- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2008

Today’s parents believe in psychology, a predominant paradigm of which is behavior modification. Therefore, today’s parents tend to believe that behavior, any behavior, can be modified by properly manipulating reward and punishment.

That was, in fact, the utopian view of B.F. Skinner, the author of modern behavioral psychology. Mr. Skinner did not put any stock in the notion of a unique, shared human nature. He reasoned that if there was nothing fixed in the makeup of the species, there was nothing fixed in the behavior of an individual of the species. Criminals were criminals only because the rewards and punishments in their lives had steered them blindly into criminal behavior. Likewise, different rewards and punishments could turn them into responsible, law-abiding citizens.

This came to mind recently as I was counseling the parents of a 12-year-old boy who was, by their description, unmotivated. He was capable of better grades, they said, but seemed content with mediocre work. Through the years, they had used every conceivable combination of rewards and punishments to light a fire under him, all to no avail. Almost as an afterthought, they told me he was kindhearted, respectful and well-mannered.

I doubted I could come up with a motivational strategy they had not tried already, I said. Could they accept that perhaps they were not the appointed agents of change concerning this issue — that their son would solve this problem when he decided to solve it and that he might not make that decision until much later in his life, if ever? Could they not be content with a child who was kind and respectful?

I pointed out that a truly successful life is built on good character, not good grades. The father wrote me back, saying he and his wife were so taken aback by my response that his wife had nearly gone into premature labor with their fifth child. He sounded serious, but perhaps this was tongue-in-cheek. I still don’t know.

Contented does not describe today’s parents. By and large, they seem determined to find things about their children that need to be changed. Indeed, some children have acquired problems that warrant such efforts, but it is the rare parent these days who is content with a child who is “good enough.” The child’s flaws — whether social, academic or personality — become the stuff of obsession. In order to confirm that his parents are doing a first-rate job, he needs to make good grades, make friends easily, be less temperamental/more demonstrative, be more conscientious/less the perfectionist, be more assertive/less assertive, more thoughtful/less introspective, and so on. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another.

“But we don’t want him to grow up like this,” object the parents of the not-good-enough child.

So what if he does? Besides, if he does not grow up with one flaw, he will grow up with another. It’s the law. Some flaws your parents can help you face and overcome while you are still a child, and some they cannot. Overcoming some flaws requires taking full responsibility for them and resolving to do whatever it takes — adult attributes, both.

However, as I suggested several paragraphs ago, I suspect there’s more to this than meets the casual eye. I suspect the not-good-enough child is regarded by many parents as evidence that they are not good enough, either, that in the court of public opinion, they will be judged guilty by a jury of their peers.

In 1936, Munro Leaf wrote “The Story of Ferdinand,” a timeless children’s story about a young Spanish bull who prefers to sit and smell flowers rather than participate in the aggressive play of his peers. Nonetheless, in a case of mistaken identity, he is recruited to the bullfights. When he makes his much-anticipated debut, he is overcome by the smell of the flowers being worn by the women in the crowd, and no amount of goading will provoke him to fight. The book ends with Ferdinand back in his childhood field, smelling the flowers.

In the estimation of the bullfight promoters, Ferdinand wasn’t good enough. He didn’t make the grade. In the end, however, he lived a long and happy life.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).

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