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Monkey See, Monkey Do



The old expression is more true than we would instinctively assume. We consider that we can be a little bit more rational than monkeys, though evidence would prove otherwise, and we forget how similar our observational learning abilities are.

Research shows that our most enduring and effective learning method is observational learning. This means that the things that kids watch around them are what sinks in as common and acceptable behavior. It's tough to remember always that what you say and do cancels out unless they are opposites. For example, if I am having a salad for lunch and talk to my child about how healthy it is for me (in my world I might say "mmmm I feel the vitamins trickling down into every part of my body- I'm going to have a lot of energy to play!"), it completely cancels out the efficacy of the lesson. This is called the redundancy effect. They are actually more likely to get the idea of eating a salad- and to enjoy it- if we don't even acknowledge it.

Conversely, if you do something while saying to do the opposite, it is your hypocrisy that will create an enduring message. The disconnection between the two messages reinforce each other. Children are then more likely to both commit the action and advise against it.

But that's not all. It turns out, using terms that create intrinsic motivation helps us make our children happier humans overall. Here's how it works: if Delilah does amazing at her dance routine and people tell her "you are such a great dancer!" it forms the expectation of great dancing and takes away from what she went through to get there, especially when she is aware that some people had to work more than others to get to final performance. In the future, she will focus more on the audience believing she is a good dancer than she will on enjoying it, and she is less likely to take chances in new routines or types of dance in order to maintain that ideal. In essence, we want to present ourselves positively, and once we know someone believes something positive about us, we will use techniques for impression management that are self-limiting. A more positive comment would be "I could tell you worked so hard, I'm proud of you for your efforts". You frame her point of view to feel rewarded by her behavior, instead of something she was not in control of.

You can use this form of compliment to create new realities for your children also; even if they have been told 500 times to clean their rooms and done it with complaints and reluctance, mentioning how incredible it is that they pride themselves on taking care of their space and picking up on their own stuff actually develops the intrinsic motivation of a clean space.

Keeping the endurance of observational learning in mind, take a moment to think about things you do that your children do not get to "observe". For many adults, working is one of those things. For some, cleaning the house is one of those things (if it happens when they are at school or the family has someone who comes to clean). For all (hopefully), sexual behaviors are not something kids witness. In these cases, if we do not present the ideas in some way, the behaviors they will witness (probably through TV or the internet) will be the enduring ones. This is to say, a boy does not see anyone around him masturbate- his first witness of sexual behavior is a movie that shows people making out as they push each other onto a bed, while removing shirts. Suddenly the camera pans on the heads bobbing around and they make sexual sounds, in about 30 seconds one gets off the other and they both are left panting with satisfaction. You avoid the conversation (redundancy effect would have been a great tool here), possibly because you weren't watching with him. His reality is shaped to believe that sex will be impulsive, aggressive but playful, short and simultaneously satisfactory. eek. A better approach would have been to begin the conversation on self touch and appropriate (and private!) sexual behavior, before any observational learning can take it's place. You could even buy books written for children that are based on positive sexuality and even describe in diagrams what areas are the most likely to make you feel good. Crazy fact: books count as observational learning. Aside from the fact that research published by John Hopkins last year shows a correlation between a lack of masturbation and a difficult time reaching orgasm with a partner, we can help our children learn their bodies and their pleasures in ways that could lead to a lifetime of healthy habits. You are teaching that feeling pleasure is acceptable and important, and sending them into a world where they can feel clear about advocating for themselves in relationships.

Let's take this learning a little bit further. What do you think happens once these patterns of intrinsic motivation are created? Say a girl absolutely loves to work on algebraic equations. She gets them done quickly and accurately, she is motivated to do more and learn further. That motivations comes from her own sense of joy and passion. So a well-intentioned grandparent decides she is doing so well, she will get $10 for every 90+ score she gets in math. You might expect that she will have the added benefit of the rewards, but in reality, the opposite happens. Transforming something that we loved into an goal for a reward actually lowers the amount of joy we feel from it. This is why adults sometimes experience disillusion when they start working doing something they absolutely love only to find that they don't love it as much anymore. *flashback to days of restaurant ownership*

So keep into account that what you say and do is easily forgotten, and show your kids by example the things that you want them to do the most. Show them you doing the dishes while dancing. Show them spontaneous slow dancing with your spouse. Show them you are making dinner for the neighbor who just got home from the hospital. And when the lesson (ejem- lectures) start to spill from your parted lips, suck them right back in because you are cancelling it all out. You've got this. You are doing great. Let's raise joyful humans together.


Do you have any tips for how to shape the littles? Share them below!

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