Behavior Modification: Take
Last time I discussed the cons of behavior modification. This time I am approaching it from the other side. When are behavior modification techniques worth it?
The first thing to keep in mind is that you must be consistent. If you waver at all, you're toast. Children are like lawyers in training. They look for the one loophole or chink in the armor, and they then try to exploit it for what it's worth. Exploiting usually means giving them something they want (even though you know better) or trying to catch you during a vulnerable moment. Just remember, you know what's best. I always urge parents to cultivate and listen to that little voice inside of them that tells you what is and is not appropriate, or a kind of parents' version of Jiminy Cricket. It's your conscience, of course.
If your conscience says, "No matter how much they beg to stay up a little later to finish that television program, you know that they will be absolute monsters without a full ten hours of sleep." Encouraging and hearing that parental voice will be important in making behavior modification work for you.
Take my son for instance: He has a very litigious mind, for a seven year old. Although he's only in the first grade, he knows that he can wear his Mom down if he keeps asking the question over and over again, rephrasing every so often to get the most out of his query. He's Perry Mason and Matlock all rolled into one.
"Can I please? Can I, huh? Yesterday, you told me I could. But you said…"
The latest battle is about being rough with the dog. We have a ten-month old labradoodle (yep, that's a breed) named Hershey who is taking all sorts of loving punishment from this very sweet and well meaning tyrant known as my son. I just don't want the dog to be loved to death.
A typical conversation between he and his mother might be:
"I am being gentle!"
"Pulling the dog's tail to get his attention is not being gentle. If you do it again, you're getting a timeout."
Even after the fifth or twentieth timeout, reason or punishment doesn't seem to make the situation any better. Behavior modification to the rescue. My wife rolls out the arts and crafts paper to draw up the obligatory signage for what can and can't be done and what will and won't be taken away.
"Four checks mean you have been caught being gentle with the dog and you get to play a computer game. Four zeros means just the opposite; no computer games and a loss of television privileges, which amounts to two hours on the weekend."
From my office I hear all of this go down and I just know that I'll get dragged in the middle somehow.
The initial novelty of the behavior mod game works. Immediately, for a day or so, loving strokes on the brown fuzzy back abounds. No more yelling, no more tears. Mom is happy. I, remembering what I wrote in my previous column, am ready to get out the salt, pepper, and ketchup to eat a little crow. Behavior modification seems to work.
Well, hold on. Now I get initiated into this endeavor, which means the entire thing goes to Hades in a
hand basket because I never signed up to be a UN Peace Keeper between the nations of dog, Mom, and boy. Granted, I don't like the loving torment aimed at our new pouch, but Hershey's young and quick with very sharp teeth, I figure he can take care of himself.
Well, there I go again, as Ronnie might say. I am dragged back into the fray with awful results. When my wife is at work on the weekends and I am Mr. Mom, I don't know where the behavior mod sheet is kept and my son conveniently forgets. One day gets completely subverted because her system is either lost, stolen, or just plain incomprehensible to me.
My bad, I say when she comes home, which means that I could not keep the reward and punishment plates spinning long enough to keep it all going. I either have no nerve or am a closet anarchist. The system fails because we are not consistent.
In some ways, behavior modification programs are like a New Year's diet and exercise regime. It may work for a little bit, but come Valentine's Day, you're staring at that box of chocolates like they were your last, best friend.
Make reason the partner in disciplining your children. We should no more treat our children the same than we would eat that last piece of chocolate at the very bottom of the double-decker, heart-shaped box. Yes, you might end up doing it anyway, but you know it's not going to be all that appealing.
Indeed, I would urge everyone to enter into a conversation with your children about everything, not just discipline. It certainly does not have to be some democracy. No, no, no, no, and no. But your children are pretty savvy folks. Remember, they came from you. Go ahead, talk to them about anything, even their punishments and rewards.
You never know what you're gonna get-in the end.
© 2002 by Brian W. Thomas
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Behavior Modification: Does It Work?
You hear often that there is a time and place for everything.
I see it at my local warehouse-type grocery store all the time. Some child
behaving badly and a parent promising to buy the little darling a treat if they "can just keep it together until we get to the car." Many parents
even have the system worked out ahead of time with poker chips, check marks,
or even money as the prize for good behavior. Of course, bad behavior means
the loss of the same "dear": item and the bountiful harvest that waits.
Some parents are on to the faulty logic, realizing that some of the techniques
they use to manage their children's lives no longer work anymore after some
unseen milestone or over time.
Yet, can behavior modification work at all when trying to instill good habits
or attempting to break bad ones?
In my humble estimation, "No!" I have certainly used behavior modification
with my own children and even in some schools that I have worked at as their
standard policy. I have seen great gains with behavior modification with small children to get them to read, practice piano, or take out the garbage.
