Monday, August 10, 2015

Consistency Considered Harmful

It seems that almost every parent swears by consistency.  But sometimes inconsistency is best.

Well executed evidence-based parenting methods typically start showing results in a matter of days.  So, if you have doing the same thing consistently for months on end with no results, then you need to change. I knew a mom who started consistently reinforcing whining as soon as her kid started talking, instantly reacting to whining by giving the kid face-time and saying “Use your words”.  Three years later, we kept the kid for a few days and there was never any attempt to whine around us.  But within minutes of the mom’s return the kid whined at her. The mom immediately turned to the kid and said “no whining” and the kid made a little pouty face and the mom immediately went over and hugged the kid.   It would be hard to come up with a better operant conditioning procedure than this one for causing whining.  Since the kid never tried whining around us, it’s likely that there were other adults in her life that ignored whining and she had just quickly sized us up and categorized us with those adults that don’t reward whining.

Lots of immediate positive attention at first is great for establishing a habit, but constant, consistent praise of a specific behavior over the long haul creates a brittle habit that tends to go away when the praise stops.   In her book Don’t Shoot the Dog!, one of the methods that Karen Pryor recommended to get rid of a habit was to first subject it to constant positive reinforcement for a while and then abruptly stop reinforcing it.

Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Child Conduct Center, recommends, after a habit is established, fading praise to occasional.  Variable reinforcement has long been known to make a habit more robust, more resistant to extinction.  Skinner proved this in experiments with pigeons.  The best policy is to inconsistently direct positive attention at a low rate toward an established good habit.

But, inconsistency can be bad.   Variable reinforcement of bad behavior will make it harder to get rid of that behavior.  This variable reinforcement effect is considered to be one of the factors in gambling addiction.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Noble Prize for Parenting

Well...not exactly.  But James Heckman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2000 for the evaluation of public policy bang for the buck and he has spent a great deal of time evaluating interventions that include improved parenting. Here's a paper by him:
"The larger message of this paper is that soft skills predict success in life, that they causally produce that success, and that programs that enhance soft skills have an important place in an effective portfolio of public policies."

Some highlights from the paper:

1. The paper has good things to say about Tools of the Mind:
2. Soft skills training has a long-term effect, and more so than early cognitive skills training. Measured effects are more persistent. Enrichment enhances kids' early IQ scores but this enhancement tends to fade away.
3. Soft skills training enhances cognitive skills, but not visa-versa.
4. At least some of the Big Five personality traits can be enhanced via soft skills training, so the notion that genes and peers are the only factors determining these traits is flapdoodle.

Some discount Heckman's work as being applicable only to low socioeconomic status(SES) groups, but I am not so sure. Soft skills deficiencies can be a limiting factor for a high SES kid.  A prospective parent can probably look at how soft skills deficiencies limited their own success and make some predictions about where the problem areas might be for their own kids, on the assumption that deficiencies tend to be inherited.

But it's true that Heckman thinks that, for maximum bang for the buck, public policy should focus more on:

  • low SES groups
  • kids before age five
  • prevention
  • soft skills.

Three of those are relevant for high SES parents.

Teachable skills like bicycle riding, juggling, swimming are retained long-term.  Same goes for teachable soft skills.

"Heckman sums up by saying "traits learned young, like perseverance and self-discipline, make it easier to acquire skills during the teenage years. Skills, that is, beget skills."