Do We Need Him or Do We Want Him?

This morning,I had one of my typical, “Be cool, be cool, Mom!” moments where I saw an opportunity to make my sweet baby feel empowered and strong as a female.  (Well, as a person. We just aren’t there yet in society to differentiate between female empowerment and person-empowerment, and I’ve come to terms with that).

You see, I believe in behavior analysis and the power of reinforcement. I study it in my graduate program, and I utilize it for a living. I work with some awesome kids diagnosed with autism, changing what we call ‘socially significant’ behaviors that impact their day-to-day lives.  This means we don’t change behaviors just for fun or because we can. This means we carefully select and then cultivate behaviors based on what is important within context to the child or parent of the child.  The behaviors can range from teaching a three-year-old how to make a peace sign, to teaching social skills to a 16-year-old that she can use in her first after-school job.  It’s pretty cool!

Another way in which I can use the science of applied behavior analysis is through positive reinforcement. This means, when a child practices an important skill, I use positive reinforcement to encourage that behavior to occur again. For example, I work to reinforce when a child greets their Mom when she walks in the door or when a child plays with a car correctly, to increase the occurrence of the behavior in the future. We may reinforce with a small token to add up to a larger prize (sticker charts for life!), or we may simply say, “Great job, Sam, you did it!” – it depends on the child.  Sometimes, however, that behavior is not so overtly observable. This was the case with my daughter this morning.

To put this into context, it should be noted that my husband is currently deployed.

This morning, my five-year-old, Olivia, and I were out for a walk. Olivia said, “Mom, we need Dad’s help to do walk the dogs today!”(Long story short, my dogs are…. difficult creatures).

“Do we need him or do we want him?” I replied gently.

“Uhh… need?” She said, completely confused as to why I was pressing her about this at all.

“No, honey, we want his help. We don’t need him. We are strong and we can do this without him, but it’s okay to want him. Do you want fruit snacks, or need them?”


“That’s right!”

“Do you want water, or need it?”


“You’re right, baby!”

The positive reinforcement aspect of this is the excitement of Mom telling her daughter that she’s right.  Positive reinforcement, by definition, will increase the future frequency of the behavior it is reinforcing (so, my girl will be more apt to know in the future that she is strong and capable, even without her beloved Dada.)  In contrast, a punishment decreases the future frequency of the behavior that precedes it.  That is what the verbal behavior of: “No, honey” is doing–decreasing the future frequency of her thinking she is not strong and capable.

She smiled so wide after this dialogue and, immediately I could feel the click in her young mind. I needed her to know (now, and for the next four months) that we don’t need my husband around to be ‘okay’, but we sure do want him. I hope my loud voice acting as positive reinforcement only further solidifies in her mind that it’s okay to want her daddy, but we don’t need him to get through our day-to-day. Through positive reinforcement, any behavior, from social skills to female empowerment, can be encouraged to happen in the future. I am changing Olivia’s small, malleable brain, and it’s pretty awesome.

Darn right, Olivia, We are strong, with or without him.

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