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.
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…