By Bethan Clark, Festival Communications Assistant

Do you find your children constantly asking you for sweets and snacks? Try to say no but give in just some of the time? You may be unknowingly training them to pester you even more. A psychological process called intermittent reinforcement is to blame. Alison Pike, a Reader in Psychology at the University of Sussex and the scientific expert on The Secret Life of 4, 5, and 6 Year Olds, explained all this and more at her at her talk today with the British Science Festival.

Intermittent reinforcement occurs when a behaviour is rewarded some, but not all, of the time. In research it has shown itself to be the strongest form of learning, beating consistent rewards as well as no rewards. What does this mean for parenting? As Alison explains, it means that refusing sweets to your children most times they ask, but sometimes giving in actually teaches them to ask even more. The evidence shows it’s better to consistently refuse. That doesn’t make it easy though. “It’s an easy trap to fall into,” Alison noted, “and I can’t stress enough that even as a researcher in this field, I fail to follow this advice on a daily basis”. It applies to many other behaviours too, such as babies crying at night.

This was one of Alison’s key findings from academic psychology for parents. Another is closely related: attention is the most powerful reward and parents sometimes give it unintentionally. If you don’t want to reward a behaviour – ignore, ignore, ignore!

However, despite the temptation to use these insights from behavioural psychology to mould children, Alison warns against focusing too much on behaviour. It can be exhausting and all too often doesn’t work. Instead, focusing on family relationships goes a long way for a more harmonious family life. Alison sums this up with “Parents are gardeners, not sculptors… and this is backed up by behavioural genetics”. Within the normal range of parenting, attempts to mould kids’ behaviours and interests too closely tend to “all come out in the wash”. This frees up parents to pay more attention to having a good relationship with their children.

The rest of Alison’s advice is equally relieving. The old adage of quality is better than quantity applies to time spent with your family, so working parents needn’t feel guilty. Another saying, ‘If mama ain’t happy, nobody happy’ is also borne out by the evidence. When mothers take time to relax and do things they enjoy, their kids tend to be happier too. Alison’s take-away message: “It’s like the flight attendants say, put your own oxygen mask on before you can help your children.”

With the internet awash with conflicting advice for parents, this application of psychological research to everyday parenting is a welcome relief. Alison frequently acknowledged how difficult parenting can be, but the balanced approach supported by evidence is reassuring. The behavioural tips and tricks for making parenting life a bit easier also help!

If you thought Alison’s talk was interesting, you may like the look of our other psychology events at the Festival. Check out the programme at