A recent column in which I said that behavior modification does not work on human beings stirred things up a bit. Not surprising, given that today’s parents think discipline is a simple matter of dispensing proper rewards and punishments. They can be forgiven for not knowing that this mistaken notion is only about 50 years old, prior to which people understood that while children should be taught that certain consequences follow certain behaviors, their discipline was not properly accomplished in that fashion, but rather through proper adult leadership.
Today’s parents, for the most part, have substituted relationship for leadership, not realizing that a high level of parent-child involvement invites disciplinary difficulties. Further compounding the problem is that when it comes to discipline, they rely on a psychological paradigm that has no proven effectiveness with human beings outside of closely controlled institutional settings.
That contention rankled quite a few readers. Kevin rightly accused me of suggesting that "the only branch of the psychology field that utilizes the scientific method should be thrown out the window," thus reverting psychology to the status of mere philosophy. But behavior modification is first and foremost a philosophy. It proposes that human beings lack free will. There is no scientific basis for that belief; therefore, it is philosophical. Besides, the scientific method cannot be used with any reliability on human beings.
Kevin contends that the reason behavior modification fails with children is parents do not use it correctly — a convenient explanation. I contend that behavior modification fails with children because human beings possess free will, and I am convinced that the preponderance of evidence is on my side. Human behavior is influenced, but not determined, by consequences. A dog cannot deny that a consequence has any relevance to its life. A human being can, which is why parents often report that both toddlers and teenagers are oblivious to being punished.
In that regard, Beth writes that "the child you wrote about could have been my son." In high school, said child was lazy, irresponsible and unresponsive to any attempts on his parents’ part to "modify" his behavior. In college, this same son became a star student and is now in graduate school studying chemistry with plans to do research and teach at the university level. When his mom discussed my column with him, he agreed with the advice I gave: Parents should punish for irresponsible behavior even if it doesn’t make an immediate difference. In the final analysis, a child’s self-defeating behavior will change not because of punishment, but when the child chooses, for whatever reason, to turn over a new leaf.
psychologist Rosemond answers questions on his Web site, www.rosemond.com.