Teaching “Don’t give up”

by admin on March 18, 2013

My sweet William turned eight years old last Thursday. I adore him, largely because he’s such a unique kid.

He won’t eat meat. He thinks impossible objects are hilarious. He’s not rough-and-tumble and has been known to make a hundreds chart with Cheeze-Its. William has a My Neighbor Totoro doll he calls “Officer Joe,” a bottle cap collection and his own Minecraft server. He makes stop-motion movies.

He also gives up very easily and it kills me.

We have a basketball hoop at the end of the driveway. Two days after it was installed, he and I were shooting baskets. He misses, of course, as he’s new to the sport. He’s also got the upper body strength of a newborn, but that’s beside the point.

This is when he hangs his head, pouts and refuses to participate further. “I can’t do it,” he says. “I’m never going to do it.” I explain that no one is good at anything the first time they try it, but he won’t hear it. He has dug in his heels and that’s that.

Last year at Cub Scout camp, he enjoyed archery. So we got him a great, kid-sized compound bow and a target for Christmas. He struggles to pull the arrow all the way back, and hasn’t touched it in months. Again, more sulking, self-doubt and defeatist talk like “I’ll never be able to do it” and “I can’t do anything.”

I alternate between sympathy and anger born of utter frustration. On one hand, I want to say, “You can’t just sit on the sideline and sulk because something is hard! For goodness sake, buck up!” On the other hand, I wonder if the whole performance is just attention-seeking. Instead I just say, “Yeah, it’s hard. Well, let’s try again. Just give it one more try.”


“OK, I’ll be here if you decide to try.”

But I’m also thinking, “You’ll never develop those spindly bone arms or your even less sturdy confidence if you don’t try.”

The trick is finding something the wants to do, can be successful at and build the confidence to try other things and, more importantly, be OK when the results aren’t perfect. That’s one of the things I like about organized sports: you learn to lose gracefully, which comes in handy in life.

And I almost found that perfect activity.


One of the gifts he received for his birthday was the BB gun you see above. It’s awesome, and he really got in to BB shooting at Scout camp last year. His uncle gave it to him and he’s over the moon to try it. So I hang a tarp in the yard, go over gun safety, load it and go outside with him.

The gun doesn’t fire. I try again. No go. Check if it’s jammed, clean the barrel. Nope. We finally find something he’s willing to do and the damn gun doesn’t work. It’s beyond frustrating.

Oh, William. Parenting is the hardest job there is. You’re responsible for the health and well-being of a human being. Not just the pouting child before you, but the adult s/he will be. When you think about it, the responsibility is overwhelming. Sometimes you want to throw your hands up and say, “That’s it, I can’t do this. Obviously I’m a bad parent.”

But you don’t. You aren’t. Just give it one more try.

Confessions of a recovering asshole, or, how I learned to stop worrying (literally) and love prescription stimulants

by admin on April 29, 2011

This post is 40 years in the making, yet four weeks ago I had no idea it would exist.

I have been delivered from distraction and freed from the crippling anxiety and depression that I always assumed was the typical human experience. Today, I sit upright. I feel competent. I get things done and end my days guilt-free, content and ready for more. In other words, I’ve achieved what many consider a typical human experience. Only for me, it’s absolutely extraordinary. Here’s my story.

I have adult Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD. 1 That feels so good to say, that I wish to repeat it. I have ADD! It’s an actual thing, like a banana or a field mouse or a lousy haircut. Any person with the inclination and time to kill can find a book on the subject and read all about it. Years ago some physicians and eggheads much brighter than me assembled their collective knowledge, observations and experiences to identify a specific compliment of traits which, when present in an individual to a certain degree, constitute this thing called ADD. It’s a thing some people have 2  and I’m one of them. And it’s freaking great.

Why? To answer that question, we must board the Wayback Machine. There I am in 6th grade at St. Ann’s Monastery School in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Which one is me?

The young man in the front row, hand raised, Eye Of The Tiger?

No, my friend.

The lad in the back, chuckling with friends?

That’s a good guess, but no.

Ah, then it must be the kid at the blackboard, anxious and perspiring, a dusty piece of chalk held between uncertain fingers, Adam’s apple straining against a clip-on tie. Right?

