One of the worst discipline mistakes a parent can make is to ‘give in’ to a whining, nagging, misbehaving child. ‘Giving in’ simply means that parents let their demanding child have his or her way just to avoid any conflict. While giving in to your child’s tirades may solve the immediate dilemma, it will only create more long-term discipline problems.
Giving in, even occasionally, will keep bad behavior alive. It is known as the "Law of Reinforcement," a term that was first coined by educational psychologist E.L. Thorndike. In regard to children, it means that if children get a desirable, appealing response to their behavior, they'll repeat the behavior. In other words, if crying, screaming, pouting, or whining get children what they want, you can bet they'll try this technique over and over again.
A good example of negative reinforcement can be seen in this shopping illustration: Shannon takes her 3 year old daughter, Olivia, to the store. When Olivia asks for a toy, Shannon says no. This makes Olivia cry loudly. So as to not attract attention, Shannon says, "Okay, we'll get the toy - just this once." Now what did that teach the little girl? It taught her that if she cries and attracts attention, her mother will give her what she wants. You can rest assured that the next time they go to the store, the same behavior will happen again, only this time, the child will probably have to cry harder and louder. It will take many more trips to the store without caving in to extinguish that one time the mother gave in.
Every time you give in, expect a repeat of the same behavior - only worse. When parents give in and their children get their demands, it's as if a light bulb appears over their head. They now have a proven technique of getting their way. It might be begging, whining, pleading, screaming, holding their breath, or throwing a tantrum. Whatever worked for them once will work again.
In fact, most bad behavior that keeps repeating has been reinforced somewhere along the way. Consider Liam. When Liam’s mother told him to go to bed, he threw a tantrum. Instead of arguing, his tired, weary mother said,
"Okay, you can stay up 30 more minutes." Liam now knows that throwing a tantrum pays. Mia wants a cupcake an hour before dinner. When her mother says no, Mia throws herself on the floor and wails. Not wanting to upset her precious child, the mother gives her the cupcake. You can bet Mia will now throw a fit every time she doesn't get her way. Whatever behavior gets good results, will be repeated. Therefore, it is crucial that you NEVER REWARD BAD BEHAVIOR! That means if your children are behaving badly, make absolute certain that they don’t get their way.
Stopping a behavior works the same way. Unrewarded behavior will disappear. In other words, if children do not get a satisfying result from their behavior, they'll stop it. Let’s use the previous example of Liam, the boy who threw a tantrum to stay up later. Instead of giving in and thus rewarding his tantrum, the mother could have physically picked him up and put him in his room. She might have said, "If you're going to scream and throw a fit, you're going to have to do it in here," and then she should have shut the door and left. That way the child would have learned that throwing a tantrum does no good. A note of caution, however: If a behavior has been reinforced in the past, children may try it several times before realizing that it doesn't work. Be persistent. It often takes considerable time to undo bad habits.
The Law of Reinforcement works both positively and negatively. To use this law effectively as a parent, never reward bad behavior. Instead, only reward good behavior with praise, hugs, affection, and attention.
Giving in is only a short-term solution. It may save you from the hassles of the moment, but it can cause a life time of problems. Remember, the more you give in, the worse the behavior will be.
For more information about what to do if your child misbehaves at the store or at bedtime, be sure to read my book Proactive Discipline: A Parnt's Guide.