What mommy giveth, mommy can taketh away

Cogsci-toddler, like all toddlers, can be quite cantankerous. He might be holding some duplos in his car seat and then melts down because he dropped them. He sleeps by himself fine almost every night but one day will cry like a madman because he wants Mommy to “stay twenty minutes.” He goes nuts because we won’t let him have the whole tupperware full of grapes (to touch and mangle) but only give him a smaller bowl of grapes (to eat).

I think cogsci-hubby and I have settled on a discipline style that is largely about trying to help cogsci-toddler calm himself down, explaining why we are doing something, and giving him tips on what to do instead of just screaming/crying. We might tell him, “Instead of screaming, just say, ‘I don’t like it.'” He still screams an inordinate amount of the time…

But I realize there is an extra layer of discipline that I subconsciously do based on a very famous theory in behavioral economics. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll first explain what I do, then give you the theory behind it.

So when cogsci-toddler is in a jovial state, I often give him (within reason) all kinds of things he asks for: kid music in the car, opening all the cans of playdoh, as many cactus books as his heart desires. But when he starts whining, I take it away.

So Amos Kitani, meet Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize winning psychologists.

Their fundamental insight was that people (toddlers included) are not rational. If people were rational, someone who loses $1 would lose the same amount of satisfaction that a person who gains $1 would gain in satisfaction. Another way of saying this is that people dislike losing $1 MORE than they like gaining $1. Behavioral economics summarizes this principle like this: losses loom larger than gains. 

From https://i2.wp.com/www.fhwa.dot.gov/ipd/images/revenue/webinar_sept10/img_10.gif

See the absolute amount of the value change from a loss of a set amount is greater than the absolute value change from the gain of that same amount. The image is from: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/ipd/images/revenue/webinar_sept10/img_10.gif

When applied to Amos and now Nathan, sometimes we have to drive in traffic (we live in LA), and they both hate it. So they whine. What we could do is play some kid songs for them when they start to whine in hopes that they will quit. Instead we play kid songs first, as soon as we get in the car. And when they start to whine — I turn it off. When they stop whining, I turn the music back on again. Why? BECAUSES LOSSES LOOM LARGER THAN GAINS! In this case, losing the Korean children’s songs (including such hits as “handsome tomato” and “one tadpole“) feels like a greater loss of happiness than gaining those same songs would add happiness. And my theory is that if it hurts more, it is a more effective consequence that would shape behavior.

On the other hand, if I offered them music once they began whining, they would derive less happiness from that, relatively speaking of course.

So now we have pretty much solved the car ride thing but my beloved boy is also extraordinarily immoral and materialistic and contrarian. If only behavioral economics could help me with those parts of child rearing…


5 thoughts on “What mommy giveth, mommy can taketh away

  1. Maggie says:

    Since I only have rewards (blog comments) at my disposal in this scenario, I want to utilize this opportunity to praise your decision to tell stories and educate us. I LOVE EVERY POST AND I DON’T EVEN HAVE KIDS!

  2. This is super helpful! Will definitely start putting this method to use in children’s ministry.

  3. davidandjin says:

    I have often experienced with my own kid the transformation of reward into routine: something which I did once as a special treat becomes expected as standard. Originally, I could elicit a desired behavior by offering the reward, but after the transition, not only can I not do that, but I even run the risk of eliciting an argument or tantrum simply by NOT offering the reward.

    To put this in the framework of the theory: when a reward has not been offered, its absence is not perceived as a loss. But if it is offered consistently in a given situation, its absence in that situation is thenceforth a loss.

    So I think a parent must be conscious of the long-term expectations engendered by a particular incentive. Offering a reward before the child exhibits good behavior might lead to an expectation that the reward should be present under all circumstances, while offering it after good behavior could create a much more limited expectation that parents could meet more easily.

    • cogscimom says:

      Good point! It becomes the default and any circumstance that it is taken away feels like “punishment”! Also a consequence of prospect theory!!!

  4. teachingninja says:

    I hope I remember this when I have kids, but for now, I was cracking up at his copious amounts of cacti books and Korean songs, like Handsome Tomato? Hahaha! ♡♡♡

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