by Carrie Lindemuth, Learning Specialist/Executive Function Thinking Coach at CW
Whether you are raising a boy or a girl, whether you are parenting a toddler or a teenager, whether you have an easy-going child or a spirited child, the perennial question of parenting comes down to this: how to help our children replace their unexpected or unpleasant behaviors with more socially acceptable alternatives.
Much has been written on this subject, and there are many different philosophies out there to choose from, but it is my belief that ultimately the answer for how to help our children change their behavior hinges on one question: Is this behavior the result of my child’s will or my child’s skill level? Should I try to “discipline” this behavior away? Or is this an area in which the child needs coaching to learn the skills necessary to generate a more sophisticated level of response?
The Behavioralist construct of discipline: using negative consequences to eliminate negative behavior vs. rewarding, and thereby encouraging, desirable behavior with positive consequences has been used successfully in many situations. We have all seen it work. And anyone who has parented for very long will have learned what animal trainers have known forever (and neuroscience confirms): rewards are more motivating than punishment.
However, we have also all seen the situation where no amount of consequences, positive or negative, natural or imposed, has lead to changed behavior. How do we explain this? What is happening here? Well, if we agree with the premise that all people desire positive successful experiences, then the next step is to understand that repeated failure is caused by not knowing how to succeed. This then leads to the insight that our children’s challenging behaviors are almost always due to a lack of skill, as opposed to being a problem of will.
The problem at the core of using consequences to shape behavior is that you can’t discipline a child into a more self-regulated response if they do not have the skill to respond in a self-regulated manner. No matter how drastic the punishment, or how enticing the reward, the child will fail to be successful if they do not have the skills to be successful. Think about it: I could offer you a million dollars to run a three-minute mile, and no matter how much you desire the million dollars, the desire alone will not make it possible for you to run a three-minute mile. But with good coaching, you could learn to run faster than you do now, with or without a reward.
Which is why as a parent and educator, I believe that when given a choice of consequences or coaching, coaching is more likely to solve problem behavior. Interestingly, the root of the word “discipline” is disciple- a word that originally meant “someone who is being taught or trained.” Our children are our disciples, and we are their teachers/coaches. Therefore when our children are behaving in ways we dislike they do need to be “disciplined” in the true sense of the word; they need to be taught the necessary skills to respond more successfully to their environment.