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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Improvement in behavior mainly a matter of choice

By John Rosemond

Last week's column left the reader in suspense. In keeping with my contrarian nature, I said that the proper discipline of a child is not accomplished by properly manipulating reward and punishment. It is not primarily a matter of applying right consequences by means of right methods. In short, behavior modification is not the answer to behavior problems.

It goes without saying that today's parents believe that what works with a dog or rat will also work with a human being, which is why they are having so many more problems with discipline than did parents 50 or more years ago. (To read last week's column, go to www.rosemond.com.)

"So consequences aren't important?" asks the skeptical reader.

Read me carefully. The discipline of a child is not primarily a matter of applying right consequences by means of right methods. Consequences are absolutely necessary, but they do not change human behavior.

If a dog does the wrong thing, the right consequence applied rightly will cause the dog to begin doing the right thing. Now, everyone reading this column should have enough experience to know that doesn't work so neatly with children. If a child does the wrong thing, and the adults in his or her life do the right thing, and do it as consistently as sunrise, the child may just keep doing the wrong thing.

"But children have been known to change their behavior in right directions, John," continues the skeptic. "What brought about the change?"

Well, you said it those very children themselves brought about the change. They chose to begin doing the right thing. You see, the only force that can change human behavior is choice, made by the human in question, child or adult.

From this perspective, consequences can promote right choices, but whereas the dog and the rat respond involuntarily to consequences, humans can consciously resist the power of consequences. Anyone who has lived with a toddler has borne witness to that or a teenager, for that matter. The toddler yells, "You're not the boss of me!"; the teenager yells, "I don't care what you do to me!"

"But you said consequences are necessary, John. Necessary for what?"

Where children are concerned, consequences are information-delivery mechanisms. Concerning a given behavior, either a consequence delivers the correct information, or not. For the information to be correct, the consequence must reflect how the Real World will respond to similar behavior from the child, when he is an adult. One can only hope that the child will use the information properly that it will persuade the child to make or continue to make right choices.

So, for example, a 7-year-old tells his parents, in the most belligerent tone imaginable, that he is not going to clean his room. Later that day, he discovers that he can't play with his friends or watch his favorite program. Furthermore, his parents send him to bed one hour early.

Those are good consequences, because in the Real World, when someone defies a legitimate authority figure an employer, for example things will happen that will ultimately result in a restriction of privilege.

But no matter how many privileges his parents confiscate, the child may just keep right on defying their authority. What should they do? They should hang in there. They should accept that their influence in his life is not absolute, that no matter how well they discipline, some other agent or agency may have to finish the job for them, if it is ever finished at all.

The bottom line: If you want easy, don't have children. Get a dog.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions at www.rosemond.com.