Grandma’s Law

Have you ever said to your child, “You can’t have dessert unless you finish your dinner”? Or maybe something similar along those lines? There’s a name for that particular strategy: The Premack Principle.  The Premack Principle states that high probability behaviors can be used to reinforce low probability behaviors.  What does this mean? It means that something your child normally does, or likes doing, can be used to reinforce something she does not particularly do, or like doing.

This is also referred to as “Grandma’s Law.” Because, of course, Grandmas generally know what they’re talking about and have the experience to back it up.  Now you can tell your grandmother, or your child’s grandmother, that there’s an actual behavior strategy named for grandmothers, and it’s backed by science! 🙂

I used this strategy this morning when getting my daughter ready for her toddler book club.  It’s recently been a bit of a struggle to get her to do anything (that actually needs to be done…) like dressing, or eating. She’s just too busy playing to be bothered with those things.

My husband had made her an egg (her choice), and she danced around the living room while it sat on the table.  She brought a little book up to me and asked me to read it to her. So I opened it and read the first page. Before I turned the page, I said, “Have a bite of egg and then I’ll turn the page.” She did. So I read the next page. Then again, “Have a bite of egg, then I’ll turn the page.” We did this for the next 3 pages of the book. As we got towards the end, I said, “Let’s put on your shirt and then I’ll turn the page.” We got her shirt on. We did this with her shorts and shoes, and the rest of her egg, and by the time the book was finished she had eaten most of her breakfast (she’s not a fan of the egg yolk) and was completely dressed. Using this simple strategy had turned a stressful situation into an easy one. She showed me what she wanted at the moment, what was going to be the reinforcer at that point in time, and I used it to help reinforce other behavior that she was less likely to engage in.

When I use this tool, I generally like to give her a bit of the reinforcer first, before I start making demands. In this case, she asked me to read the book, and I immediately started reading the first page, before asking her to do anything. This lets my daughter know that I will be true to my word (in doing what she’s asked), and it helps to strengthen whatever the reinforcer is (the book, in this case). After all, I started the book, now she wants to keep going!  Had she asked for me to read the book and I immediately said, “You need to eat your breakfast and get dressed first,” I may have been met with more resistance, and she very likely would have lost interest in the book.

I also break it up into small requests: one bite of egg, then I read the next page. Let’s put on your shoe, then I read the next page. If I were to ask for too much, the next page of the book may not actually be worth it. But she’s also only 3, so requests this small are appropriate.  Older children are often capable of handling an entire task (such as getting dressed) before receiving the reinforcer.

This may sound a bit like bribing, but it’s not. I often talk about bribing and motivating in my Becoming a Gentle Parent classes, and how the difference lies in how you phrase it and when you say it.  If your little one is refusing to get in the car, and after multiple demands and requests you resort to: “If you get in the car, I’ll get you some ice cream,” this can be seen as bribing.  The child is learning that she can resist getting in the car when needing to go somewhere, and she will get something awesome out of it.  So, she may be more likely to resist in the future. Not to mention, if you’re needing to go somewhere in the first place, there’s no “If” to getting in the car.  So your child is going to end up in the car regardless of whether she gets in herself or you assist her. If assistance is needed, and it’s a struggle, often the parent then resorts to saying something along the lines of, “You didn’t get in the car when I asked (or on your own), so no ice cream!” But the child is in the car, isn’t she? And by not sticking to your word about getting ice cream IF she got into the car, you lose your credibility… your little one will be less likely to trust that you’ll follow through with the reinforcer next time, and less likely to actually do what you’re requesting.

Instead of bribing, try and motivate beforehand. Especially if you know that getting in the car is often a challenge. “After you get in the car, we’ll go get ice cream!” This doesn’t put any conditions on how your little one gets in the car and it’s not necessarily being offered after the struggle has already begun. Even if your child still needs assistance getting into the car, once she’s in, celebrate that! “Thank you! Whew! We’re in and ready to go! Let’s go get our ice cream now!” Even if you’re frustrated beyond belief and exhausted because it felt like wrestling a bear just to get the straps buckled, you still need to follow through with what you said before.  (“After you get in the car, we’ll go get ice cream!”) This strengthens the reinforcer (ice cream, in this case), and lets your child know you’ll follow through… making it easier each time you need to get in the car. And it doesn’t have to be ice cream, or a special purchase! We keep toys in the car and when my daughter gets in she’ll see one and call out, “I want my doll!” We respond with, “Oh fantastic! I’ll get you your doll! Let me buckle you in first.”

Seems easy, right? It is! More often than not, we can accomplish these necessary things (like eating, dressing, getting in the car) using Grandma’s Law (or, the Premack Principle) with minimal stress and frustration. 🙂