Teaching a Child Table Manners Through Operant Conditioning

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Operant, or instrumental, conditioning represents a learning method that uses rewards and punishments to stimulate certain types of behaviors. Skinner suggested that the method was a general law of learning, causing voluntary action, ranging from the formation of the first words to the mastering of higher math (Belsky 13). This means that responses that are being rewarded or reinforced are learned while those that are not positively acknowledged are extinguished. When it comes to raising a child, operant conditioning implies rewarding the behaviors that are expected from a child, ranging from successfully sitting up to learning new vocabulary. Many examples of unsuccessful operant conditioning can be found in public places, such as local stores. For instance, when a child throws a tantrum at the store, parents are often seen purchasing a toy to quiet them down. However, when a toddler is quiet and behaves well, they are not being praised or awarded for good behavior. This shows that instead of reinforcing positive behaviors, parents may unknowingly reinforce the opposite. Therefore, understanding the principles of operant conditioning is imperative in child development due to the possibility of reinforcing the desired behaviors that are expected from a person who is growing up while also reducing the occurrence of undesired behaviors.

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When teaching a child, for instance, a four-year-old, table manners with the help of operant conditioning, it is important to use the reinforcements that are understandable and acceptable to the child of that age. Examples of positive reinforcements for a four-year-old may include cheering or clapping, praise, giving the child high five, a hug, a thumbs-up, or a pat on the back. In addition, children who are aged four can look forward to special activities with their parents, such as playtime or watching TV together. Depending on the situation, the recommended reinforcements can serve as indicators of the expected table manners. On the contrary, unfavorable manners should be avoided by negative reinforcements, which represent the removal of aversive situations that can lead to behaviors that are not welcomed in table manners. Therefore, it is important to point out the negative stimuli that can lead to positive behaviors, such as putting a napkin on the lap in order to avoid getting food on the clothing and having to change, which is something that not all kids enjoy doing.

Table manners that can be taught to a four-year-old include washing one’s hands before coming to the table, staying seated during the meal, or not making bad comments (for instance, facial expressions or sounds) about the food that they are eating, and learning to say thank you after a meal. In order to teach a child to say thank you, for instance, the positive reinforcements can be measurable to the efforts made by the child. After simply saying “thank you” to their parents, the child can be rewarded with verbal praise, such as saying “you are welcome,” “well done,” “good job,” and more. Positive reinforcements intended to give praise to the child for washing their hands may include giving thumbs up as an indicator of an accomplishment that is important and should be practiced regularly. In addition, positive reinforcement can be offered by giving a child tangible rewards and additional privileges. For instance, when a child cleans his or her hands without being asked, they can be rewarded with the help of a tangible reinforcement such as an additional piece of their favorite dessert, fruit, or any other food. Such a reinforcement technique is short-term but relatively immediate, which may give the child an indication that what they had done is good and should be repeated.

In terms of learning table manners, rewards are necessary to apply to both efforts and improvement, instead of focusing predominantly on achieving perfect results. Trying is also a positive effort, and seeing children try and see whether they did better as compared to the last time should result in parents’ response that lets children know that what they do is noticed. This entails praising even partial success; for example, a child washes their hands before a meal but forgets about it and gets them dirty. It is imperative that parents acknowledge the effort through praise but remind their child that clean hands are a crucial component of table manners, so that they clean them again.

When teaching table manners, parents should give praise to children right away instead of waiting for them to exhibit the behaviors that are expected from them. In instances when a child shows initiative and good intentions associated with good table manners, parents should acknowledge their efforts. Distinct examples include seeing that a child washes their hands before a meal without being asked to or says thank you after having some food, and it is crucial that parents do not ignore such initiatives. Any form of early praise will give a child a sense of success, which can enable them to continue the expected behaviors and practices.

Work Cited

Belsky, Janet. Experiencing the Lifespan. 15th ed., Worth Publishers, 2018.

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PsychologyWriting. (2022, February 11). Teaching a Child Table Manners Through Operant Conditioning. Retrieved from https://psychologywriting.com/teaching-a-child-table-manners-through-operant-conditioning/

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PsychologyWriting. (2022, February 11). Teaching a Child Table Manners Through Operant Conditioning. https://psychologywriting.com/teaching-a-child-table-manners-through-operant-conditioning/

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"Teaching a Child Table Manners Through Operant Conditioning." PsychologyWriting, 11 Feb. 2022, psychologywriting.com/teaching-a-child-table-manners-through-operant-conditioning/.

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PsychologyWriting. (2022) 'Teaching a Child Table Manners Through Operant Conditioning'. 11 February.

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PsychologyWriting. 2022. "Teaching a Child Table Manners Through Operant Conditioning." February 11, 2022. https://psychologywriting.com/teaching-a-child-table-manners-through-operant-conditioning/.

1. PsychologyWriting. "Teaching a Child Table Manners Through Operant Conditioning." February 11, 2022. https://psychologywriting.com/teaching-a-child-table-manners-through-operant-conditioning/.


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PsychologyWriting. "Teaching a Child Table Manners Through Operant Conditioning." February 11, 2022. https://psychologywriting.com/teaching-a-child-table-manners-through-operant-conditioning/.