Another good guess but I’m afraid you’re wrong. It was a trick question, actually, because I’m not in the classroom. There I am in the hallway. Once again I’ve dismantled Sr. Dolores’ patience and she has made me carry my desk into the hallway, close the door, and sit alone.

I’m what the educational system calls a Huge Pain In The Ass. Back in 2nd grade, my classmates unanimously voted me “Funniest Student.” I single-handedly caused my 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Olivetti, to retire (she told the principal that Dave Caolo was the basis of her decision). I was a truly loathsome child.

I rarely paid attention. I scored B’s on report cards but never tried. The words I heard most  often were “doesn’t apply himself,” “does not use time wisely” and “does not meet his potential.” I was distracted, antsy, impulsive and “out in space” for most of the day.

Things worsened in 7th and 8th grade. By the time I hit high school, my interests leaned towards playing my drums very loudly, driving my father’s Ford Taurus as if it were an Indy car and other high-risk behaviors. I maintained a solid B average but still never tried.

At the same time, I often forgot to complete simple tasks or failed to finish what I started. Not out of malice or laziness, but because tasks like keeping a clean bedroom, mowing the lawn or raking the leaves seemed impossible. I’d look at the yard and think, “Jesus Christ, look at all those fucking leaves. Every single leaf in Pennsylvania has blown onto our lawn. There is no way on God’s green Earth that I — or anyone — can clean all of that up.” So I’d leave it. And get into trouble.

Lazy. Dumb. Uninterested. Bad. This is what I heard, and it’s what I believed.

In college things improved a bit. I moved to Boston and made some friends. The new city was exciting, as were my classes and teachers. I got to work in real recording studios (I attended Berklee College of Music) and talk with world-famous musicians like Pat Metheney, John Scofield and Will Calhoun.  It was a tremendous time that I still treasure among the best of my life.

As my freshman year progressed, I noticed odd behaviors in myself. As deadlines loomed (final exams, scheduled performances, lesson times, etc.), I failed to perform the tasks necessary for successful completion. While goofing around in my dorm room I’d think, “You’ve got a performance final in 5 days. You ought to be in a practice room.” Yet I didn’t go. There never seemed to be enough time. I knew I had to practice, but there were also a million other things that needed to be done, always at the last minute. I’d put off Project A to complete Project B and so on. I felt like I could never catch up, even if the day had 25, 30 or 50 hours. I was chronically behind, always scrambling, always distracted and flustered.

For the first time ever, I failed a class. It was devastating. Half way into my sophomore year, I dropped out. After moving back home, I took a degree in psychology from a local school. I loved my time at Marywood University, but the sting of leaving Berklee, Boston, my friends and the dream of being a professional rock musician was very painful. 3 It was then that I first felt like a failure, a screw-up, the person who can’t do anything right. I was 19, and that feeling would intensify and become my default state for the next 21 years.

Anxiety grew as I assumed that I’d do everything wrong. I felt like Charlie Brown who once said, “Everything I touch gets ruined.” People made requests of me and I failed them. Scheduling snafus caused real problems. “I forgot” became a familiar chorus, much to the chagrin of those around me.

I had a series of failed romantic relationships, most of which can be blamed squarely on my impulsivity. As time went on, and the screw-ups mounted, I became profoundly anxious and depressed. It was a very long 21 years.

Then, about 3 or 4 months ago, I saw a special on PBS called ADD And Loving It. The show chronicled the life of several adults with ADD. It described their symptoms, experiences and coping mechanisms. The longer I watched the more transfixed I became. Eventually I was standing in front of the TV so as not to miss a thing, my jaw hanging open.

They were talking about me.

I was nodding and saying, “Yes! Yes! Yes! Oh my God, yes!” The participants described in eerily exacting detail problems that had plagued me all of my life. Super-specific things like walking out to the tool shed to get the lawn mower only to find yourself 3 hours later painting a picnic table and re-potting plants. Or buying novels, reading 1/4 of them and abandoning them entirely.

It was surreal and incredibly exciting. “Oh my God,” I thought. “I think I have this. I think that’s me. I must find out.” I made an appointment with a specialist and, after completing a full history and working through some diagnostic tools, we confirmed that yes, I’ve got ADD. It’s a real thing, it can be treated and my life can improve.

Relief soaked my whole being. Try to imagine it.

I’m not dumb.

I’m not lazy.

I’m not a screw-up.

I’m not a failure.

