What's the Best Way to Steer Kids Toward Good Behavior?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Our latest reader contributor, Sophie, circles back to the article that sparked this discussion thread:

Anyone who believes that Alan Kazdin’s technique is “radical” has clearly never trained a dog ... or any other animal for that matter.

His method is essentially what is known in the behaviorist world as positive reinforcement, negative punishment training. It involves rewarding behaviors that you want to increase and removing rewards for those that you want to decrease. A fundamental tenet of this approach is to identify predictive triggers for problem behaviors and to change the resulting behavior by changing the consequence.

For some reason, it is so much more intuitive for people to understand with dogs:

For example, if a dog is jumping on you when you get home, instead, immediately ask your dog to “Sit” and reward the sitting. Eventually, the dog will choose to sit rather than jump on you—without you asking.

And, yet, when you apply this same principle to children, people think it’s “radical”!  B.F. Skinner was a little radical, I admit, but his theories and evidence have been around for over half a decade. Come on, people. Get with the times! This is old news!

P.S. I'm not surprised by the emotional backlash against this idea of positive reinforcement based behavior modification. The concept is not radical, but it disallows people from satiating their anger by using forceful punishment. For some reason, people are really attracted to punishment. Dog trainers and animal behaviorists are constantly fighting the same battle. You only have to turn on your TV to watch celebrity “dog trainers” to see what I mean.

Foremost among them is Cesar Millan, aka the Dog Whisperer (brilliantly portrayed by South Park in the clip seen above). Millan is actually in the news right now for allegations of animal cruelty, but the charges seem dubious. Here’s a video summary of the story that shows a snippet of the infamous scene:

The full rehabilitation scene, culminating with the hilarious and heartening image of a pig walking a dog, is here to watch.

This next reader, Becky, circles back to the initial dissent from reader Ethan, who disagreed with Kazdin’s technique by arguing that sometimes “sticks” are necessary, especially to prepare kids for when they grow up to encounter the real—often brutal and unfair—world:

Ethan doesn’t understand how learning works, or the difference between children’s brains and adult brains. How do you get your child to use a potty? By offering positive reinforcement when he gets it right. Punishing your kid for going in his diaper won’t teach him bladder control. It will just make him afraid of you.

But do adults expect praise and a cookie when they go potty correctly? Do mentally competent adults defecate on the living room rug, if they believe they won’t be punished for it? No, because they are adults.

“Real consequences for disobedience in life,” says Ethan ... but people who break rules as children are, statistically, more successful as adults, not less. Consequences work best when they are natural and congruent with the way the world works. So if you don't do your homework, you get an F. That’s a consequence, meted out not by a punishing parent but by the logic of how school works.

“Obedience” is a terrible reason to do almost anything. Raising obedient children bequeaths them poor coping skills for adult life.

A person who grew up in a fear-free home is still going to take seriously an armed officer of the law barking orders, to use Ethan’s example, because they live in the same world as the rest of us. But they are less likely to remain in an abusive work situation or relationship, because it does not feel normal to them to be punished by someone they respect or love.

If you recommend any other good approaches—and ones that don’t involve spanking, as we’ve previously debated—please share. Update from a reader who emphasizes reasoning with a young child:

Spanking may achieve short term results, but ultimately just builds resentments and sets the stage for rebellion and the collapse of the parent-child relationship in the adolescent years. That was me.

An individualized approach based on a child’s temperament and level of maturity is crucial. As a first step, the child’s feelings need to be acknowledged even if they seem ridiculous. Help the child calm down if they're upset; it’s impossible to reason with them otherwise. Explain why you think the good behavior is better in the long run. The goal is to convince. (By all means, show appreciation for good behavior, but be careful not to go overboard to the point that they expect praise for even basic manners). Repeat as many times as necessary—this is the frustrating/grueling part, but coercion and shaming don’t work well in the longer term.

They say the human brain isn’t fully developed until age 27. Even thereafter I think we all need steering towards good behavior from time to time!

Another reader touches on the disappointment method:

I don’t know how my grandmother did it; she has never to my knowledge shouted or screamed at anyone. If you heard her speak to you in a quiet, resigned voice, you felt terrible about what you were doing. And you stopped.

In hindsight, I think it is about the grown-ups’ self regulation. If my emotions are in check, I can distinguish between the child expressing a genuine need to eat slowly versus my frustration at not being able to wrap dinner up. I can step back and evaluate how important a child’s stubbornness is in the larger scheme of things and pick my battles more wisely. Kids learn from your demeanor and probably pick up the same equanimity.

I have not been able to reach that zen state, yet. Probably wont, ever.