Tag Archives: Parenting programs

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.


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!


Photo: Fanni Sarkadi, Tooronga Zoo, Sydney

Nordic Walking in Australia – an anomaly?

On my power walks on the paved beachside footpath I am the sole person using Nordic Walking poles. In fact, I have never seen anyone using those on all my trips to Australia. I discovered the Nordic Walking poles when I had to stop running 10 years ago and they have been my best training companions ever since. I take them everywhere and they have afforded me fantastic power walks in all sorts of places. According to Wikipedia (and those marketing the poles) Nordic walking produces up to a 46% increase in energy consumption, compared to walking without poles. You also use more muscles in the upper part of your body. The Nordic poles are ubiquitous in Sweden, but here in Melbourne, people stare at me when I pace by.


So why hasn’t this innovation – so popular in the Nordic countries – made its way to Australia, where a lot of (middle-class) people are quite into exercise of all kinds? You can see groups of people with personal trainers all days of the week, exercising in public parks, using balls, weights, and walking in ways that would fit into a Silly walks sketch by Monty Pyton any day. So it isn’t that Aussies don’t like using tools when they exercise or are afraid to look ridiculous in public. But then, what?

This bugs me and I think about it quite often as I pump away on the path because I am not used to being alone with a new gadget. In fact, I am what the Diffusion of Innovations Theory (Rogers, 1962) calls a member of the “Late majority” as opposed to the Innovators, Early Adopters, and Early Majority. I got an iPhone when everyone else already had one and still can’t be bothered to find out the difference between the models. And I start a blog when there are more blogs around than people can bother to read… Well, at least I am not a Laggard.

It is, indeed, the Diffusion of Innovations Theory we have to go to for gaining insight into the lack of Nordic poles among the exercise tools in Australia. According to Rogers, there are five characteristics of innovations that influence an individual’s decision to adopt it. These are: Relative Advantage, Complexity or Simplicity, Trialability, Observability, and Compatibility. The Nordic poles do have a relative advantage compared to simple power walking in terms of exercise effectiveness, it’s simple to learn their use as well as to try them out, and anyone can observe that you have them. But is Nordic Walking compatible to people’s lifestyle here? I thought, yes. But two ladies jogged past me today and asked me if I was training for skiing, which reinforced what I had heard a few days before, when a mother explained to her little daughter that I was training for walking in lots of snow. So Nordic Walking is not compatible with the Aussie lifestyle because it is perceived to have to do with snow and skiing and, well – most Australians will live their lives without ever seeing snow. So no wonder people look at me and my poles with some skepticism.

The genius of Steve Jobs lay with him identifying products that did a majestic job on all prerequisites of an easily adoptable innovation, especially the compatibility aspect. You didn’t know how badly you needed an iPhone until you got one.

What bothers me is that many of our social innovations, such as parenting programs for universal use, have a lot of trouble to diffuse into society. As professionals, we tend to analyse what is wrong with the adopters – the parents – when we have difficulties filling our parenting seminars, groups, or individual sessions. I think what we need to do is rather ask ourselves how these innovations are doing in terms of adoptability. Do they even have a relative advantage as perceived by parents? Are they simple enough? Can parents try them without having to sign up for eight sessions? And most of all, are they compatible with parents’ lifestyles, fitting in seamlessly with their everyday lives and needs? Because if not, there will be no “iParent” phenomenon happening. It will rather be like the case of Nordic poles in Australia – an anomaly.