Kids and Premack’s Principle

What is the Premack Principle, and Will It Work With Kids?

KidsReward-CreateHappyKidsToday I would like to offer just one helpful tool; it’s a powerful one based on a proven behavior modification technique. Behavior scientists, teachers, and parent trainers have used this method for years. I know many parents like you may have used this strategy in some form in the past. When used correctly, its magical powers create a child who would comply with your directions and reasonable commands. The principle on which the strategy is based is called Premack’s Principle.

Simply put, Premack’s Principle states that in order to do or receive a certain thing – something desired – people will do something less desirable.

For example, you may work an extra twenty hours at a job or task (which you may not enjoy very much), so you can enjoy a three-day weekend. This principle applies to almost anyone, even kids. Based on this principle, kids will do a less preferred task, such as cleaning up their rooms, in order to get to do a preferred behavior, such as outside playtime or watching a favorite television show.

The Premack Principle is very versatile…

Premack’s Principle applies to many animals besides humans, even to rats! Psychological studies show that you can get a rat to do a less preferred task, such as, pressing a bar instead of his preferred activity (running inside his wheel), by allowing him to run on his wheel only after he presses the bar. That rat can be trained to press the bar every time he wants to run his wheel.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that you should treat your kids like trained rats. I am suggesting, however, a very powerful tool based on the Premack’s Principle; it’s one of the most powerful sentences I have ever used to help parents.


Please note the sentence is concise, concrete and clear! No need to add extra words or embellishments. As a matter of fact, in my experience, the more you modify this magical sentence, the more words you add to it, the LESS power it has. Keep it short and sweet! I know you may have used a variation of this sentence before. Maybe your kid wanted to eat dessert and you insisted, “First, eat your carrots; then, you can have some ice cream.”

Simple and straight forward…

The key is to use the magical sentence in its pure form, occasionally, and correctly. For example, using it in it’s pure form, you would say, “First, finish your homework; then I’ll take you to the mall.” Before you speak this sentence, you much establish exactly what you want your kid to do, and more importantly, what the kid wants at the time (the incentive). The second part of the sentence always includes an incentive that can be used to motivate your child. This incentive may include a privilege your child wants to earn. To find what your kid wants to earn, just ask!

PrivilegeIncentive-CreateHappyKidsFor example, your son comes to you and says, “Mom, you said you’d take me shopping to pick out my new sneakers this weekend; well, it’s Saturday!” You have already reminded him several times to get off the couch and go do his homework. This moment is a great opportunity to us the “First/Then” sentence and completely avoid getting into a  power struggle and endless negotiations. You can make the sentence as detailed as possible; just remember to keep it short and clear. So, in this example you should say, in a positive, conversational tone: “Son,  first do two hours of homework, then I will take you shoe shopping before dinner.

Today, you have learned about this magical sentence based on the Premack’s Principle, in my next post I will talk about using it effectively so it will be an effective tool to motivate your kids.

Dr. Sherkat is a parent strategist who is available to do Parent Education Workshops, either Private or PTA Sponsored Classes.

Contact her at 425-772-6698.

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