Instead, I’ve got a brain that works differently than most. As a result, I’m prone to distraction, impulsivity, difficulty with completing tasks, focus and organization. 4 There’s a bit of bad wiring in my noodle. I was born with it, and it can be repaired.

Today, my relief is nearly euphoric. I’ve begun treatment in the form of both medication (Ritilan) and behavioral therapy (strategies for working with the traits of ADD). The result is so phenomenal that it’s almost other-worldly.

Recently I sat in front of my computer to work. When I looked up at the clock, 90 minutes had passed. I’ve never, ever worked for that long in a sitting. Ever. Typically I can’t go 3 or 4 minutes without being compelled to do something else. Watch a YouTube video. Look out the window. Play the piano. Toss a ball for the dog. Iron a shirt. Every 3 or 4 minutes. If I’m lucky.

Today I feel — wait for it — happy. All the time. Yes, I’ve still got an enormous amount of work to do, shouting children and important responsibilities, but it doesn’t bother me anymore.

As a teenager I had all four wisdom teeth removed at once. I was given a strong pain reliever to take at home. Its effect was curious; the pain was still there, but I didn’t care. That’s how I feel now. I’ve got an overwhelming amount of work to complete, but it’s OK. I’m not anxious about it. I know it will get done. I know I’ll do a good job. I’m experiencing calm control. I’m focused and ready. And I’m happy. For the first time in I-honestly-don’t-know-how-long, I feel so goddamn, mother______g happy. All day long. For you this is probably typical.

For me, it’s a bona-fide, absolute, divine miracle. Gratitude radiates from my being like heat from the sun. I’ve never known such contentment.

So why did I call this post “Confessions of an asshole?” Because I have been immensely hard to live with for a very long time. For that reason, I’d like to offer formal, public and heart-felt apologies to many people.

To the well-intentioned educators who used all of their professional skills and knowledge to reach me. To my parents and sisters who had an unpredictable time bomb on their hands. To the professional contacts who begrudgingly accepted a pattern of unreliable performance for me.

To the lovely people who shared a romantic relationship with me, only to have it end so poorly. That was all me.

To my wife and children, who’ve lived with a profoundly depressed, irritable and unpredictable asshole for 10 years.

To all of you, I’m sorry. Forgive me. I know it’s been hard. I appreciate your effort.

The good news is that I’m here now. For the first time ever, I’m actually here, and it’s the best I’ve ever been.

  1. Technically, the DSM -IV now uses the term Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder as the lone diagnostic term, as attention deficit symptoms can exist with or without hyperactive symptoms (the “H”), thereby eliminating a need for “Attention Deficit Disorder.” However, many clinicians and other mental health professionals still use the legacy term, so I will, too.
  2. I like to visualize a teeny nugget of hyped-up dark matter embedded in my noggin.
  3. And it still is.
  4. Everyone experiences these things from time to time. That’s not ADD. It’s when they become so pronounced that your daily functioning is affected in a significant and often detrimental way that you may want to consider a professional evaluation. I AM NOT A PHYSICIAN AND THIS IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE. There, I said it.

An interesting practice

by admin on February 19, 2011

I recently re-watched the PBS documentary on the life of the Buddha and was reminded of a powerful practice. Poet Jane Hirshfield discusses The Buddha’s first attempt to teach after gaining enlightenment. He meets a wandering ascetic who asks Buddha, “Who is your guru?” Buddha explains that he has no guru, that he has attained enlightenment on his own. Thoroughly unimpressed, the ascetic walks away.

On his first attempt at teaching, The Buddha had failed.

Jane says:

“Buddha meets someone who doesn’t see anything special about him because the awakened Buddha doesn’t look any different from anybody else. He is ordinary. Buddhism is not about being special. Buddhism is about being ordinary. And it is not about the continual exudation of bliss. It is about walking a normal human life with normal human beings, doing normal human things.”

“And this reminds you that you yourself might be a Buddha. At this moment, the person you’re looking at might be one. It’s an interesting practice. Just each person you see as you walk down the street; ‘Buddha? Buddha? Buddha? Buddha? Buddha?’”

It is interesting, and I do it all the time. Even if the whole Buddhism thing isn’t for you, look at the people you encounter each day, mindful of their true nature, their inherit goodness. Quietly ask that nugget of goodness, “Are you in there? Are you there? Are you there?”

