46. The Art of Behavior Modification

As a new parent, you are faced with so many challenges, but one of the earliest is trying to control the situation. We had already decided that when our children did something good, we would reward and when they did something bad, there would be a penalty. OK, sounds like a good plan. Now smart guy lets see how you implement such a plan.

The first thing was to define what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad.’ We believed we had a good handle on that in establishing our ‘corridor’ of behavior. What we didn’t think of was that this ‘corridor’ would change as the children grew up. If my little girl comes home from pre-school and says a bad word, it’s a disaster. If she comes home from high school and says the same word, it is quite different. So, the definition of ‘bad’ and the definition of ‘good’ is not a static element in life. In fact, everything about this parenting thing is dynamic. Every decision you make from now on will have lasting consequences. No pressure, just don’t screw up or your kid will be a zombie!

The next thing to discover is what the words ‘penalty’ and ‘reward’ actually mean to each individual child. This can get complicated. Since what a child likes or dislikes at age 3 is miles away from what they might like or dislike at age 10, this reward and penalty thing is at best a moving target.

When I was growing up my sisters were 8 and 10 years older than I was. So, essentially I grew up as an only child. Being alone and playing alone was a natural thing for me. So, when my parents sent me off to my room as a punishment I was fine with that, although I never let on about it. We discovered very early that Sarah didn’t like to be left alone. She was, and is a very family oriented person. So we had to devise a way to leave her alone as a punishment but still have control over her surroundings. Hmmm. We decided to go back to basics on this one and we stood her in ‘the corner.’

Most houses don’t have a bare corner where there isn’t furniture. But, we found one and, if by neglect on our part there was a cobweb in that corner, all the better. This wasn’t supposed to be a pleasure cruise. It worked perfectly and Sarah’s behavior was modified relatively easily. However, when Patrick was a little older and we sent him to the corner, there was no crying at all. He would stand there quietly and would just be bored by it all. As you can see, this dynamic was not a standard ‘or else.’ Either way, it was always us, the parents that felt the punishment. We hated it, but we knew it had to be done.

Generally, I don’t like comparisons of children to puppies, but a toddler can present some similar characteristics. For example, if you don’t catch the bad behavior right away, the toddler has no idea why they are being punished. As with a puppy, your immediate reaction means everything. So, when your daughter is covered from head to toe with chocolate birthday cake icing and ice cream, you have an immediate decision to make. That is, once you’ve stopped laughing in the other room. You certainly don’t want your toddler to think that decorating their clothes and bodies with chocolate icing is a good thing to do. At the same time, it’s what kids do and you want to preserve the moment with a picture. So, you do the best you can in the situation and move back into the regular life and rules after the event.

All of these things bring us back to the concept of fairness. ‘Why do I get sent to the corner when he doesn’t?’ It will be a good thing to have a ready answer to that inevitable question. That means you will have made your decisions with some thought behind them and reasoned them out in such a way that they can be explained. Good luck with that.

About J T Weaver

The author of "Uphill Both Ways," a thought provoking series of stories about life, family, and growing up.
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12 Responses to 46. The Art of Behavior Modification

  1. Thanks for the good luck! I’ll definitely need it. It is such a moving target.

    I’ve noticed we go through periods of clashes and when we take a chance to step back it’s often because the “rules” have gone out of date. We’re using baby rules on our but-I’m-not-a-baby-anymore and he resents that. He knows he can handle more responsibility and he’s upset he’s not getting it.

    Oh, and like me, he doesn’t really respond to either rewards or punishments, as if age/child-appropriate ideas about reward/punishment weren’t enough to juggle!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mags Corner says:

    Very well said. Words that could only come from someone who has been there.


  3. Yes, I will never forget our mother taking a picture of my brother and me covered in mud—and then spanking us with a wooden spoon because we had played in the creek without permission. Hilarious, now. At the time, we were a little confused because she wasn’t one to explain her actions. I’ve tried to “fix” that part when I discipline my own son, now. And I don’t use corporal punishment. I think using violence shows children that it’s OK to use violence when you’re overwhelmed. Expressing disappointment seems to work much better in the long run. Sending our son to his room doesn’t work, because he loves to read. 😀


  4. Beside the fact that what you say makes so much sense, I do identify with your position in your family — the same age difference advantage I enjoyed. How frustrating for my parents. I was perfectly happy to be sent to my room. As for what you have written, the truth is life is very complex. Beware the simple prescriptions.


  5. Namesake says:

    Well I am far away from being in this position but still I loved reading this and frankly I learned some good things.


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