Operant Conditioning and How it to Applies to Parenting

Many parents struggle with disciplining their children. Some have the hardest time just trying to toilet train them. The thought alone of teaching a child how to act or perform is an everyday struggle. Especially when it comes to dealing with behaviors. However, there are several techniques that derive from psychological experiments, which can help parents with disciplining. For instance, behaviorists B.F. Skinner came up with Operant Conditioning. Operant Conditioning is when behavior is strengthened or weakened by positive or negative reinforcements (Goldstein p. 10). As a parent I deal with my children’s bad behaviors, as well as their good behaviors. Operant Conditioning shows how behavior is influenced by three different types of responses or operant that affects behavior—positive, negative reinforcements, and punishment (McLeod 2007).

While chastising my children I never knew that I was practicing what Skinner referred to as Operant Conditioning. For example, when my daughter gets a bad report from school stating she was very disruptive during class, once she gets home the daily routine of hanging out with friends is taken away–she has to stay in the house without television, phone, computer or tablet. Say the next day she has a good report about her behavior in class, once she comes home I allow her to play outside, I return all electronics, and take her to McDonalds as a reward. This here is an example of how my child’s behavior was weakened from the punishment but when she no longer displayed this form of behavior she knew that she would be rewarded each time.

Another example, of how Operant Conditioning can be applied to my everyday life is when I had to toilet train my 2 year old. Every time she would go pee in the toilet I would give her a piece of candy. Each time she knew that if she had to go pee in the toilet she would be rewarded with a piece of candy. My 7 year old doesn’t like reading, I told her for each book she reads at night I would make her an ice cream cone for desert and each night she faithfully read a book to go with her homework. Both my kids continued to repeat the same behaviors because the positive reinforcement (reward) strengthened there behaviors to read and go to the toilet.

An example of a negative reinforcement of Operant Conditioning as applied to my everyday life as a parent would be when my daughter has tantrums each time she falls out and rolls around on the floor she has to get up and stand in the corner on one leg, for each time she decides that she is going to act up and have a tantrum she knows to go stand in the corner on one leg. From her having to perform this act she no longer displays the same behavior of the tantrums, the negative reinforcement of having to be in the corner on one leg strengthened her behavior by stopping the tantrums.

In conclusion, Operant Conditioning is a method that people use on a daily basis to help change to outcome of ones behaviors. Parents are key components for utilizing this method for trying to strengthen their child or children’s behavior or weaken there behaviors depending on the circumstances. But I can say as a parent I utilize Operant Conditioning in my parenting skills to discipline my children.


Goldstein, E. B. (2011, 2008). Cognitive Psychology Connecting Mind, Research, And Everyday Experience. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning .

McLeod, S. (2007). Skinner-Operant Conditioning . Retrieved from Simply Psyhology: http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html




3 thoughts on “Operant Conditioning and How it to Applies to Parenting

  1. Jessica M Tangitau

    As a fellow parent I found your post very interesting. When you speak of the positive reinforcement you used to potty train your two-year old and encourage your 7-year old to read, I see that you credit operant conditioning for their continuance of these behaviors. What I would be interested in knowing is whether or not your kids, particularly your 7-year old, actually enjoys reading or if they have just come to depend on the ice cream cone that awaits. In other words, how does this positive reinforcement affect your kids intrinsic motivation to read or use the potty. As I can completely relate to the struggle of getting a 2-year old to do anything you need them to, I get the logic behind offering candy or ice cream in exchange for their cooperation. But in the case of getting one’s child to embrace the joys of reading, I wonder about the implications of giving rewards every time the task is completed. I think most of us want our children to read books because they are curious, enjoy it and actually want to do it. Research shows that people who are intrinsically motivated are more confident, creative, and benefit from general well-being. As these are obviously things we all would want for our children, I appreciate the perspective you have given me into my own parenting style.

  2. Gina Marie Ramos-helveston

    As a parent of four, I have used operational conditioning with all of my children. My older two were the most difficult because I used only partial (intermittent) reinforcement. I was not consistent with the positive or negative reinforcement, which led to my failure of conditioning my oldest children.

