Archive for June 17th, 2012
Behavior modification, traditionally defined as altering human behavior through operant reward and punishment, works well in many Instances. Yet it can work even better when, in the broader sense of the phrase ‘behavior modification’, we let the real world modify our children’s behavior by not standing in the way of their experiences. This approach is particularly important with teenagers, who will soon transition to independent lives as adults. It also works very well with younger children, who, once they learn the pattern of natural consequences, adapt to its logic with less resistance than they might to rewards and punishment created by parents and teachers.
Our children experience natural consequences every day. Most of the daily incidences they discover are minor, and may seem insignificant or even amusing to adults. “Fire ants bite,” said my sitter to me one day when I was three years old. I put my finger down on top of an ant hill to test her statement, and got bitten for my curiosity. I learned a lesson which I have remembered always: do not put your finger near fire ants. But I began to learn an important second lesson as well: it may be a good idea to listen to someone with more experience. If she had never let me have my own experience, however (in non-life or limb-threatening experiments), it might have taken me a long time to learn to listen to people with more experience. Sometimes, mistakes lead to greater wisdom.
Most children by age six or seven can respond to the concrete logic inherent in life situations. By the time they are eleven or twelve, they can use abstract logic to formulate and understand abstract principles as well. As they make these discoveries, they are alert, interested, even excited to find out how the world really works. At the same time, as intelligent beings, they are aware of the sequences of cause and effect when they can see them. They are most often more naturally inclined to behave in accordance with the laws of nature and social reality, which have natural consequences like ant bites, than with laws of parents, which may seem, and in fact may be, much more arbitrary and changeable.
If you passed away tomorrow, would your child know how to behave and survive in the world? Probably not. Would your child understand how to discover and reason about the natural consequences for different behaviors with a logical approach? We would certainly feel better knowing that our children were equipped with an approach that enabled them to have a good chance of figuring out their best chance of successful behavior in any situation they might land in, especially if we were not there to guide them ourselves.
So why not start equipping them right now? Why wait until they are eighteen and going off to college, or sixteen, and experiencing the power of the legal system for the first time when they get pulled over for drinking and driving? Instead of creating artificial behavior modification systems – more work for us, less sense for them, and not a very logical preparation for the real world, unless they will always have a trainer – why not let nature and society exhibit their reality to our children in an uninterrupted flow where they can easily link cause and effect in a logical chain of events? Natural consequences flip behavior modification inside out, or rather, outside-in, because it lets the natural world and social reality of the community become the teacher and enforcer of consequences. We take ourselves, as parents, out of the “bad guy” role of enforcing arbitrarily chosen rewards and punishments, and instead take our natural role as compassionate mediator between our children and the world they will grow up to face on their own. As compassionate mediators, we empathize with their feelings, share with them the tools and logical skills necessary to communicate successfully with the world, and protect them from serious harm and danger, but we do not separate them from reality.
Each family must come up with their own system of interpreting the natural consequences of different behaviors, fine-tuned for their own family and situation. Yet the general principles are simple and universal.
A) Respond first to the child or teen’s distress by empathizing with his or her emotions, without excusing the behavior or any problems it has caused.
B) Examine the behavior that caused the problems. Ask what the natural consequence of this behavior would be if the parents were not present to fix the situation or rescue the child.
C) Ask the child or teen (or in some Instances explain to the child) what the outcome of their behavior would naturally be in this Instance, and what actions should be taken to return the situation to a harmonious state, or previous condition.
D) Make minor modifications to the actions necessary to adapt them to the child or teen’s age and ability.
E) Let the child carry the actions through to resolution of the problems his or her behavior caused.
A few specific, actual examples of ways to carry through natural consequences with different ages follow.
Jeremy, aged four, got hold of a permanent black marker, and scribbled on all four walls of his room just before his parents were going to rent the house to tenants. His mother sat down with him, and said, with compassion, “You must be feeling angry that someone else will have your room for awhile.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, and hugged him, and held him for a few minutes. “Now what are we going to do about the walls?”
