Oh Behave!

Why is it that we have been able to view, with good resolution, a particle that is a quarter the size of a carbon atom but we can’t seem to figure out how to prevent a 3 year-old from repeatedly attempting to stick his finger in an outlet? How come we can build buildings so high that they seemingly defy the laws of physics and gravity but we can’t get a five year old to voluntarily bathe? Will somebody please explain how it is that we can create “food” items that have a shelf life of 300 years but we can’t get a teenager to stick to the “x texts per day” rule?

I have an answer to these questions. The reason that children’s behavior continues to baffle even the greatest of adult minds is simple; there is nothing more challenging than raising a child. How do you logically deal with a five year-old having a nuclear melt-down over the fact that his three year-old brother is playing with a toy that the five year-old hasn’t even looked at in two years? (Yes, this recently happened at home.)

A child’s behavior changes as frequently as politicians are caught in scandals. Children develop so quickly that their understanding of the world is constantly changing. Children are so greatly affected by the world around them that they can look nearly psychotic; going from glee-filled to a fit of rage faster than Mel Gibson can alienate entire groups of people.

One reason for this is that the part of the brain that inhibits impulses, especially those directed toward pleasure, is one of the last to develop. Children therefore must have adults act as their internal “inhibitor”. As children mature, they become better and better at this. They learn what is called “effortful control”; the ability to inhibit a dominant response to perform a subdominant response. In other words, it is the ability to close the facebook and open the homework book.

My philosophy on the best way to help a child from toddler to teenage change unwanted behavior or to encourage good behavior is through behavior reinforcement. Reinforcement is a behavior technique conceptualized by BF Skinner to increase a desired response. In contrast, another popular behavior technique is punishment, which is designed to decrease an undesired response or behavior.

I support reinforcement in most cases because I believe (naïve or not) that children are basically good and want to be good. Much of a young child’s behavior is erratic because his brain is not developed enough. The reinforcement model provides a focus on the positive, and tends to produce lasting behavior changes where the punishment model focuses on the negative and tends to provide only short-term changes. Punishment tends to make children feel humiliated, angry, and helpless. Granted there are instances when punishment may be necessary, mainly in cases where a behavior is dangerous and needs to stop immediately (such as taking a chain saw to the car). It may also be necessary to emphasize how seriously bad a behavior is (Hand in cookie jar, insisting, “I didn’t do it”.)

There are two general types of reinforcement. Positive reinforcement involves presenting a desired stimulus resulting in an increase in desired response: rewarding good behavior or decision making. Negative reinforcement is the removal of an unwanted stimulus to increase a desired response: removing the parental filter from the computer once the child has consistently followed the computer rules. These plans usually work unless the child does not care about the stimulus, if he has a cognitive or psychiatric problem that makes him unable to change a behavior, in cases of severe oppositional behavior or if the family dynamic is too dysfunctional.

The success of a reinforcement plan relies on consistency. If followed intermittently, it can tend to reinforce bad behavior. The plan must be well defined and understood. It should be realistic in that the parents can provide or remove the stimulus they establish. I like to call this plan “Behavior CPR” (consistency, predictability, and reproducibility).

I suppose that, no matter how advanced society becomes and no matter how cool we all think we are, behavior management in children will always be a challenge. There will always be a Dennis the Menace and Charlie Brown’s Lucy. The goal should not be for perfect behavior; that is impossible and will fail. There will be mistakes and frustrations and there will be moments of pure bedazzlement and confusion. Rest assured, however, that if you know and practice behavior CPR, you will be well prepared.

1 thoughts on “Oh Behave!

  1. Michael Farrimond says:

    Dr. Steve- Was the last time we talked when I moved to evergreen after 5th grade? Ha! Here we are again.
    I’ve been following your sight for a while – my 6 year old has always been more than 2 hands full. Might be time for a little professional advice.
    You’re the same Steve Sarche that went to Bradley, no? The ironies of life!

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