Let’s talk about Grandma’s house. Every child loves to go there! It is full of cookies, treats, toys... and maybe a little bit of chaos. Grandmas are known for their love of spoiling their grand-babies and sending them back to their parents to deal with the aftermath of the sugar high. Something that I remember about my grandma’s house is sitting at her dinner table, pushing my peas around and avoiding eating them. My grandma would enthusiastically encourage me to finish up so that I could have some of her homemade ice cream…that ice cream was amazing and she knew how to use it! I am sure you can all relate to a similar experience. How many of you were told to clean up your room before you could go outside and play, or finish your homework before you could watch your favorite show? Well, apparently the statement that ‘with age comes wisdom’ is really true; what we didn’t realize then is that our parents and grandparents were using “Grandma’s Law” on us! In the world of Behavior Analysis this is more formally known as the Premack Principle. I never realized that my grandma was honing my skills as a Behavior Analyst by modeling one of the oldest tricks in the book!
So what exactly is Grandma’s Law and how does it work? It basically states that behaviors that are more likely to occur during times that children have free choice (i.e. playing with dolls, watching favorite movies, playing Legos, eating snacks) can be used to reinforce any behavior that is less likely to occur during these times (i.e. brushing teeth, making the bed, picking up toys, etc.). These are categorized as high-frequency responses (behaviors children gravitate towards during free choice) and low-frequency responses (ones that do not occur frequently during free choice).
To get a little more technical: When the high-frequency response (i.e. the more enjoyable) is made contingent upon the occurrence of the low-frequency response (i.e. the chore), the more enjoyable response then becomes a reinforcer to the chore. This means that we are more likely to see the low-frequency response occur in the future, as it has been reinforced!
Identifying high-frequency behaviors is easy to do. You simply observe your child in his or her natural environment. What do they typically do when there are not any demands, when you are not controlling the narrative? What are they spending their time with? This will give you an idea of what you can use as your reinforcer response.
Grandma’s Law has been called a lot of different things in a lot of different settings. “The Premack Principle”, “If’/Then Statements”, “First/Then Rule”, “High Probability/Low Probability Sequence”, and more. The one thing that is important to know…it works! The research is there. It increases the likelihood that a less desirable behavior will occur by increasing the child’s motivation through the use of reinforcement. The best part is that the reinforcement can be found in your daily routine. You do not have to get fancy and offer up high-valued or extravagant reinforcers. You simply use the privileges the child already has in the home. By making these privileges contingent upon the completion of a less desirable behavior they become the reinforcer!
There are a couple of things that you can do to make this strategy even more effective. The first thing to remember is that it is all about the language and positivity that it can provide. Try to bring attention to the reinforcement first and to the demand second. This will help to increase the likelihood of success. For example, instead of saying “you need to eat your vegetables and then you can have dessert”, you should instead first focus on what the child is getting. You could say something like… “I have chocolate chip cookies or ice cream for dessert today! So finish up your veggies and then we can have cookies or ice cream!” Notice that I am putting the pay-off first, concentrating on what the child can gain. We want to frame it in a way that creates the motivation and incentive for completing the task that is less desirable before they have a chance to focus on what they have to put in to get it. Going along with this language, you want to make sure to avoid focusing on what they can lose. Try to stay away from making statements like “you won’t go outside if you don’t clean your room.” This is an invitation to a power struggle. It can easily lead to negotiating, arguing, and defiance. It is amazing how just flipping the script can make it more positive and keep a child motivated! We want them to focus on what they can gain, not what they may lose.
Secondly, make sure you are giving realistic expectations and consequences that you are willing to follow through with. You need to make sure that the child actually has a choice in that matter, even if it is not the choice you would have preferred! Otherwise you will end up caving in and the child will realize that you do not always mean what you say. That is a slippery slope to go down! For example, do not tell your child that they need to clean all of their toys (which may take an hour) before they can go to the store with you, when you know that you need to get to the store before dinner! Otherwise you will be tempted to pick up the toys yourself and take them to the store even though they did not earn it. You need to be willing to let them either gain the reward of going to the store or have the consequence of staying home. Follow through is crucial. This helps to shape future behaviors.