'Behavior Modification' Doesn't Guarantee Child Will Learn Discipline

Article excerpt

Once upon a time, I thought, as did and still do, many, if not most, people in my profession, that behavior modification was going to make the discipline of a child as simple and straightforward as teaching a rat to run a maze.

I should have known better. As a graduate student in psychology, I had trained a rat to run a maze. Indeed, it was simple. At the same time, I was struggling to discipline our first child, then a toddler. That wasn't simple at all. Ignoring his misbehavior didn't work. Neither did punishing him; nor did rewarding him when he behaved properly. In fact, the more I tried to discipline him using behavior modification-based methods, the worse his behavior became.

I realized, belatedly, that he was trying to tell me something: The principles that govern the behavior of a rat do not govern the behavior of a human being. A rat is subject to the force of reward and punishment. A human is not. Reward a child for obedience, and he is likely to turn right around and disobey the first chance he gets. Punish a child for misbehaving, and the misbehavior might get worse.

This is not because the child carries a gene that makes him impervious to "normal forms of discipline." It is because, of all the species on the planet, only human beings are capable of acting deliberately contrary to their best interests, even when they know where their best interests lie.

That's why the toddler and many a contemporary teen both boast that they will submit to no one's authority. This is a self- destructive impulse, because it clearly is in the best interest of a child to submit to legitimate adult authority, beginning with his parents' authority. The research finds that the happiest children are the most obedient children, and that obedient children tend to have parents who score high on measures of authority. …