Observations Of Behavior Modification In Practice

The threat of punishment creates numerous developmental delays and no intimacy. It’s really hard to solve problems without intimacy.

Yesterday, my younger daughter was unwilling to go to school. I woke up my kids at 6:30. My wife Alice got them ready for school while I was writing yesterday’s article. We got to the bus stop early. One of my kids got on the bus, the other did not. One kid rode away on the bus, the other stayed home.

When we got home, Alice began to interrogate my younger daughter, Natalie. I interrogated Natalie, too, but there was one big difference between my wife and me. My wife believed that if she could instill enough fear into Natalie she would go to school. I disagreed with my wife and I said in so many words that Natalie cannot think when she’s in fear, so how could she respond? How could she decide to go to school in fear?

So my wife tells my daughter that she’s going to take everything that Natalie owns and throw it in the trash or give it away. Natalie will be left with nothing but a few clothes to wear and no toys. My wife also said that if Natalie stays home today, she stays home forever. My wife kept escalating the stakes in order to extract compliance from Natalie. I kept trying to de-escalate to get Natalie to calm down long enough to talk about the problem. What problem? I knew there was a problem to solve or she would have gone to school.

By this time, my wife was furious with me for not playing along with her, but I had no interest in scaring the bejesus out of my daughter. I figured that I would eventually interrogate her, kindly, gently, and firmly, to get down to the problem that Natalie was trying to solve.

I gave up on arguing with my wife about the best approach. I went downstairs to get ready for work. I was preparing to take Natalie to school myself if I had to. I invited Natalie to come with me to my office downstairs so that we could talk about what happened so far that day.

I booted my work computer. I got myself situated for work. Then I talked with my daughter. I told her that she could talk to me about anything. “I’m not here to punish you. I only want to help you solve your problem.” I assured her that she could say anything to me without fear of punishment. I told her that if she wanted a hug, she can have a hug. We hugged while she gathered herself.

In a few minutes of calm and deliberate interrogation, I learned that Natalie had lost a pair of scissors for school. I didn’t know if they were school scissors or scissors we bought for her, but I assured her that we can replace the scissors. I asked her, “If I told you that we can replace the scissors, would you go to school?” I got a nod. I asked her the same question in a few different ways to be sure I got a commitment from her.

Then I went upstairs to get something and I talked to my wife on the way. “Oh, by the way, I learned from Natalie that she wouldn’t go to school because she lost her scissors.” My wife immediately changed her tune with Natalie. Instead of being a belligerent Mommy, she became a compassionate Mommy. She became nice and understanding. And she was able to drive Natalie to school without complaint or protest after we figured out the true nature of Natalie’s problem.

I wanted to tell you this story so that you can see firsthand, how things can go from bad to worse with behavior modification. I want you to know that punishment (and reward) do not teach any skills. There was a time in my life when I would have been like my wife. But becoming a father after more than a decade of recovery work inspired me to do the research and see that the method I used, which is just collaborative problem solving, is at least as good or better than behavior modification, with about a quarter of the emotional drama.

By assuring my daughter that she could share the problem she was trying to solve with me, she was able to talk about it freely. I provided a non-confrontational, non-punitive opportunity for her to discuss the problem she was trying to solve. I made sure the opportunity cost was as close to zero as I could get it to be. I engaged in gentle interrogation with her to learn what it was that she thought was so big, that she could not go to school. For adults, this problem is easy to solve — buy another pair of scissors. This is not a solution that a 5-year old kid would consider.

Most young kids have no concept of money. They don’t even have a concept of replacement. And when they’re being told by a parent that things are “forever”, they believe that some changes are permanent. If you tell a young child that they’re either going to go to school or they will stay at home forever, they will believe you because they lack the experience and the capacity to judge a statement for its truth. Kids are built to accept suggestions so that they can learn new things more easily. Kids must assume that they don’t know very much or they wouldn’t bother.