You will see it. In each person, you will see it.

Twenty Ten in pictures

by admin on December 31, 2010

I had a lot of fun in 2010.

In January, I…

Started walking 30 minutes per day,

took my son to get a haircut,

saw my daughter tie her shoe for the first time without help,

and played in the Bobcat.

In February, I…

visited San Francisco,

tried In-N-Out Burger,

visited Cupertino,

saw LeVar Burton and David Pogue,

met Guy Kawasaki,

and worked with my friends.

In March, I…

took my daughter to her ice skating lesson,

organized some old film,

and celebrated my son’s 5th birthday with a “Monster Party.”

In April, I…

broke ground for the new berry patch,

built a vegetable bed,

made a monster puppet,

lined up to buy an iPad,

found Easter eggs,

and saw a robin on the deck.

In May, I…

planted strawberries,

and planted tomatoes.

In June, I…

said goodbye to pre-school after two kids and four years,

played laser tag,

and cheered on Field Day.

In July, I…

got dirty,

toured the sand dunes,

saw the tip of the Cape,

got some hibachi dinner,

had a heart attack as my 7-year-old went parasailing,

and paddled around in the canoe.

In August, I…

cheered as my son put his face in the water for the first time,

visited Fenway,

ate French bread,

harvested some tomatoes,

and took my girl to her first rock concert.

In September, I…

got some cool stuff in the mail,

waved goodbye,

braved a hurricane,

saw a football game,

and harvested some strawberries.

In October, I…

built a shower,

picked apples,

saw a Cuda,

and adopted a puppy.

In November, I…

pretty much spent every day obsessing over the puppy.

In December, I…

saw Santa,

saw jellies,

and visited a salt marsh.

All in all, 2010 was tremendously better than ’09. One constant is the gratitude I feel for my time on this planet. Every moment is precious. Here’s to 2011 and enjoying the privilege of living this wonderful life.

Advice for would-be pro bloggers

by admin on October 11, 2010

Prepare to work your ass off for a long, long time. Long time.

Paying attention now because someday I’ll be dead

by admin on September 27, 2010

I recently watched Flight From Death: The Quest for Immortality 1 and it has affected me. Specifically, the combination of the movie’s subject matter — my inevitable and ever-nearer demise — and Thích Nhất Hạnh‘s words allowed me to finally “get” something I’ve heard countless times: Enjoy every moment as if it were your last. A cliche line we’ve all been fed, in most cases dismissively. “Yeah, yeah.” I’d think. “That’s new age-y nonsense.”

No, it’s not.

Thích Nhất Hạnh:

“We can smile, breathe, walk, and eat our meals in a way that allows us to be in touch with the abundance of happiness that is available. We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living. We know how to sacrifice ten years for a diploma, and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on. But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive. Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity. We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment.”


“Be Yourself. Life is precious as it is. All the elements for your happiness are already here. There is no need to run, strive, search, or struggle. Just Be.”

Only when we’re fully aware of a moment can we be truly happy. Someday I will not be able to smell the needles on the pine tree in my yard. Perhaps I’ll be incapacitated, or maybe the tree will be gone. Perhaps I’ll live elsewhere. Definitely I’ll be dead. But today — right now — I’m holding fresh pine needles and lifting them to my nose. This tree and I exist in this very same day, time, hour, minute and moment. How lucky for us both. I can see how tall it is, feel its bark, enjoy its scent. How tremendously fortunate I am to have this time.

Ah, time. That’s the sticking point, isn’t it? Most of us don’t time to flit about sniffing trees. “I barely have a minute to myself,” you might say. I’ve said it hundreds of times. “How am I supposed to go about experiencing pine needles?”

The answer is this: It’s all your time. Every second of every day. Right now, I get to sit in front of my computer and type. Later I get to drive around in my car. After that I get to prepare dinner for my family, cajole my kids through their bedtime routine and finally make lunches, sort laundry and so on for tomorrow.

When I see that it’s all my time, even the moments that I dedicate to the service of others, I again realize how amazingly fortunate I am. Sure, it would be nice to eat a Nutella-and-banana crepe in Paris’ Latin Quarter this evening; certainly nicer than folding laundry. But the fact that I get to stand in my home, fold those clothes, think about the people who made them (who are also still alive and sharing this moment with me), and those who will wear them is a phenomenal miracle. Someday — maybe very soon — I will be unable to fold clothes. Not “might.” “Will.” But today I can.