However, behavior modification fails as a standalone training method with children because of what it suggests.
Before we get to the suggestion part, let's look at the places in which
I have seen behavior modification work. A friend of mine gives his six-year
old son a quarter every time he looks a new friendly acquaintance in the eye, usually someone from his church, shakes hands, and says hello. So,
the drill might look like this: Little Tommy comes over to a visiting Pastor
McCready, staring right into the old reverends peepers, and bellows, "Fine
sermon Reverend. Thank you for coming."
Now, don't misunderstand, it's important for children to be "raised right."
Eye contact and a proper greeting may be one of the more important things that you can teach a child. It may even dramatically improve civility in
Western Civilization. However, what I am suggesting here is that the good reverend just became a quarter on its way to a nice model train engine from
the local hobby shop. Now, it doesn't mean that Tommy will always see his new friends as dollar signs, but the odds aren't so good. It's like having
a stereotypical stage mother (or parent, to be politically correct) as
your guide where almost everything is done to please someone else and where people
are seen as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.
There may be people who would argue differently with me, and I'm willing
to take them on. Behavior modification (checklists, marbles, money, chips,
etc.) offers a temporary stopgap to reasoning. As training it is least effective for teaching the true value of people and things because children
do, because they know they will "get" something in return rather than for the intrinsic value of a thing. That's why good grades and test scores
may get you into college, but it will not make you a true learner or a person
who is naturally curious.
Like my good friend, you may very well get respectful kids, but it's always
done at a price.
If a child is rude, they need to know that being rude is not cool. Should
they lose things for bad behavior? You betcha!! A child should not be rewarded for awfulness. However, should the technique of gaining and losing
things become ingrained by bribes and punishments? Probably not.
Making your child see the importance of what's valuable to you, rather than
getting him or her to win or lose at things, is they key ingredient in this
© 2002 by Brian W. Thomas
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by Brian Thomas
does a person know that he or she has made a good decision? Bad decisions
seem to abound not only in our lives, but also in the lives of the
children that we love. Mark Twain is credited with saying, "Good
decisions come from bad decisions, which lead to good decisions."
those of you who know me know that I turned 40 about three weeks ago. I
have been trying to stay as active as I can, especially given the
breakneck pace that I keep-coaching varsity baseball, being an assistant
school head, a Master's Degree class every Monday night, father and
husband, as well as trying to get at least some sleep occasionally to
offset that loopy stare one gets during sleep deprivation.
I wouldn't have it any other way. I noticed that I didn't have enough to
do, so I began playing men's baseball after a season's hiatus. A friend of
mine in the Bay Area calls it Men's Little League. Today was the first
game. I do the things that everyone should before beginning any rigorous
activity; I eat a burrito and haul around 45 pounds of gear, which is the
equivalent of a five-year old strapped to my back. Carrying around a
little extra weight shouldn't be that big of an issue, right? I have seen
women in the mall lugging around toddlers the size of Barry Bonds on their
hips. I certainly can clean and jerk a little old bag of catcher's
equipment and a stash of two-year old Milky Way Bars about 200 feet to the
I arrive before the pitcher starts his warm-up tosses, and I feel my left
side ache like I have just been kicked in the ribs by Frances the Talking
Mule. You guessed it, I ripped some muscle before "play ball"
was even barked out by the ump. Great decision!
does any of this have to do with books? Very little to be honest. It's all
about aging, if anything. Aging is one of the few things that we all do
regardless of what tends to divide us as people. We see or saw our
parents as their body change (thank you, Bonnie Raitt) and we feel our own
lives alter and even fade a bit every time a milestone is passed.
I take more precautions to prevent the onset of the inevitable? Maybe. Is
there a magic pill that can bring back old hair or lost virility? Yes, but
why? All I know is that the decisions that give me the most pleasure are
simple. They have to do with seeing the smile on my wife's face when I do
some incredible deed that I didn't know would bring happiness (like
folding the laundry) or the laughter of my children when I read a book
where they actually get the jokes. Good decisions; it's in the way that
you use them, I guess."
© 2002 by Brian W. Thomas
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Our History, Our
True discourse or lock
step? That is the question that courses through the currents in black
15-second commercials meant to highlight our achievements to Black History
Month school pageants going on across the country this month, the history
of Africans in America has received only cursory treatment. Seeing our
history as a counter to the themes, aesthetics and heroes of white
European-centered history tends to screech rather than shout.
looking at what professor James Banks at the University of Washington
calls multicultural education -- the stories of marginalized people in the
United States and the world -- is one of the most significant advances in
the past two decades.
nowhere do I see history being shown and celebrated with much depth and
detail. After the Black Arts movement of the '60s, spurred on by Amiri
Baraka, an African American poet and activist, and moving on to the
Million Man March exhortations of the past decade, black America has
suffered from a narrow view of what constitutes being African and
American. Certainly brothers Cornell West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,
Harvard professors -- at least for the time being -- have told us being
academic and nappy holds a great many pitfalls.