My wife is from Vietnam, a country that still has a big problem with corporal punishment. My wife still had that problem when we got married, and had I done the research, I might have made a different choice. For better or worse, I love my wife. I think about how to be together, not being apart. So I’m here now, married with kids to a woman who is having a very difficult struggle with a foreign concept of how to raise kids.

From her perspective, she says, “I was raised in an abusive environment. What you think of as punishment, I think of as normal. I’m OK. Let me do the same thing to my kids, they will be OK. (You married me so I must be OK.)”

From my perspective, I say, “I can work with the kids to find out the problems that give rise to unwanted behavior. I can talk with them to figure out why they don’t want to go to school, which is usually a problem, solve that problem, and the unwanted behavior goes away.”

Here is the difference. Nobody can learn in fear. Ok, it’s a lot more difficult to learn in fear. Especially when you’re living with a punitive giant who lacks an interest in the problems you’re trying to solve. Yes, we may develop coping skills for fear, but if we spend all of our time coping with fear, we're spending less time learning how to solve the problems that make us behave in a way that our parents don’t like.

If I’m fearful of punishment, I’m going to be unwilling to discuss the problems I face. Even if my parents want to help me, if they have punished me in the past, I’m not going to be willing to discuss my mistakes with them. And as I get older, my mistakes get bigger. Much bigger.

I think this dynamic can explain anti-social behavior, self-destructive behavior, and addiction. We were punished for our unwanted behavior when we were 2 and 3. We grew out of that with our parents, but we never discussed it, and the memories still live within us. So when we make a mistake as an older kid or even as a young adult, we punish ourselves instead of getting help. We don’t get help as young adults because we got punishment whenever we tried to get help from our parents when we were 2 or 3.

An unwillingness to answer questions during interrogation leads to high stakes bargaining on the part of the person with all the power. That’s what my wife, with all of the cultural norms she carries with her, was doing with a 5-year old child. At that point, the object is to win, not to solve any problems. My wife told me she wanted Natalie to be scared to get her to go to school. I wanted something different. In 15 minutes of quiet conversation with my daughter, I learned what the problem was, and shared that with my wife, and my wife changed her attitude completely once she learned what the problem was.

Prior to learning what the problem was, my wife assumed malice. After my wife learned what the problem was, that Natalie had lost her scissors, Alice became compassionate for my daughter again. The difference can be found between an assumption of malice vs an assumption of an innocent lack of capacity or skill.

And don’t think we’re much better than Vietnam in terms of child-raising skills. That high stakes bargaining between two people where one side has all the power, that’s normalized into our culture. That’s what passes for drama on TV and in the movies. Human history is filled with stories of one group of humans using overwhelming force to impose its will on another group of people. History also shows us that when there is an imbalance of power, there can be no intimacy.

When I approach people, I think about the power I have with respect to theirs. If I have a lot more power than another, I am careful not to use that power against another because I know that if I exercise that power, I will lose any chance at intimacy.

“Intimacy is me being me, and letting you see me.” — Bob Earll.

So I don’t use my power against other people except in moments of clear and present danger. I’m not threatened by my wife, my kids, or anyone I know. I don’t frequent places where I might encounter such a threat. So I hide my power or I use it for good. I am mindful of my power. I share my power with the people I love. I exercise my power in such a way as to encourage intimacy.

When my kids or my wife present unwanted or challenging behavior, that is a request for greater commitment. That’s how I look at every argument, every disagreement, or any challenge to my authority. I don’t see that kind of behavior as a cause of action for punishment or retribution. I see challenging behavior as a cause for inquiry, discovery, and gentle interrogation to find the problems that give rise to the behavior that makes us uncomfortable. I assume that my family is looking to me for help in solving those problems.

I wash, rinse, and repeat until I have a little more peace. Practiced over time, a hundred times, a thousand times, I find that I have something called contentment. Contentment is not something you buy. Contentment cannot be purchased with threats of physical force, emotional abuse, or power. I have found that contentment is achieved through the relentless inquiry and collaborative problem solving that is required in order to live in peace with other people.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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