It’s Marble Season at Child Study Center

May 19, 1963

by Register-Guard Staff

Contrary to a common American opinion, mothers are no more effective in training their children than fathers, providing both parents spend approximately the same amount of time with their children.

This is one of the findings of Gerald R. Patterson, associate professor of psychology at University of Oregon, who has been studying the relationship of the reinforcement theory to the socialization of the child for the past four years at the university’s Child Study Center.

A renewal of the supporting grant, in the amount of $24,610, has been received recently from the National Institute of Mental Health of the U.S. Public Health Service, and it is anticipated that the study will continue for several years.

Richard A. Littman, professor of psychology and newly appointed head of the department, is a consultant and co-investigator on the project, which is absorbing the attention of about eight graduate students.

The researchers are tying to pinpoint through a series of controlled experiments the kind of home atmosphere, parental discipline, and overall environment that produce the child who is responsive to social learning.

“This is highly important,” Patterson emphasized, “because our studies have shown that the child who is not responsive to his parents is viewed by his teachers and others around him as poorly adjusted.”

In a group of tests, many of which are conducted in an unusual mobile laboratory trailer taken directly to the children’s homes, boys and girls aged 5 to 9 were asked to perform the simple mechanical task of dropping marbles into two holes in a box, while one of their parents, on cue from the researcher, attempted to reinforce their actions by encouraging remarks.

The mothers were then interviewed concerning the home atmosphere, disciplinary techniques, and relationships within the family. Teachers were also asked to rate the children on a number of personality traits.

Among the preliminary findings which have emerged from the study:

Boys we did well on the test when reinforced by their fathers and girls who did well when reinforced by their mothers generally came from homes that were warm and permissive.
Boys effectively reinforced by their mothers and girls effectively reinforced by their fathers on the whole came from homes that were cool and restrictive.
“Perhaps to begin with we oversimplified the problem of the home climate, assuming that the democratic, permissive home would produce the child who was more responsible to social reinforcers,” Patterson said.

“This is not always so, however. It appears that either a warm, permissive home or a cool, restrictive home may, under certain circumstances, produce a well-adjusted child.

“In fact, research elsewhere has indicated that the permissive home seems to produce a greater number of aggressive children, who generally are less responsive to their parents. We are now trying to isolate some of the factors which cause this.”

Other results emerging from the marble-dropping test:

Children rated by their teachers as non-conforming and poorly adjusted did poorly on the test and did not appear to respond effectively to their parents.
Children who performed the test successfully and appeared to be responding to the parents’ encouraging remarks were generally evaluated by their teachers as happy, optimistic, not prone to anger, stable, intelligent, and not easily distracted.
The research involves a theory about the formation of personality which has been under intensive study in the U.S. only during the past ten years.

If the results continue to prove successful, “we and other researchers may be able within the next decade to give parents some specific help in raising their children,” Dr. Patterson said.

Already there are indications that the new theory may simplify the techniques used to treat some types of maladjusted children and reduce the therapy time and effort ten-fold, an important consideration in view of the shortage of trained therapists.

The theory, or Patterson prefers to call it, “a different way of looking at personality,” denies that personality arises solely from “the bubbling pot” of basic desires and drives within each person.

“We believe that personality is the product of a social learning process, involving interactions with others, which begins in childhood and continues throughout life,” Patterson explained.

“Perhaps not all personality, but an important part of what we think of as personality traits–aggressiveness, honesty, dependence, and so forth–is taught in the same way that arithmetic is taught, with the difference that the teacher and pupil are not aware that the process is going on.”

The process involves, according to Patterson, the reinforcement theory of learning in which actions and attitudes which are reinforced by the parents in the form of increased attention, love, praise, and rewards become established as part of the child’s personality.

“Children’s behavioral problems may not arise from too much or too little love on the parts of the parents, but what actions of the children that love reinforces,” Patterson said, in summarizing the theory.

In a simplified example, the mother who consistently shows extra love and attention to a child when he acts babyish is “teaching” the child that dependent, infantile behavior is rewarded and establishing these qualities in the child’s personality.

In the same way, the child’s playmates, teachers, and others with whom he comes in contact may mold him, and either socially desirable or undesirable traits may be instilled in the child through the process.

In therapy sessions now going on at the University of Psychology Clinic, psychologists are meeting success in altering some of these traits by eliciting a desired response from the child or waiting for one to occur, and then reinforcing it with praise, rewards, and encouragement.

At the same time, parents are being taught to follow this same pattern of encouragement at home. In some cases, effective results have been noted in a tenth of the time that would be expected with standard therapy.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright 1966, The Register-Guard,