“Paint them?” Jeremy suggested.
“Right! Since you marked the walls, you should be the one to paint them,” his mother continued. “It is a big job and you will need a lot of help from me. While we are painting them, even if I am painting parts that you cannot reach, I’d like you to sit in the room and help by keeping me company.”
It was a very long day for a four year old, sitting in an empty room while his mother painted, but he saw the logic and understood the naturalness of the consequence. He never marked up walls again.
Samantha, at age thirteen, hated to do her laundry. But her mother and father both worked, and the family had agreed in a family meeting that since all the teenagers at home were competent, capable people, all individuals should do their own laundry. For several weeks Samantha did not do her laundry. It lay in piles on her floor, and her room began to smell stale. Contrary to her secret hope, Samantha was not able to get her mother to do her laundry for her.
One day Samantha came down to breakfast in tears. “I can’t find anything to wear!”
“Why is that?” asked her father, calmly.
“It’s all dirty and all over the place!”
“Oh, that’s too bad!” said her father sympathetically.
“I don’t want to wear dirty clothes to school. Don’t you have anything I can wear, Mom?”
“No,” said her mother. “I see you are upset because you don’t want to wear dirty clothes. Maybe you think the other kids would notice, and it wouldn’t be cool?”
“It wouldn’t be cool at all!” Samantha stomped her foot.
“Do you need some help making a schedule so that you will be sure to keep your clothes washed and put away?” asked her mother calmly.
Samantha calmed down. She saw she was not going to get her parents to change their behavior through her histrionics. Instead she needed to change her own behavior. Her mother had offered to help. After a moment she rubbed her tears away, and said in a calmer voice, “Yes, mom, thanks, I’d like some help.”
She found some clothes that were a little less dirty to wear to school that day, and vowed never again to run out of clean clothes.
In a more serious incident, Martin, aged sixteen, got drunk with some friends in the wintertime, and passed out near a store. A couple found him and took him to the emergency room. His parents were very upset and worried but tried to show their compassion first for his situation. “It concerns us that your friends left you. We are so glad you are safe now. We were really worried about you – and hope you feel okay now.”
“Don’t blame my friends,” said Martin. “They weren’t in much better shape than me.”
Since it was the first incident like this that Martin had been involved in, the police did not issue any citation, though they contacted the families of the other boys to make sure they had gotten home safe.
“Are you going to ground me forever?” Martin asked his parents.
“No,” said his father, “but putting yourself in that much danger shows us that you are not ready to go out with your friends unsupervised. One of the consequences of your behavior will be a large hospital bill. Your mother and I didn’t incur the bill; your behavior brought it about. You will need to pay the bill for the full amount after insurance pays its part. Your paying it off in full will signal to us that you are probably responsible enough to go out with your friends again without supervision.”
It may seem harsh to some parents that a sixteen year old would have to pay a large hospital bill himself, yet the bill was the natural consequence of his behavior. Letting him pay the bill also helped the parents to stay calm because they had no reason to be angry about it, since they were not paying it. If his parents had somehow protected him from that consequence, they would have been giving him a false impression of reality and interfering with his preparation to be an independent adult. Paying the bill would take more than forty hours of work in his summer job, four months later; he would think much more seriously about drinking to excess in the future, and would not have the opportunity while he and his friends were under parent supervision in the interim period. And he could not argue with the logic of the consequence, nor blame his parents for being unjust.
Natural consequences mediated by compassionate parents who show their child or teenager how to work out problems logically turn behavior modification outside-in. They give the child or young adult the tools to modify his or her own behavior. These tools may be summarized very simply:
A) Assess your situation.
B) Learn all you can about the natural consequences of your potential actions in the situation.
C) Use logical thinking skills to make choices which are good for you, and good for others, too.
The parents’ job is to stay calm, interpret emotional reactions with compassionate logic, help their child figure out how to remedy the situation, and stay out of the way (unless they must intervene to protect their child from real harm), letting natural consequences run their course.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )