Intermittent Reinforcement: The One Mistake Every Parent Makes
Yes, even the pediatrician-dad who wrote this article!
by Steve Silvestro, MD @zendocsteve
You can also listen to this article as a podcast on your favorite podcast app or click on the player below:
I’m going to describe a few situations, and I’d like you to think about whether any of these sound familiar:
- You’ve made lunch and your child has decided that she doesn’t like anything that you’ve made, so she asks for something else. You say no, but she keeps refusing to eat anything at all, so you finally cave in and pull something she likes out of the pantry.
- You’ve decided to try and sleep train your baby or toddler, letting them cry or fuss until suddenly you feel like it’s gone on too long, so you go in and rescue them…..and each night it seems like sleep training just isn’t working.
- Or this one: A few weeks ago, you went out to eat with your family and when your child asked to play on your phone, you said ‘no.’ But the last time you guys ate out, you really needed him to be quiet, so you let him play on it. Now, you’re out to eat again, and he won’t stop nagging you about your phone, even though you’re telling him no over and over again.
- And finally…On some random occasions when the kids have been good while you’re all shopping at Target, you let them pick out something small from the toy section, but now every time you walk into the store, they spend the whole trip begging to go back to the toy section and buy something and it drives you nuts.
Does any of this sound familiar? In a way, I kind of hope so, because then I wouldn’t be alone!
You might have already recognized that these stories share a common thread—in each one, the child shows the same behavior over and over again, but gets different responses from the parent at different times. Sometimes fussing gets you get the food you want, sometimes it doesn’t; sometimes you get a toy while shopping, sometimes you don’t.
It’s something that we’ve all done, right?
Because try as we might, it’s hard to be consistent in every moment of every day. And even if you are, then your coparent or babysitter or daycare—or, those perennial wrench-throwers, grandparents—they might not be as consistent as you, occasionally throwing things off course. The result is interactions with your kids that leave you feeling frustrated and downright drained.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could find a way to prevent this cycle of frustrating interactions with our kids so that we can get done the things that have to get done but also focus on the fun that we all hope to have as a family?
Well, we can. And the first step to breaking that cycle is to really understand what’s going on. This process of occasionally giving different responses to the same behavior is called Intermittent Reinforcement—and it adds to so many of the day-to-day challenges that we face as parents.
WHAT IS INTERMITTENT REINFORCEMENT?
One of the simplest ways to describe reinforcement is with some of the early studies in the field using mice. Let’s say you have a little mouse and there’s a small lever or button in his cage. If he pushes on the lever and nothing ever happens, then he’s probably not going to push on it very often. But, if instead, every time he pushes on that lever in his cage, he gets a treat, sooner or later he’s going to start recognizing that, so he’s going to keep pushing on it. That’s positive reinforcement—you get something pleasurable or positive each time you do the same behavior.
Now what if he got the treat only some of the times that he pushed the lever, and other times he got nothing? There’s no pattern to it—he might push and randomly get the treat, or push and randomly nothing happens. That’s intermittent reinforcement—the same behavior only gives you the response some of the time.
And that’s the trap that almost all of us as parents fall into when it comes to real-life parenting.
WHY ARE SOME BEHAVIORS SO HARD TO BREAK?
So here’s the really interesting thing about intermittent reinforcement: We know that if a behavior is consistently reinforced—if that mouse always gets the treat when he pushes that lever—but then it’s suddenly and repeatedly not reinforced any more—if you stop giving the treat every time he pushes it—then that behavior is going to fade away pretty quickly. He’s going to decide that it’s not worth pushing that lever anymore.
But with intermittent reinforcement—if he only gets the treat some of the time—when you decide to permanently stop giving the treat—that little mouse is actually going to keep trying, going to keep pushing the lever for longer.
Think about it. If you always got a treat every time but then suddenly stopped getting it, then you’d assume it’s just done, you’re not getting it anymore. Maybe the treats dried up… But if you knew that you’d only sometimes get what you wanted, that you’d have to get through stretches without getting that prize before you’d finally get it, then a longer dry spell doesn’t seem like a reason to stop—you know that that reward has to be just around the corner.
THE LOTTERY EXAMPLE
Of course, we’re talking about kids, and nobody likes to compare kids to mice, so let’s use a human example.
This same principle of Intermittent Reinforcement is how scratch-off lotteries work. The odds of winning the jackpot on a scratch-off lottery ticket are pretty small. But if you never won anything, no one would buy a ticket. So they make it pretty easy to win something small—a $3 ticket might have a 1 in 3 chance of winning your $3 back, and it might not be too hard to even win $5 or $10. Of course, the odds are still long enough that the lottery owner makes more money than you in the end—if a $3 ticket has a 1 in 3 chance of winning $3, then you theoretically have to spend $9 to get your money back.
But it’s not so straightforward—it’s random, meaning that you might be lucky and make your money back on your first ticket or your second. And it’s that random chance of a little reward that keeps you coming back to buy a new ticket. How many of us have used our winnings on a scratch-off to buy a new scratch-off?