And that’s pretty damn awesome.

  1. Currently available via Netflix streaming. Check it out.

Writing assignment – Your father’s music

by admin on September 18, 2010

Inspired by Patrick Rhone.

“David, we’re late,” my mother says, stuffing me into cold weather clothes. Before I can reply she’s whirling around the kitchen grabbing lunchboxes, backpacks and her own coat and hat with the dexterity of a quick-change artist. She opens the door and the cold air hits us like a board.

“Into the Embarras-mobile,” she says. “Go.”

The Embarras-mobile was an ocean blue Ford Galaxy 500 with no hubcaps, fist-sized rust holes and discolored patches of unsanded Bond-O. It was huge — with a hood like a helipad and bench seats half a mile long.

I climb in. The windshield is covered by a thin sheet of ice. My mother cranks the defroster and peers through a shoebox-sized hole in the frost.

She clicks the radio on. “Another Saturday Night” by Sam Cooke floats through the speakers. “Ugh,” she says. “Your father’s music.” She shifts it into drive and hits the gas.

My father listened to the “oldies” station with a smile on his face. “Someday,” he’d tell us, “I’ll take the car to the car wash, drive through the spray and the brushes and when I come out on the other side … it’ll be 1963.”

“That’s an odd wish,” I’d say, but he wouldn’t answer. He was far away, lost in blissful memory.

My mother turns the corner and the icy windshield suddenly shimmers with sunlight. “I can’t see,” she says.

I roll down my window and stick my head outside. “Don’t worry, mom,” I say. “I can see. Keep going.”

“Are you sure?” she says, hitting the brake.

“Yeah,” I say. The frigid air makes my eyes water. “Just keep going straight ahead.”

The collision throws me hard against my seat belt. We hit a parked pickup truck.

I thought you could see?” my mother says.

“I thought I could, too,” I say. Now the radio was playing “Put Your Head On My Shoulder,” and I was wishing for a magical car wash.

* * *

Last week, my wife and I took the kids to the playground. After three days of bickering in the house, we needed to get out.

We pulled out of the driveway and my wife turned on the radio. A Van Halen song blasted from the speakers.

“Jeeze, hon!” she shouted, turning the volume down. “Don’t leave it on like that.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“What was that?” Gracie asked from the back seat.

“Your father’s music,” My wife said.

“Someday Grace,” I told her, “I’ll go to the car wash ….”

My vinyl

by admin on August 13, 2010

A brief exchange with my friend Lisa Johnson on Twitter got me thinking about my record library. It’s not a big collection, but I’m proud of it and I feel I’ve got some gems. What’s the use in keeping it to myself? Here’s my collection of wax. Nearly all were purchased in Boston between 1989 and 1992 1.

Peter Gabriel – Music from the Film Birdy This was Gabriel’s first soundtrack, and as such the predecessor to the Passion soundtrack. It’s atmospheric but contains more typically western melodies and song structure than Passion. It’s something I must be in the mood for.

The Cure – Fascination Street 12″ Contains a nice remix of Fascination Street plus Babble and Out Of Mind, both of which are exclusive to this record.

The Cure – The Walk six cut LP I love this song and the cover art. The record is a great little collection of Cure tracks: The Upstairs Room, Just One Kiss, The Dream, The Walk, La Ment and Let’s Go To Bed.

Lard – The Last  Temptation of Reid There was a time when Al Jourgensen (billed as “Alien Jourgensen” on this record) was way out of control with the side projects. Lard was one of my favorites. With Al, Paul Barker, Jeff Ward and Jello Biafra on vocals, how could you go wrong? I love that if you look at the cover art very closely, you’ll see “OPEN WIDE” in the crane’s jaws.

Ministry – With Sympathy You might think that A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste represents Ministry’s “dark days,” but you’re wrong, my friend. Before Ministry went industrial, they were a Depeche Mode-esqe new wave pop duo. Oh, Al. Such dark days. “Work For Love” is catchy none the less.

Ministry – For Love 12″ I told you “For Love” was catchy! I went out and bought the 12″. Contains two remixes.

Ministry – Everyday (Is Halloween) 12“. Contains two tracks: Everyday (Is Halloween) and All Day. I bought it for the former.

