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Behavior Modification: Does It Work?
by Brian Thomas

You hear often that there is a time and place for everything. I see it at my local warehouse-type grocery store all the time. Some child behaving badly and a parent promising to buy the little darling a treat if they "can just keep it together until we get to the car." Many parents even have the system worked out ahead of time with poker chips, check marks, or even money as the prize for good behavior. Of course, bad behavior means the loss of the same dear item and the bountiful harvest.

Some parents are on to the faulty logic, realizing that some of the techniques they use to manage their children's lives no longer work after some unseen milestone or over time.

Yet, can behavior modification work at all when trying to instill good habits or attempting to break bad ones?

In my humble estimation, No! I have certainly used behavior modification with my own children and even in some schools that I have worked at. I have seen great gains made with behavior modification in small children when the desired outcome is to get them to read, practice piano, or take out the garbage. However, behavior modification fails as a standalone training method because of what it suggests.

Before we get to the suggestion part, let's look at the places in which I have seen behavior modification work. A friend of mine gives his six-year old son a quarter every time he looks a new friendly acquaintance in the eye, shakes hands, and says hello. So,the drill might look like this: Little Tommy comes over to visiting Pastor McCready, staring right into the old reverend's peepers, and bellows, "Fine sermon, Reverend. Thank you for coming."

Now don't misunderstand, it's important for children to be "raised right." Eye contact and a proper greeting may be one of the more important things that you can teach a child. It may even dramatically improve civility in Western Civilization. However, what I am suggesting here is that the good reverend just became a quarter on its way to a nice model train engine from the local hobby shop. That doesn't mean that Tommy will always see his new friends as dollar signs, but the odds aren't so good. It's like having a stereotypical stage mother (or parent, to be politically correct) as your guide where almost everything is done to please someone else and where people are seen as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

There may be people who would argue differently with me, and I'm willing to take them on. Behavior modification (checklists, marbles, money, chips, etc.) offers a temporary stopgap to reasoning. As training, it is least effective for teaching the true value of people and things because children do because they know they will get something in return, rather than for the intrinsic value of a thing. That's why good grades and test scores may get you into college, but it will not make you a true learner or a person who is naturally curious.

Like my good friend, you may very well get respectful kids, but it's always done at a price.

If a child is rude, he or she needs to know that being rude is not cool. Should kids lose things for bad behavior? You betcha!! A child should not be rewarded for awfulness. However, should the technique of gaining and losing things become ingrained by bribes and punishments? Probably not.

Making your child see the importance of what's valuable to you, rather than getting him or her to win or lose at things, is the key ingredient in this recipe.

About the Author

Born and raised in Harvey, Illinois, Brian Thomas earned a degree in American History and later became an actor. Brian had a recurring role during the second season of NBC's "A Different World, a spin-off from "The Cosby Show." He earned an Emmy Award in 1988 for his work on "Fast Break to Glory: The Du Sable Panthers." Currently, Brian lives with his wife, Jaime, and two children, Eian and Olivia, in Portland, Oregon where he is the Assistant Head of a prestigious prep school and founder of A Child's Book.

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