-- B.F. Skinner, 1972 interview in Center Magazine
Whether or not any given parent has read the work of behavioral scientists Ivan Pavlov or B.F. Skinner, every parent is familiar with the techniques. Pavlov is famously known for his research on “classical conditioning,” in which he performed experiments on how to cause dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. Classical conditioning refers to the process of conditioning an involuntary physiological response to a particular stimulus. B.F. Skinner furthered this research with the idea of “operant conditioning,” in which voluntary actions could be conditioned to particular stimuli, usually a combination of negative or positive reinforcements or deprivations.
Potty training is a mix of classical and operant conditioning. We want our toddlers to learn how to control a physiological process, but turning it from an involuntary action into a voluntary action within particular socially acceptable constraints. Or, as the sayings go in our house, “Pee-pee in the potty every time” and “Keep your panties dry.”
An elaborate rewards system has developed in our bathroom this past year, based largely on positive reinforcement, which is the process of adding a pleasurable stimulus in response to desired behavior. Initially, pee-peeing in the potty resulted in three M&M’s, and pooping in the potty resulted in a cookie. The former was successful, but we realized through some trial and error, that the cookie-to-poopie reinforcement didn’t do much. First of all, our daughter was unimpressed by cookies. And secondly, we ate all the cookies that were left. So we swapped to Dum-Dum suckers, which were far more appealing to her and far less tempting to us.
This worked very well for several months. So well, in fact, that the suckers presented another problem. She was eating one or two a day. And, as I’ve written about elsewhere, she takes nearly half an hour to eat a sucker. This is a problem when she poops right before bedtime, and it’s not good for her teeth.
In response to these problems – good problems to have, since they signaled her successes at potty-training – we followed the advice of some friends of ours and instituted a Sticker Chart. For every success, she was awarded a sticker. After a certain number of stickers – six, currently – she would then be awarded a toy or treat of her choosing. It’s a classic “token economy” system. School teachers everywhere are familiar with the motivational power of sticker charts, and we decided it would be a good way to save her teeth as well as the time it takes for her to consume suckers. Plus it gave us a reason to finish off all the M&M’s in the house.
As you might surmise, the initial transition was not smooth. After all, we’d conditioned her to receive a sucker after every poopie. So when that first sticker-poopie took place, she was extremely unimpressed. Stickers are not tasty and do not last thirty minutes. She cried and wailed and begged for her sucker, which was understandable. I feared that this risked the extinction of the desired behavior, but knew that we couldn’t be giving her suckers every time she pooped for the rest of her life. The reinforcing stimulus would have to change eventually.
Time to add positive punishment. This is when a negative stimulus is added immediately after the undesired behavior. This seems to most conscientious, bleeding-heart parents like a tricky thing. After all, what parent really wants to spank their child when they pee-pee in their diaper? But the good news is that life and biology have their own ways of introducing negative stimuli. How did we make this work? We let her wear big girl panties one Saturday.
Initially, this seemed like positive reinforcement. We told her she could try out big girl panties because she’d done so well in using the potty. It was a reward! And boy did she love them. She refused to put on pants so that she could parade around the house in her Hello Kitty panties. It was unbearably adorable. Until she peed in them.
Wetting your pants is, without a doubt, a positive punishment. She stood in the puddle, her panties sticking to her bottom, and she started crying. I didn’t have to scold her or anything, because the physical sensation of pissing one’s pants is punishment enough. But then came negative punishment, or the removal of a positive stimulus following undesired behavior: we took the panties off and put her back in a diaper. And I mean, wow: punishment is powerful, you guys! And we didn’t even have to do it ourselves! The shame and disappointment she felt at having peed in her panties was greater than any punishment or penalty we could have artificially manufactured. It turns out that as we grow up, we internalize our own Sticker Charts!
Here’s my takeaway as an adult, and it’s sobering. I don’t completely buy Skinner’s radical behaviorist perspective of human behavior. I find the inhabitants of his fictional commune in Walden Two all have an unintentionally Stepford quality about them that is icky and unsettling. I simply can’t let go of my beliefs in individual responsibility, psychodynamic self-reflection, and the inability to fully trust anyone purporting to be the authority for applying and regulating reinforcement or punishment. But perhaps all of these things – individual responsibility, self-reflection, and suspicion of outside authority – are what taught me to internalize my own systems of reinforcement and punishment. Because at the end of it all, every behavior of mine – every single action – is influenced by a cosmic Sticker Chart I’ve internalized in my own soul. I call them “values” or “beliefs” or whatever. But ultimately they’re just psychic stickers that I love to peel and place on a chart.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It chafes against my loftier ideals of free will and responsibility, but it works pretty well. Does it really matter why people do good things? I mean, a good behavior is good because of the outcome regardless of the motivation, right? If I give money to a charity solely because it makes me feel good about myself by exempting me from a little white guilt, I’ve still given money to charity. Right? Is it any less altruistic simply because it makes me feel good?
I have a temptation to think of people who do good things for self-serving reasons as douchebags. But it’s not that simple. Every single behavior we have – every value, belief, habit, assumption – is communicated to us and reinforced by outside influences, and we internalize them. They get more complex as we mature, but they’re still there. No one gives me a sticker when I pee-pee in the potty anymore, but I’m so conditioned to do it that the last time I spent a day at the lake I had to get out of the lake and hike up a hill to find a bathroom when I needed to pee. When I behave in ways that I think of as “good” or “compassionate” or “kind,” I’m really just acting out behavior I learned to emulate from others who reinforced it.
Let me be clear: I’m glad I learned that behavior. I learned it from my parents. I learned it from the good friends I had growing up. I learned it from the example of Jesus. It drives home the responsibility I feel as a parent to instill values and beliefs I hold dear in my own child. But I do have to hold onto the critical purchase that all this potty-training conditioning is reminding me: there is no inherent, objective standard. There is only our experience in relationship with others and the ways those relationships serve us or harm us. The love, hope, and acceptance I seek now as an adult is not that far removed from the stickers and candy I craved as a child. Recognizing, acknowledging, and even celebrating this truth helps me to know myself better and provide the safe, supportive environment I believe will help my child find her own self.
Maybe unconditional love isn’t really possible for humans to give. Perhaps that’s just too high a standard to hold myself to. Deep down, everything we've ever learned to do -- including loving one another -- is something conditional. It's hard to imagine that I love my child based on certain conditions of her being, but even the very idea of unconditional love is itself a conditioned idea. And, truth be told, all parents love their child a little bit more than their baseline when the child is being adorable and sweet.
Hey, maybe that’s all okay. Maybe what we need is not unconditional love, but reliable love. I'm not perfect, but I am a good enough parent that my child can trust me to love her reliably and consistently.
If nothing else, she'll learn to keep her panties dry.