That’s what’s happening when we intermittently reinforce behaviors with our kids. If you say ‘no’ most of the time that your toddler asks for a different meal than what you’ve prepared, but then some of the time you feel terrible that they’re hungry and give in and let them have something different—that’s like your child playing a scratch-off lottery. “Mom said no 3 times last time and then I got what I wanted; why is it taking 5 times this time? That ‘yes’ answer has to be just around the corner.”
The random, intermittent reinforcement—giving a different meal sometimes—makes it so that the behavior—your child asking for something different—sticks around longer.
WHAT HAPPENS IN YOUR CHILD’S BRAIN?
What’s really interesting is that we know some of what goes on inside the brain when this is happening and if you stick with me here, it can explain why intermittent reinforcement leads to behaviors that are harder to break.
Dopamine is a chemical that has all kinds of jobs in the body, but one of those jobs is to help us to feel good. It can help give us a sense of well-being and pleasure. And when it comes to this idea of positive reinforcement, when a behavior is reinforced—when the mouse gets a treat, when you win a scratch-off, or your child gets to play on your phone—then we get a little burst of dopamine. Our brains release a chemical that makes us feel good—and so we’re more likely to do that behavior again—both to get the reward and to feel good in getting it.
But here’s the really interesting part: If you repeat a behavior that you like enough, then not only do you get that squirt of dopamine once you get the reward, you also get a little of it BEFORE the behavior is even completed.
To explain this, let’s use ourselves as an example.
Think of how often you check your Facebook feed throughout the day. If you don’t do Facebook, then maybe think about email instead. Now, I love my family and friends, but if I were to really be honest, I’d have to say that scrolling through my Facebook feed only makes me happy, truly adding joy to my day, less than half the time I look at it. I might see some things that are interesting, but not necessarily anything that I really needed to see or that really, truly made me happy. BUT—every now and then, there’s something that’s just really great—a picture that I love, a funny video, a nice comment from a friend, who knows. And because those moments of joy are random—I have no idea whether the next time I check Facebook will make me happy or not—I keep checking. I’m being intermittently reinforced.
And here’s the thing: There are countless studies now showing that not only do people get a release of dopamine when they see something they like on social media, they actually get a small hit of dopamine right before they even check their phones. It’s the very thought of the possibility of something great that starts the process of us feeling good & keeps us coming back for more.
This is why when we intermittently reinforce behavior with our kids, when we give them different responses to the same thing, it’s harder to break that behavior. A baby who is always rocked to sleep at night might actually sleep train faster than a baby who is rocked to sleep some times and left to cry others. A child who gets to buy a toy at Target on seemingly random occasions is going to keep asking to get another one each time you go. Not only are our kids getting a bit of dopamine when they finally get what they’re looking for, they’re also getting a small bit just by asking.
SO WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Now I know that you’re sitting there reading, waiting for me to give you the answer for how to fix this. Right?
Well, unfortunately, this is one of those things like most of parenting that is just…murky. It would be great to say that you never, ever fall into this trap of intermittently reinforcing your kids’ behavior, but in order to parent that way, it would feel like you’d have to be tough as nails, strict and stringent and unwavering. And we all know that in reality, that’s just not possible—and if it is, for most of us that doesn’t sound like the type of experience that we want our kids to grow up having, nor do we want that for ourselves.
And so instead of giving you a bulletproof, sure-fire answer, what I can offer you are these two pieces of advice.
Be aware of what you’re doing.
That’s so important—“Knowing is half the battle.”
If you run into a problem behavior or situation with your kids that keeps coming up, it might be worthwhile to stop and reflect on whether your role in responding to the behavior might actually be contributing to it in some way—maybe making it worse or helping it to stick around.
I don’t mean to say this so that you can heap some more parental guilt onto a pile that’s probably already bigger than it should be. No, I say this because self-reflection is the only way to produce a change. You can’t directly change your kids—no matter what we think, we just can’t. But you can change how you respond to them and how you interact with them, which can then nudge them down their own path of behavior change, whether they’re aware of it or not.
Reflecting on your part can foster a change in your own behavior, which can then help your kids make their own change.
Pick Your Battles.
Being strict and stringent with every little thing is neither possible nor pleasant, and letting your child get away with everything they want is only setting you up for problems down the road.
So instead, you need to find out what matters to you. What situations are worth sticking to your guns, and when should you let things go. Knowing the difference can keep you from making empty threats or breaking promises.
This is actually a good time to sit down with your coparent if you have one and think about what type of parenting style you want to have. Who do you want to be as a parent? What’s going to be held as a value to your family?
It’s through this self-reflection, this active determination of what you want to stand for as a parent and as a family, that can give you clarity in the day-to-day joyful messiness of parenting. And not just intermittently—but, hopefully, all the time.
If you liked this article, please remember to share it with other parents!
Steve Silvestro, MD, is a pediatrician, dad, and host of The Child Repair Guide Podcast. He definitely makes plenty of mistakes as a parent, then gets to write about what he should have done instead!