Many parenting books, parenting experts, and even teachers will encourage a parent to reward wanted behavior and punish negative behavior. But what do you do if you tried taking away everything or offering great rewards and your child still isn’t motivated do what you require of them?
What you may not know is that various suggested parenting strategies have a set of underlying assumptions about the purpose of child behavior. Often these assumptions are not stated by authors of parenting books. Being unaware of the basic assumptions of a parenting model can be problematic because if those assumptions are wrong then then parenting strategies is unlikely to produce results.
Parenting strategies can be generally divided into two categories; behavioral and non-behavioral. Behavioral strategies assume that the child will act much as any other animal. In other words, the child will seek out pleasurable consequences and avoid unpleasant ones. While this may seem to be an obvious motivation, it is not always the case. Non-behavioral models focus on a child’s individual thought processes. They work to change the child’s internal motivation, not the external motivation.
Behaviorist parenting strategies are based on the psychological approach of Behaviorism. Behaviorism was developed by John B. Watson and others. It was based on research done on animals. Animals avoid pain and seek out food. In its early stages, Behaviorism completely ignored the idea of internal thoughts or cognitive motivations. Later on, B.F. Skinner, Ivan Pavlov and others acknowledged the existence of internal thoughts, but largely ignored them. Popular books such as 1-2-3 Magic and methods taught by Certified Behavioral Analysts (CBAs) are behavioral in nature.
Why is this important to a parent? Because Behavioral parenting strategies are based on the idea that human children act on similar motivations to animals. Certainly, some child behavior can be influenced by rewards and punishments. However, children are also much more complex in their thinking than animals generally are. While a hungry animal will almost always see a piece of food as a reinforcer of behavior, a hungry child may well have a different outlook on the matter. If a child values attention above all else, they may do the opposite of what a parent or caregiver would like them do simply to gain negative attention.
The easiest way to determine if you have an attention seeking child may be to pay attention to how you feel when attempting to deal with unwanted behavior (or an absence of wanted behavior). If you feel a sense of frustration, you may be dealing with an attention seeker. The parent of an attention seeker may say something like “I don’t understand why they won’t tie their shoes. I try to reason with them, give them praise or other rewards, but nothing works. I know they can tie their shoes but they are just being impossible for some reason.” What the parent is failing to see is that the child is actually getting the reward which is valued above all else… attention. As the parent attempts to reason and bargain with the child, the parent’s attention is completely focused on the child. As soon as the child “gives in” and does the wanted behavior, the parent may will shift attention to some other matter. It is therefore in the child’s interest to simply keep the parent frustrated and locked in on the issue at hand.
In the same example, the parent (and child) would be much better off if the parent simply shrugged their shoulders and emotionlessly said to the child, “I guess we can’t go to the park because your shoes are untied.” After saying this, the parent would simply attend to some other matter rather than keeping focus on the child and the struggle to get their shoes tied.
Please don’t misunderstand me. Behavior techniques and certainly CBAs can be successful in increasing wanted behaviors in children. However, when struggling with a parenting strategy that doesn’t seem to be working… one might be better off exploring an alternate philosophical approach to parenting.
If you have any further interest in non-behavioral parenting styles, I recommend reading Children: The Challenge by Dreikurs & Stoltz as well as The Parents’ Handbook: Systematic Training for Effective Parenting by Dinkmeyer & McKay.
Eric Leever, M.Ed., LMHC, NCC
1555 NW Saint Lucie West Blvd
Port St. Lucie, FL 34986
772 284 6030