A Quarter a Poop and a Penny a Pee

One of the first questions I’m asked when I demonstrate clicker training with horses is, “How long to you keep using food as a motivator to teach a behavior? Forever? Or how do you stop?”

To explain this, I have a story. When my son was two, he was resistant to potty training. He was a bright kid who couldn’t be bothered to stop what he was doing to use the bathroom. Diapers were fine with him.

Like most little boys, he liked toys with wheels, particularly Matchbox model cars. One day I found out he both knew where the cars were in the toy store and how much they cost which, at the time, was 75 cents sticker with 3 cents sales tax. He didn’t actually know the price, but his father had given him three quarters and three pennies to buy a car, so he knew that’s what he needed.

It dawned on me that if the kid knew the difference between a penny and a quarter, he was certainly old enough to be potty trained.

So I asked my son if he wanted to play a game. I told him the game’s rules were: if he peed in the potty, he could take a penny from my jar. And if he pooped in the potty, he could take a quarter. When he got three quarters and three pennies, we would go to the toy store and he could buy a car.

By the time my son was the proud owner of three Matchbox cars, he was potty trained.

When you train a horse using food as a motivator, you don’t need to keep giving treats for the behavior once you’ve reliably put it on cue.

My son is 25 now.

Do you think I still give him a quarter a poop and a penny a pee?

Everyone who hears this story asks, “So how long DID you give your son money for potty training?” — Geesh! As I remember it, he lost interest in the game by the fourth day. He kept using the potty, though, because it had become self-rewarding to wear dry pants–and be a BIG boy. All he had needed was a little motivation to put the process on cue. Then his motivation changed and we graduated on to other lessons.

By the way, when raising my son, I didn’t tie his chores or his grades to getting an allowance. But I always tried to give him positive reinforcement for work effort. Saying “I’m proud of you because I see you worked really hard on this” was sometimes his best reward, but now and then going to a movie or the park or getting enough money to buy something was also a treat. (Because Variable Rate Reinforcers are far stronger than a Fixed Reinforcement Schedule.)

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