Behavior Modification

When I was a teenager, my father enforced a new five minute shower rule. I was timed from the moment I walked into the bathroom and was interrupted after five minutes had passed. I was told I would be allowed five minutes in the shower which originally led me to believe my father began timing when he heard the water come on. This delusion ended one morning my father knocked at the bathroom door, shouting “It’s time to get out.” before I had turned on the water. When I said in a quieter tone, “I’m not even in yet.”, he replied, “Well I don’t know what you’re doing in there, but it shouldn’t take more than five minutes.” Ah ha. It was a sex thing. I began to understand my father suspected I was masturbating during my shower time. This was inaccurate, but issues like sex were rarely discussed openly with my father. I understood the physical act of sex before I knew the word. My father explained, in a very simplified way, the physics of sexual intercourse when he thought he caught me using the “F” word. I, of course, did not relate this act to the term “sex” or the phrase “making love”. I instead related it to the “F” word. My five minute showers ended when my mother challenged my father to take a five minute shower. Dad didn’t quite make it under five minutes. As uncomfortable as it might have been, a conversation about masturbation might have proven more effective. Perhaps my father could have explained his motivation for limiting my shower time. I didn’t ask for his motivation because I knew not to. What Dad decreed was what was to happen. In this case, Dad’s parenting style = Authoritarian.
My girlfriend/fiance/wife has expressed strong feelings about her parents’ utterance of the phrase “Because I said” when she was younger. She wanted to understand why her parents told her to do certain things and felt her parents were dismissive when they said “Because I said.” Our children are smarter than we often seem to give credit. As my mother pointed out years ago, a child who is allowed to ask “why?” every time a parent makes a request or gives a command may end up resembling a pancake as he or she says “Why?” instead of listening when Mom or Dad says “Get out of the road.” Still, the understanding of one’s parents’ motivation may help a child feel as though he or she is on a team with his or her parents. As parents and children both want what is best for the child, attempts to help a child understand parents are attempting to act in the child’s best interest may result in cooperative efforts.
Punishment without explanation causes a child to feel as though he or she is at war with his or her parents. Have you ever seen the show Malcolm in the Middle?…War. A child may learn the lesson only when he or she understands his or her trespass. Otherwise, behavior modification becomes a much more basic, cause and effect maneuver. “If I do this, I will be punished.” The behavior is modified, but the thought process that led to this undesirable behavior remains. If it is the goal of a parent to raise a child who will be well adjusted and capable of surviving in the world outside of the parent’s home, the goal should be to mold the child’s thought process and not just his or her specific behaviors.
I am not a parent, but have been a child and can speak to my experience as a child. I am a dog parent and can say that behavior modification, when it comes to an animal who does not speak English, provides its own unique challenges. We adopted a new dog recently and he knows, for the most part, what we expect from him. He does not climb onto the couch or the bed when I am in the room. He does, however, often go directly to the couch or the bed when no one is watching. He has learned to fear repercussions, which pretty much involve a scolding and being held to the ground in an attempt to claim dominance. While he has learned to expect punishment when he engages in certain behaviors, he has not developed the desire to be obedient. Although punishment may work to deter some undesirable behaviors, I hypothesize the understanding that parents and their child are working as a team for the child’s best interest may prove more productive.

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