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Parental Control Of The Child

Social Behavior

In the very young infant, the parental control of the child is largely through satiation, deprivation, and the removal of any aversive stimulus. If the child is kept warm, dry, and fed and is not exposed to extreme noises and physical restraint, the main repertoire of the very young infant is so limited that there is little possibility of parental control except through feeding, holding, cuddling, and changing of clothes. Such motor development that occurs in the very young infant is largely maintained by the direct effect of the child's performance on its physical environment, such as the tactile consequences of moving the hands over various objects or the reinforcement of movements in relation to the visual location of an object. All of these, of course, are in the context of the neuromuscular maturation of the child. In general, these reinforcers are inaccessible to the parent. Nor is aversive control of the infant by the parent possible, because the infant's repertoire is too limited to provide any reinforcement for the parental attempts at aversive control. The entire behavioral repertoire of the very young child consists of eating, crying, and very simple responses involving very minimal effects on the environment. Furthermore, the major technics of aversive control are the discontinuation or withdrawal of positively reinforced repertoires which do not develop until at least the child's second or third year.

Parent-Child Interaction

The possibility of parental control of the child, as well as the child's control of the parent, increases as the child matures. The performances that develop in both the child and the parent depend upon the nature of the interaction between the individuals. The major form of behavior in the child that is influenced by social interaction is crying. Crying is originally a reflex accompaniment of such discomforts as food deprivation, extremes of temperature, or skin irritations from feces. However, as the parent acquires a repertoire of ministering to the child whenever he cries by presenting food, holding and cuddling him, or changing his clothes, operant reinforcers of crying bring it under the control of the parent, although often intermittently, as an operant response reinforced by stimuli relevant to current deprivations provided by the parent. For example, crying, instead of being a sign of distress to extreme food deprivation, now becomes an operant response maintained by its effect on the parent in producing food. Similarly, as crying is frequently followed by being picked up, rocked, cuddled, and, in general, played with, it acquires operant strength because of reinforcement from these consequences. Although the form of the behavior is identical in the two cases, the relation of crying to controlling variables is very different. Operant crying depends very closely on its consequences. If the parent does not provide the stimuli which maintain the crying, the frequency of crying will fall. If the parent reinforces the crying intermittently, its frequency of occurrence will depend on the schedule of reinforcement. The actual form of the crying behavior will be changed if the reinforcement is made differentially contingent upon specific topographies. For example, a parent may feed the child only when its crying reaches a certain intensity. If the reinforcement of crying occurs differentially on one occasion rather than another, the frequency of crying will be higher on the occasions where it is reinforced more frequently. These are the general properties of any operant response. On the other hand, when crying is a reflex caused by trauma, extremes of stimulation, or startle, it will persist as long as the eliciting condition is present; and its magnitude will depend on the magnitude of the eliciting conditions. If the crying is reflex, it will occur regardless of the circumstances extraneous to the eliciting conditions of the crying. The reflex and operant repertoires may interact in complex ways, however, and a careful functional analysis is required to determine the specific contributions of operant and reflex sources of control of the crying behavior. In actual practice both processes operate concurrently, and the repertoire can be understood only by measuring the behavior as a function of the relevant controlling variables.

Intermittent Reinforcement

Even though the termination of the child's crying may be highly reinforcing to the parent, the parent does not reinforce the child every time it occurs. The intermittent reinforcement of the child's crying by the parent is a major source of variation in determining the characteristics of the child's crying. The probability of the parent's going to the child depends upon many variables affecting the parental repertoire, unrelated to the specific performances controlled by the child. Whether the parent reinforces the child's crying depends, for example, on the general state of the parent. A parent who has been without sleep will be awakened only after more prolonged and vigorous crying than a rested parent, similarly, with general exhaustion, sickness, or alcoholic hangover. Competing behaviors which might be prepotent over the avoidance responses generated by the child may result in nonreinforcement of the child's crying.