    By the time I had my next two children I had figured out what and why the operant conditioning did not work with my other children. This time around I used primary and secondary reinforcers. Some examples of what I used for my primary reinforcers were a piece of their favorite candy or a dollar. A primary reinforcer consists of reinforcing stimuli that satisfies a basic motivational need. (Pearsons Education, Operational Conditioning: Learning Through Consequences. Module 6.2, pg., 209) They knew the personal value they each held so these reinforcers worked well. The secondary reinforcer I used was a star sticker system. Each time they completed a chore or got a good grade, finished their homework etc., they got a star sticker placed on the board. At the end of each week the stars were counted up. Depending upon how many stars they had, they could receive up to $5, a trip to Chuck E Cheese or get a movie picnic lunch. Each week the “prizes” were different. They also had the option to save the prizes until the end of the month and get a bigger prize, like a new toy, outfit or shoes. They secondary rein enforcements I had in place worked extremely well. By definition, a secondary reinforce consists of reinforcing stimuli that acquire their value through learning. (Pearsons Education, Operational Conditioning: Learning Through Consequences. Module 6.2, pg., and 209) These were basically my positive reinforcements.

    My negative reinforcements consisted of removing a sticker from the board if they lied about doing a chore or doing it “half way”, Standing or sitting in a corner if they hit another sibling, writing an “I’m sorry letter” if they were disruptive in class etc. As my children got older these reinforcements changed. They would have a toy or game taken away, they wouldn’t be able to play with their friends for the day, or they couldn’t watch TV etc. These worked very well also.

    My family and friends had a negative reaction to the way I treated my children. My parents said I was bribing my children in order to get them to do things, my best friend said I was spoiling my children and another parent at my children’s school said I was setting them up for failure. Everyone has their own opinion of what is right/wrong, positive/negative etc., all I know is this system works for my children and I. By the way my children are much happier now.

    There some interesting facts about operant conditioning and our children’s brains. When they are rewarded (positive reinforcement) the nucleus accumbens (an area of the brain just below the frontal lobe) is stimulated and activated. Making our children feel good, but when we apply the negative reinforcements that area of the brain becomes less stimulated. (Pearsons Education, Operational Conditioning: Learning Through Consequences. Module 6.2, pg., and 213) At this point our children know they don’t want to do whatever they just did again. It may take them time to realize that’s what’s going on, but as parents and students of psychology we now know.

    Pearsons Education, Operational Conditioning: Learning Through Consequences. Module 6.2, pgs., 209 and 213. http://www.pearsonhighered.com/showcase/krausecorts/assets/pdf/M06_KRAU9857_01_SE_C06.pdf

  3. Makeba Alise Fitzgerald

    Operant conditioning is considered to be a form of learning. A parent can choose to use operant conditioning as a reward for good behavior or punishment for bad behavior. I believe that both forms have effective means for social development and discipline.

    In my everyday life I use operant conditioning with my son as well as with my daughters. My son is a teenager who suffers from ADHD and intermittent explosive disorder. My son acts impulsively and does not think about the things that he does, which tend to have major consequences. He also has explosive outbursts of anger. Many of his behaviors are disproportionate to the current situation. Therefore I use operant conditioning by punishing him for his negative behaviors by taking away the things that he like such as football practice, playing video games, using his cell phone, using the computer or Ipad and watching television. My son will have to do everyone in the house chores for a week and as a result of this my sons behavior has improved in such a positive way. However, when my son displays positive behaviors I will reward him with things such as movie night, buy a new video game, allow him extra time on the computer and sometimes give him money up to five dollars a day (this is something extra outside of his allowance). I also use a reward system for good grades received on their report cards. If my child tend to get good grades such as A’s and B’s then I will reward them with money or a small gift. However, if they get grades below a B then I will not give them anything. Since my children like to have new things and they need money to buy those new things they tend to get good grades on their report cards.

    Another example that can be applied to my everyday life is showing my kids how hard work pays off both through employment and education. I tell my kids that by me going to work and working hard I am able to keep a roof over their head and put money in their pockets as well as pay our bills. I also use the fact that I am a fulltime student who get good grades so if I can do it so can they. I have shown them that when you get good grades there are rewards such as scholarships to pay for classes that are being taken. As a result of my daughter seeing my grades and the fact that I got a scholarship to help me pay for school she strived for good grades and was inducted into the National Society of High School Scholars.

    I think that operant conditioning in both negative and positive behaviors help people to change their behaviors when they know what the outcomes can potentially be. It wasn’t until I learned what operant conditioning was that I realized that I had been using this in my everyday life.

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