Lessons from the seal show

Did you hear what she said about ‘shaping’, maybe that’s relevant for the kids as well? Giving lots of positive feedback on the behaviours you want?”. My husband looked pleased with this “new” idea.

We had just watched a seal show at Mooloolaba Underwater World and the trainer explained how they teach the seals by a method called shaping. Trainers work with the animals through rewarding specific behaviours that increasingly resemble the final behaviour they are trying to teach the seal (such as waving to the crowd), making the rewards harder and harder to get as the seals get the idea and work to improve their skills.

I think whatever I say now will sound cheeky. Thing is, I am a parenting researcher. Meaning I have studied parenting programs, their effects, the way they work (or don’t) and their adoption by different groups of parents, for years now. Do you think I have tried to convey at least the most basic ideas and tools of these programs to my husband – my co-parent? Correct. Do you think I have been very successful? Correct again.

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Photo: Fanni Sarkadi, actually taken at Tooronga Zoo, Sydney – we seem to have gotten into seal shows lately

Needless to say, kids are not seals, and human behaviour has more layers than the stimulus-response learning cycle used in shaping would suggest. Nevertheless, rewards, whether it is attention, food, sex or prizes, monetary incentives, respect, or even being feared by others, powerfully influence our behaviours.

Behaviours that are socially reinforced will continue, whereas behaviours that are not reinforced will cease – this is the essence of social learning theory, the theoretical underpinning of many parenting programs. Our motivations to behave in one way or another are influenced by the social environment and we learn to control and direct our behaviours on the basis of our previous experiences and later on, our beliefs and values. But all our lives, we depend on the reinforcements we get.

So when I told one of the naughtiest little classmates of my son on my volunteer session at their school that he was doing a great job listening nicely, the few seconds he actually was, he started listening much better. I kept reinforcing his behaviour and I could see he worked hard to keep up his attention.

The teacher caught my eye, nodded and she too praised him; up his name went on the chart for those doing a good job listening. Because his previous reinforcements had been the other kids’ attention, even if that often meant irritation or telling on him, it was important to try and move him to a new form of reinforcement he could earn, that would be more positive for him on the long run. The proud smile on his face held that promise.

So when a seal show comes along to help me finally get my point through to my husband I have to be very thoughtful of what I say. Upon our next discussion I will not wail, as I might like to: “What do you think I have been trying to tell you all those times when you told me my research had nothing to do with real life parenting?”. No, I will say, “Yes, encouraging behaviour you would like to see more of, like in shaping, sounds like a great idea.”

In fact, we might play a new game called “Catch them being good” together. Because, as my husband quite rightly likes to point out, parenting theory is something quite different than acting on your knowledge – and I sure need practice!

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Photo: Fanni Sarkadi, Tooronga Zoo, Sydney

6 thoughts on “Lessons from the seal show

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