The parent might be talking to someone at the door, making a last minute preparation in cooking, washing a floor, eating dinner, engrossed in a magazine or novel, or sleeping. All of these factors postpone the parent's attendance to the child and, hence, introduce a measure of intermittent reinforcement of the child's crying. Conversely, certain factors in the parent's past history and current social situation might tend to produce almost continuous reinforcement of the child's crying, for example, a parent may have little behavior that might compete with the child's control. All of the factors of this kind would occur variably in the parental repertoire. So long as the child's crying is maintained by its effect on the parent, the aversive effect on the parent will increase continuously as the child cries. Because the aversiveness of the child's crying appears to be related to how long it is continued, sooner or later the parent will minister to the child and terminate the aversive stimulus. The termination of the aversive stimulus by feeding the child increases the strength of the parent's avoidance behavior, and the receipt of food by the child increases his disposition to cry. The process is potentially autocatalytic, and under some conditions may progress toward extreme states.

All of the factors described in the social interaction between the parent and the child define a variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement of crying. The child's crying produces the reinforcing effect through the parent in terms of the number of times the child cries, but the actual number varies time after time, depending upon the condition of the parent. The variability in the parent's reactivity to the child defines the variability in the amount of crying necessary to produce the parental reaction. If on one day the parent has not slept very much, the child will cry longer before the parent awakens and tends to him than on another day when the parent is rested. The unoccupied parent in the vicinity of the child will attend to him quickly. However, at another time under the pressure of some concurrent activity, such as while scrubbing a floor, it may be some minutes before the parent goes to the child. The special characteristics of the parental repertoires will, in general, determine the exact schedule of reinforcement of the child's crying. For example, parents who have very little strong behavior other than that controlled by the child will reinforce crying continuously. On the other hand, a parent strongly occupied with other children and strong interests unrelated to the children, or one who has a somatic disability which might make tending to the child difficult, will reinforce intermittently. Other more subtle characteristics of the parent will affect how aversive the child's crying is to the parent and, in turn, affect the schedule of reinforcement. The parent for whom crying is maximally aversive tends to go to the child instantly when he cries; the parent for whom the child's crying is less aversive will tend to .ignore the child's crying for long periods of time.

The schedule of reinforcement of the child's crying is similar to that of the gambler. These variable-ratio schedules of reinforcement sustain large amounts of behavior and, in general, maintain responding at the highest possible strength. Even identical frequencies of reinforcement on other schedules of reinforcement will not sustain as much behavior or behavior under so high a rate of responding.

EXTINCTION OF CRYING A history of variable-ratio responding will sustain behavior at maximum rates for some time after reinforcement is discontinued. In general, the more intermittently crying has been reinforced, the longer responding will continue when reinforcement is discontinued. At the other extreme, a history of continuous reinforcement generates much less behavior when reinforcement is discontinued. The exact nature of the parent-child interaction, through the schedule of reinforcement of crying, will determine what will happen if the parent should attempt to alter the child's aversive control of him or his reinforcement of the child's crying. Such changes would be much more easily made following continuous reinforcement than following variable-ratio reinforcement. If the parent has any strong disposition to terminate the child's crying as an aversive stimulus, the sustained, prolonged, and vigorous crying which will occur during the extinction period will provide an even more aversive state of affairs than the original circumstances. In general, the process tends to be autocatalytic: each failure at self-control by an attempt to extinguish the child's crying produces more intermittent reinforcement, which in turn sustains the behavior even more strongly. Although self-control is possible, the child usually "outgrows" the crying when alternative methods of dealing with the environment, either directly or indirectly, through the mediation of other persons result. Also, as the child is exposed to individuals other than the parents, there is further differential reinforcement of performances other than crying. For the reasons described above, the child's crying is not nearly so aversive to persons other than the parents. As a result, the extra-family environment does not reinforce crying as readily as the parents.

Additional topics

Human Behavior