Ministry – I Wanted To Tell Her 12″. Another gem from pre-industrial Ministry. Check out that picture of Al. Oh, my.

Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska In my top two Springsteen albums (The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle sits at number one). Bruce recorded this himself on a four-track, and listening to it on vinyl does it justice. A truly stellar album.

New Order – Bizarre Love Triangle 12″. Two remixes of a killer song.

Nine Inch Nails: Happiness in Slavery advance copy – I begged this off of a DJ in Boston. It wasn’t easy, but it worked. Contains 4 remixes of Happiness. I love this one.

Nitzer Ebb  - I Give To You 12″ I got this one in Philadelphia. After waiting for what seemed like an age for a new Nitzer Ebb album, this track offered a look into what that new album would be.

Nitzer Ebb – Isn’t It Funny How Your Body Works 12″ Super remixes of Isn’t It Funny. I can remember listening to this on my Walkman at 2AM while walking home from Cambridge. Ah, memories.

Nitzer Ebb: Warsaw Ghetto 12″ Here’s one of my absolute favorites. It contains just two epic remixes: Warsaw Ghetto and So Bright So Strong. Just as great as the music is the packaging. Check out the statement on the back as well as the detail on the sleeve (all pictured below). You don’t get that with iTunes LP, folks. Yes, it’s neat to look at pretty pictures in HD with your Apple TV, but that experience does not compare to holding this stuff in your hands, smelling the aging paper and looking at the printed sleeves. Take that, technology.

Various artists: Party Party motion picture soundtrack – Go ahead, laugh. I’ve never seen this stupid movie and I bought the record for Sting’s cover of Need Your Love So Bad. It was worth it.

Prefab Sprout – From Langley Park to Memphis Whatever happend to this band? I got this album and then they seemed to disappear. It’s one of my favorites. The Golden Calf and The Venus of the Soup Kitchen are not to be missed.

Prince – Purple Rain ‘Nuff said.

Squeeze – Singles 12 killer tracks from a great band.

Meat Beat Manifesto – Storm the Studio Another great album with killer art (pictures follow). Also, notice the super-cool Wax Trax mail order catalog that was included. Remember mail order? Remember Wax Trax? I love this record.

Yes, that’s Boston’s John Hancock building.

And that’s my collection of wax. What have you got?

  1. I must apologize for the shitty white balance on all of these photos. Damn CF lightbulbs. I hate them.

Negative reinforcement is not punishment [Updated]

by admin on August 3, 2010

Update: Incredibly, the day after I published this post, Dr. Lovaas died. I devoted a large part of my professional life to his teachings and came away a better person for it. I met Dr. Lovaas once and found him to be affable, approachable and an effective public speaker. RIP, doctor. You were brilliant.

This post is going to be a little “Inside Baseball,” so bear with me. Time and again I hear people, mostly parents, use “negative reinforcement” and “punishment” synonymously. I hold my tongue. I sit idly by.

I can’t anymore.

They are not the same. At long last, here is the difference between positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and punishment.

Prior to my life as a professional nerd, I was a special ed. teacher. I spent over 10 years in a classroom of kids with autism and other developmental delays. I also have a scar on my right shin that will bear witness to those days. My classroom was a part of a residential school that implemented the Lovaas Method of Applied Behavior Analysis. Ole Ivar Lovaas and B.F. Skinner were our Steve Jobs and Jonny Ive. I even met Dr. Lovaas once. Shook his hand. Yeah, it was cool.

During my tenure as a teacher and ill-fated stint as a graduate student (dropped out 9 credits short of my M.Ed. in Intensive Special Needs. My parents are proud), I learned a thing or two about Behaviorism. Its most basic tenet is the concept of positive reinforcement.

Positive Reinforcement

What is positive reinforcement? If someone put this question to you, how would you answer? You might say an edible treat, or maybe a paycheck. Perhaps public, social praise (“Good job with the new TPS reports”) or nookie from your spouse. All of these can be examples of reinforcers if they meet the criteria of the actual definition:

Positive reinforcement is anything that increases the likelihood that a behavior will be preformed in the future.

In other words, you perform a behavior and are immediately given access to something desirable as a consequence. Making the connection between the two, you’re likely to perform that behavior again in hopes of receiving that same special something.

