told lies, even if I did not do anything wrong... I think the only reason I lied was to get attention, which my parents never gave me. But one thing puzzles me. Why would I lie when I knew my dad was going to spank me with a belt? It really hurt. [Author's files]

How can a stimulus intended as punishment function as a reinforcer?

The answer to this student's question, probably, is that she wanted attention more than she feared pain. Any attention, even getting hit with a belt, might have been preferable to no attention at all.

Similar dynamics can occur in a school classroom. The class clown is usually seeking attention.

One of my students remembered a teacher in elementary school who wrote the names of "bad" children on the board. She also remembers some of her classmates deliberately misbehaving in order to see their names on the board.

Catch Them Being Good

"Catch Them Being Good" might be the single most effective parenting principle. The strategy is simple. Go out of your way to give sincere social rein­forcement (love, attention, appreciation) to children when it is deserved. Do not wait for something bad to happen to give attention.

When children are playing quietly or working on some worthy project, a parent should stop by to admire what they are doing. When they are creative, a parent should praise their products. When they invent a game, a parent should let them demonstrate it or play it with them.

If you are a parent with a child in a grocery store, and you observe other children misbehaving, point this out to your own children. Tell them how grateful you are that they know how to behave in public.

This can be ongoing from the time children are first brought out in public. Those first trips out of the home are usually to restaurants or stores.

There is no need to wait for children to misbehave. Before they have a chance to, point out how "mature" they are, compared to those kids in the next aisle who are yelling and screaming.

Technically, the catch them being good principle is differential reinforcement of other behavior (DRO). DRO was earlier described as an alternative to punishment, so this is a good example of how that is put into practice. One simply reinforces anything other than bad behavior.

How can a parent avoid the punishment trap?

Sincere social reinforcement of desirable behavior has several positive conse­quences. First, it encourages a set of behaviors that might be called sweetness. The technique could be called DRS (differential reinforcement of sweet behavior)

With a child who is accustomed to being praised for praiseworthy behavior, an occasional reprimand or angry word is genuinely punishing. This reduces the overall level of punishment needed for day to day parenting to near zero.

What if a child is not trying to be good? Then a behavior therapist might try some sort of behavioral contract, similar to what was arranged with Rena in the example of natural social reinforcement.

Rena had been having problems at school, so behavior therapists set up a contingency. When the teacher said she had been good that day, Rena's father would play simple card games or play in the yard with her. This changed Rena's life.

"You're Pet Isn't Sick"

Pets can also learn to misbehave or pretend to be ill, in order to get attention from caretakers. Pets elicit sympathy from caretakers by showing symptoms of illness, and this can result in a form of inadvertent reinforcement.

One veterinarian saw so many maling­ering animals trying to get attention (by acting ill, coughing, or limping) that he wrote a book called Your Pet Isn't Sick [He Just Wants You to Think So] (Tanzer, 1977).

Tanzer explained that owners accidentally reinforced symptoms of illness. If a dog made a funny cough, the owner ran over to it and comforted it. Soon the dog was coughing all the time.

Tanzer would give the pet a thorough checkup to rule out genuine problems. If none were found, he encouraged the owners to ignore the symptoms and reinforce other, less distressing behaviors. Often this made the symptoms go away.

What did Tanzer write about in the book titled Your Pet Isn't Sick?

Another vet specialized in house calls so he could see a pet misbehave in context. He said unwitting reinforcement of undesired behavior was the single most common problem he encountered.

The solution, for such pets, is again "catch them being good." Praise the pet or give it love when it acts healthy. Ignore coughing or limping. Usually the problem goes away. Of course, first you have to rule out genuine medical problems.

Response Cost with a Rabbit

Negative punishment, more commonly called response cost, consists of removing a reinforcing stimulus. This punishes a behavior, making it less frequent.

An internet discussion group catering to rabbit owners discussed a case in which the solution to a problem involved response cost.

[An American list member writes:]

I have a 1 1/2 year old French lop and for his entire 1 1/2 years he has been obsessed with peeing on the bed. We discovered that if we kept the bed covered with a tarp, it would usually deter him from the bed, though not always.

Up until about a month ago, we thought we had him pretty well trained, with only a few infrequent accidents. But then, my husband and I got married and Jordy (we call him Monster) and I moved in with my husband. He seems to have adjusted quite well, with the exception of his bed habit...

...Please help us, we want to keep Jordy as happy as possible, but we can't keep washing bedding every day.

[A British list member responded:]

We have two "outdoor" rabbits that come inside for about an hour a day. The older (male) rabbit used to pee on the bed.

Whenever he did this he would immediately be put back in the hutch outside. After about 10 times of peeing on our bed, he learnt that if he peed, quite simply, he wouldn't be able to play with "Mum" and "Dad."

We haven't had a problem since then. I imagine that if Jordy is put outside of the bedroom and denied affection for the rest of the evening he'll learn pretty quickly. Good luck!

How was response cost used with a rabbit?

This is a fine example of response cost, although it required a lot of patience (10 bed cleanups!). The rabbit's behavior was punished by removing a reinforcing stimulus.

For this rabbit, being in the house was reinforcing. When he peed on the bed, this stimulus was removed. Eventually, after about 10 repetitions, he learned the consequence of his behavior, and the problem behavior was eliminated.


Tanzer, H. & Lyons, N. (1977) Your Pet Isn't Sick. New York: Dutton.

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