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Senior Correspondent

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: to wit, 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 may 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. (The tale about lemming hordes committing mass suicide by running off cliffs is a myth.) That’s why the toddler and many a contemporary teen (as opposed the typical teen of 60-plus years ago) both boast that they will submit to no one’s authority. This is a self-destructive impulse because it is clearly 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 also the most obedient children, and that obedient children tend to have parents who score high on measures of authority. In other words, parents who are most comfortable with the responsibility of providing authority to children tend to raise the happiest kids. These are parents who go about the discipline of their children without great fanfare. Yelling, threatening, inconsistency—those are the hallmarks of parents who do not have a firm grip on their authority, who do not therefore know how to convey it in a calmly compelling way.

The more clear a parent is concerning his/her expectations, the more likely it is the child will obey. Say what you mean and mean what you say, and communicate your expectations in the least number of words. The more words you employ, the more it appears that you are pleading as opposed to directing. And while “Because I said so” is sometimes a legitimate response to a child’s demand to know why your expectations, limits, and prohibitions are what they are, it is also necessary that a child eventually come to understand the moral principles behind your decisions. That “moral compass” endows your decisions with a coherence and consistency that would otherwise be absent.

There is nothing more exasperating to a child than a parent who zigs and zags all over the parenting playing field, whose decisions can’t be predicted because they rest on no solid foundation. The term “behavior modification” has been a distraction because it implies that the discipline of a child is all about proper behavior. In fact, the discipline of a child is all about shaping his or her character. Proper behavior will follow of its own accord.

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