Here are a few concrete examples. First, a Seaworld employee wants to train a seal to “shake hands” with its flipper. The trainer knows that the seal loves to eat smelts. 1 During training, the seal is given a smelt whenever it extends its flipper to shake the trainer’s hand. Eventually it figures out what’s going on and will whip out that flipper to receive a smelt all on its own.

Of course, the technique isn’t limited to marine life. Many of us work 40 hours a week to receive a paycheck. My kids make their beds and I kiss them and tell them what a great job they’ve done. They enjoy the praise and affection from dad, so they’re likely to clean up again to get more kissie face.

Negative Reinforcement

Here’s where we get into trouble. Many believe that negative reinforcement, being “negative,” must be the opposite of its counterpart, positive reinforcement. And what’s the opposite of receiving something good? Why, receiving someting bad, right?


Here’s the definition of negative reinforcement:

Negative reinforcement is the removal of an aversive stimulus.

In other words, you perform a behavior and consequently, something in the environment that you just can’t stand is taken away.

Here’s a concrete example. Imagine a young mom in a grocery store with a 2-year-old. It’s past lunch time, and Jr. is a little cranky. At the checkout line, he notices the rack of candy that’s conveniently placed at toddler eye-level 2. He asks mom for a candy bar.

She says no. He asks again. She refuses again. Jr. starts to whine, then squirm, then shout and finally noisily demand a candy bar. He’s wailing, red-faced, and the other shoppers have turned around to look. Finally, the mother breaks down and gives it to him. Jr. shuts up. He’s quiet.

In this scenario, mom is negatively reinforced by the presentation of the candy bar because it made the aversive stimulus — Jr.’s noisy, embarrassing fit — stop 3.

Here’s another example. Let’s say there’s a man who owns a real jalopy of  a car. One day he notices  a strange sound underneath the dashboard. He gives it a whack and the sound goes away. What do you think he’ll do the next time the sound returns? That’s right, he’ll give that dashboard a good, hard punch.


This one is easy.

Punishment is the application of an aversive stimulus.

For example, when you vandalize a car in Singapore, you get caned. Unfortunately, many people confuse punishment with negative reinforcement. But now you, dear reader, finally enlightened, will no longer make this error. If you stuck with this post all the way through, good job! Well done! Thank you! There’s your positive reinforcement for the day.

  1. I have no idea what seals love to eat. For all I know, I could have written “Big Macs” there. But I assume they like small fish, and smelt is the first one that came into my mind.
  2. Jerks
  3. If you want to get technical, and I know you do, both negative AND positive reinforcement take place in this scenario. While mom was negatively reinforced when Jr. shut his pie hole, Jr. was positively reinforced. Remember, you’re reinforcing the behavior that occurred immediately prior to the presentation of the reinforcer. In other words, Jr.’s tantrum behavior was reinforced with a candy bar. What will he do the next time he wants one in the store? Right. The lesson: Be mindful of what you’re doing, mom and dad!

A note to America’s cashiers

by admin on July 30, 2010

I interact with many of you daily. As I approach your workstation, purchases in hand, I’ve got to make a quick decision. It’s one that I’d rather avoid and, with your help, will disappear entirely.

Much like the driver approaching a stoplight, I must survey the obstacles before me. The driver must determine which vehicle will hit the gas the quickest once the light turns green, and who’s busy texting, daydreaming or filling out GED forms.

As I approach the row of cashiers, it’s imperative that I figure out who’s going to give me change the right way. Yes, there’s a right way and a wrong way. First, here’s a description of the latter.

If I pay you with cash, dear cashier, chances are good that I’ll receive both bills and coins in return. When you hand them to me, do not stack the coins on top of the bills like you’re David Blane. Why? Because I am not David Blane, and performing a street magic-worthy balancing act as I try to shuttle 2 dollars and 78 cents into my pocket while holding a bag of groceries is not my idea of a good time.

Instead, here’s what I’d like you to do. First, put the coins into my hand. Then, allow me the fraction of a second it takes to curl my third, fourth and fifth fingers around the coins before placing the bills between my extended index finger and thumb. I guarantee you the impatient-looking woman behind me who seems like she’ll fly into a violent rage if she can’t pay for her Redbook RIGHT NOW OH MY GOD RIGHT NOW will be fine.

Now, go off and tell your co-workers this is how it’s to be done. If you don’t, I’ll be forced to use those automated checkout robots, hastening the demise of your job.