One of the most effective ways a teaching a child proper behavior is through a technique known as operant conditioning. The term, created and analyzed by well-known 20th century psychologist B.F. Skinner, explains the practice by which behavior is modified through the use of either reinforcement or punishment. There are positive or negative aspects of each. Before I get into my argument (which will include the problems that are associated with this type of discipline and children’s moral development), it is first important to understand the four main aspects of operant conditioning:
Reinforcement refers to the measures taken to increase a behavior:
1. Positive reinforcement is when a behavior is rewarded with positive stimulus, thus increasing the learner’s frequency of that behavior.
2. Negative reinforcement is when a negative stimulus is removed after good behavior, thus increasing the learner’s frequency of that behavior.
Punishment refers to the measures taken to decrease a behavior’s frequency:
3. Positive punishment is when a negative stimulus is added after a “bad” behavior, thus decreasing the learner’s frequency of that behavior.
4. Negative punishment is when a positive stimulus is removed after a “bad” behavior, thus decreasing the learner’s frequency of that behavior.
Operant condition is part of series of teaching techniques that I learned about in psychology last year, so when I stumbled across an article on the subject titled “Why Discipline is Overrated,” I was interested to see the problems psychologists believe exist with this form of learning – seeing as it is a highly popular and natural type of disciplining children in their early behavioral development.
In the particular article in I linked to above, one of the main arguments they make against operant conditioning is that while it may result in improvement in a child’s behavior, it is not healthy for their moral development and understanding why it is important to behave well and be a “good person”. If the child is consistently being rewarded for good actions and punished for bad, the individual will continue to act only out of expectance of a reward or punishment, not out of a desire for good character or the benefit of others around them.
This theory presents the issue of what will happen when the authoritative figure is not around in the child’s life to reward/punish him or her. Do you think it is likely that the child will immediately recognize the absence of the reward or punishment and realize they can “get away” with a bad behavior? Will there be a lag in moral development that resulted from constant operant conditioning as a young child – one in which the child knows that just because he/she will not be rewarded or punished…it is okay to go on with the bad behavior? Will there be no concern of personal character and conduct? These are the questions psychologists seem to be asking on the subject.
This lag in moral development can be better explained through the use of Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional. Preconventional is what is expected of young children – an egocentric stage in which the child’s prime concern is about themselves. They choose their actions strictly based on how the action will be rewarded or punished – an attitude based on the egocentric question “what’s in it for me?”
With operant conditioning, the child may never be able to develop into the next stages (conventional and postconventional) which shift away from egocentric motives and begin focus on how their actions will affect overall personal character, what is considered morally correct in society, and how they will affect those who surround them.
Do you think children who are over disciplined by operant conditioning will become teenagers, or even adults, who choose their actions based solely on what’s “in it for them”?
If too much operant conditioning in early childhood is a problem, a very significant and difficult question is: what form of discipline will result in healthy transition of moral development stages for an early learner?
The article explains education critic Alfie Kohn’s belief that parents/guardians should limit the use of operant conditioning and instead let the children use strategic problem solving to make decisions for themselves without receiving reward or punishment.
While I guess Kohn’s idea would be beneficial in a child not expecting a reward for being good, I don’t foresee good results coming from a child not being punished. Perhaps the natural reaction and influence of a social environment would teach kids “the hard way” what is and isn’t acceptable in society.
The concept is very hard – and there seems no clear-cut solution. While too much operant conditioning does seem (according to the article) to stunt moral development, will too much lack of operant conditioning have children at a behavioral setback by the time they begin preschool?
This subject is very interesting to me because it can go so many different ways. That’s why I would love to hear your thoughts! Do you think operant conditioning, the most common way to discipline small children, is the most effective in creating a “good person”? Or do you think this tactic over-disciplines the child to the point where there is no comprehension of why they’re acting the way they’re acting aside from how it can benefit them?
If you believe it is over-disciplining, what solution can you propose for early childhood moral development?