Sunday, December 28, 2008

American parents believe in behavior modification. They believe the same principles that govern the behavior of a rat or a dog also govern the behavior of a human being.

Therefore, they think the discipline of a child is a matter of manipulating reward and punishment. Furthermore, they think if one manipulates reward and punishment properly, the correct behavior will ensue. If it does not, they reason they must not have used the proper consequences.

The problem with this reasoning is behavior modification does not work on human beings. If it did, no one would go to prison more than once, and no prison sentence would need to last longer than a few months. One can use a right consequence on a human being and the wrong behavior may still persist. Witness the many parents who have told me over the years that their children seem impervious to any and all consequences.

“I’ve tried everything!” they say. I believe them. A mother recently told me that her 12-year-old is persistently irresponsible concerning his schoolwork. She and her husband took away all of his privileges and moved his bedtime back two hours, weekends included. Except for school, church and accompanying the family on outings, he has not been out of his room in two months. Because he loves nothing more than being outside with his friends, they figured grounding him would provide sufficient motivation.

Yet, he is unrepentant. Mind you, all the parents are asking is that he properly execute his classwork and homework. Up until this year, he has had no school problems, so they know they are not expecting anything unreasonable.

Removing his privileges, however, resulted in no improvement. They have run out of things to take away from him, and ask what they should do now. I told them to continue his restriction.

“But it’s not working,” his mother pointed out.

The likelihood is, no consequence will. This child will rehabilitate himself when he is ready, not before. Consequences compel rats and dogs to do what their handlers want them to do. Consequences do not compel human beings. Human beings change their behavior when they choose. Furthermore, the “you can’t tell me what to do” impulse, absent in animals, is powerful in human beings and often overrides rational thought.

The job of parents is not to get a child to obey. It simply is to teach the child that responsible behavior results in one sort of consequence while irresponsible behavior results in quite another. Some kids get it quickly while others stubbornly refuse to accept this fundamental reality. Some kids respond to low-level consequences, while some refuse to change their ways even in the face of what a colleague has called “the nuclear option.”

So, a parenting principle: When a child keeps on doing the wrong thing even when his parents do a right thing, the parents simply should shrug their shoulders and keep doing the right thing.

Stay the course, keep the faith, never surrender, never give up. While you’re at it, try praying.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (

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