Beyond Discipline: A Deeper Look at Behavior

Teaching children how to behave is, of course, an age old topic for parents. Discipline, in the current most popular form, of punishment and reward is the result of the work of B.F. Skinner.  Skinner believed everything we do is a simple reaction to our environment. He spent the majority of his career trying to prove this by teaching animals (mostly rats and pigeons) to do odd tasks they would never do in the wild.

Skinner’s work was adapted to humans with mixed results. People would change for short periods of time. After that period, some people would completely conform based on the reward, others would rebel. No parent wants a child that rebels. Nor do they want a child that conforms to everything his peer group is doing.

Skinner’s behavior modification focuses on the behaviors we see; throwing, hitting, having fits, difficulty sharing, etc. These actions are only one piece of behavior. The biggest problem with rewards and punishments is the lack of learning required to earn a reward or avoid punishment. 

For example, Molly, an active and smart two year old, quickly memorized the names of the number symbols (1, 2, 3, etc) because she was rewarded for every right answer. Molly gave us the behavior we wanted. When Molly was asked how many 3 was, she could not answer. Molly was rewarded because it looked as if she knew her numbers, but she did not understand the concept of quantity or amount represented by the symbol. So she could not use the numbers in a meaningful way. 

The same happens when children are learning social behavior. John doesn’t hit his brother, because if he does, his mother sends him to his room. But at the park John hits the child who takes his toy. Why? Because he does not understand why hitting is wrong and so cannot use the concept in a meaningful way across many situations.

Looking Deeper

Most of us believe we are more than what we do. We see ourselves as thinking, internally motivated beings. When we only respond to how our children behave we limit the help we can give them. If a child misbehaves and you only see the bad behavior, all you can do is punish. But if a child misbehaves and you see the thinking and motivation behind the behavior, you have found an opportunity to teach. 

Looking past the behaviors to the thinking requires a parent to become a detective. You must investigate the situation and observe your child to find your child’s gap in understanding. Then, you must fill the gap with information and skills.

For example, Sarah a three year old plays at the park in the sand box, filling a bucket with sand. Jim, another three year old, comes over to where Sarah is playing and dumps the sand out of the bucket and walks off with the bucket. Sarah follows Jim and hits him. Jim cries and Sarah takes the bucket back.

Both children acted incorrectly, but the reason they acted was understandable. Jim wanted a bucket to play with. He saw one in the sand box and went and got it. Chances are he was not aware Sarah was using the bucket. Sarah wanted her bucket back so she went and got it.

Focusing on the behavior leads a parent to tell the child they were wrong and should not hit or take things from others. Yet, when Jim and Sarah find themselves in a similar situation, they will most likely act the same way.

If we look to the thinking and motivation we can help Sarah and Jim do it better next time. Jim needs help looking at those around him and learning to ask before taking. Sarah needs help with talking to her playmates and asking for help from an adult. Both children need to be told why what they did was wrong, but more importantly they need to be told what the right way to act is.

An Attitude of Confidence

The key to parents becoming good detectives is having complete confidence your child would do it right if they knew how to do it right.  Your belief in your child changes the way you react to your child’s behavior. Your reaction, in turn, affects how your child feels about himself.

One area parents have high confidence in their child’s ability, is learning how to walk. All children must learn how to walk one step at a time. In the beginning, children fall or mess up much more often than they stay up on two feet. For every wobbly step parents are overjoyed and the mistakes are quickly forgotten. Parents often report, “My child took two steps today.” And everyone cheers.

Imagine a parent saying, “My son fell over 12 times today. I don’t think he will ever walk.” Yet, this is what so many parents do when a child is learning the very complex skills of social etiquette. Young children are just beginning to practice and test their skills of interacting with others. Parents must expect more mess ups or falls with children. As with walking, those falls should be dismissed because you know, without a doubt, your child is learning and gaining better social balance with every encounter.

The heart of a discipline issue or problem has little to do with the child. It has more to do with the parent or supervising adult’s lack of understanding of the child and the child’s needs. Parents must make it their priority to see beyond the surface of the situation and find the opportunities to teach. Teach with confidence, knowing with more information and practice your child will treat others, the environment, and herself in the socially acceptable way.