Marley's plaintive lament, "If you know your history, then you know
where you're coming from," isn't being played out with much real
attention and substance these days as Africans meld into the larger
society. But do you know your history?
a talk at Portland State University almost two years ago, Gates spoke
about what it means to critique other folks of color. He was criticized
for his PBS series "Wonders of the African World" in which he
"exposes" the African role in the slave trade. Gates pulls no
punches in saying some Africans captured other vanquished tribes in
battle, thereby beginning the pernicious system, and sold them -- men,
women, and children -- into slavery to whites.
tackling the role of Africans in the slave trade, Gates' critics claim he
gives the European racist agenda more fuel to absolve whites for African
slavery. Many of his critics stood ready to shout him down, leaving us
with a legend ladened Frederick Douglass-George Washington Carver-Martin
Luther King, Jr. look at ourselves or a "Happy Month Black Man"
sort of celebration of heroes and sheroes. Certainly there's nothing wrong
with that, but aren't we about more than that?
debate in some circles overshadowed the tremendous work being done to give
the world a growing history of Africans in the Diaspora -- the regions of
the world where people of African descent live as a direct result of the
and his colleagues have come up with a kind of African World Book
Encyclopedia; they actually liken the Encarta Africana, an encyclopedia
that aims to gather knowledge of all things African, to the Encyclopedia
Judaica, which served to unite the Jewish world in terms of information
and pride at the start of the past century. I prefer the World Book
many lower-middle class black folks who rose to prominence during
the'50s,'60s, and'70s, the World Book Encyclopedia was the most important
thing we ever owned. In many respects it gave black people without many
books a ticket to the world. Learning about trains, butterflies, the route
of the Ganges River or a host of other things opened up a kind of world
literacy, albeit mostly white and Disney-fied. Encyclopedias, just like
dictionaries, can be gleaned for the mistakes, their corrections, their
flaws and what is left out.
let us teach our children of African descent, as well as those of other
heritage, about a deeper understanding of history. Teach children not just
about the celebrations featuring King, Malcolm, and Du Bois, but discuss
Sonja Sanchez, Kwame Nkrumah, bell hooks, Steve Biko, Mumia Abu-Jamal as
well as others who force us to focus upon the meaning of the Constitution
and the Declaration of Independence.
Africans in America, let's celebrate our history today, vowing to learn
even more about who we are as people and never letting anyone shout us
© 2001 by Brian W. Thomas
from The Oregonian, 02/17/02
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After cleaning up our
classroom we gathered in a circle on the carpet.
I announced that we were going to go do something kind of special
(we were going to go listen to Noella from Rattling Thunder give a
presentation about Native Americans).
A child—I will be referring many times to “a child” to
protect the innocent—asked ever so quietly, as if it were a secret,
“Are we going to go see some Indians?”
I told them that we were. Very
quickly another child stood up and said that he knew about Indians.
He put his open hand to his mouth repeatedly and made that
sound—you know, the sound that all Indians make—and it rapidly
spread to several other children. I,
of course, having faced this situation every single time
the word Indian has ever surfaced during my eleven years of
teaching, broke out with my standard line, “You know, my grandmother is
an Indian, and she has never, ever made a sound like that.”
Between you and me, it’s actually my great-grandmother, but I get
a little more mileage out of the grandmother bit, and as a teacher, I’m
allowed a little poetic license. Generally,
this line stops that sound if for no other reason than to make them think
about how strange my grandmother is because she doesn’t make the sound
that all other Indians make.
The next step is to ask
the children what they know about Indians—this is where you’ll want to
have a seat because I can almost guarantee that your child believes these
things to be true. Children know that Indians wear feathers in their hair.
They know that Indians don’t wear a lot of clothes.
They know that Indians paint their faces.
They know that Indians carry weapons—some have the pointy things,
others have guns. And
everyone knows that all Indians make that sound.
Well, I had an idea
that the children would respond this way (I’m not really going to go
into the discussion of how this is the last great stereotype to go, just
know that it’s true) so I brought in some pictures of Native Americans.
It just so happens that these pictures show people with brown skin
and black hair in regular clothes doing regular stuff (i.e., riding
horses, working in a garden, playing with a puppy, running outside).
Apparently, I have a lot of nerve because I was trying to tell
these children that the people in the pictures are Indians, but obviously
they’re just people. “They’re
not real Indians!”
Now, our Rabbits are a
very insightful bunch—they make us very proud—and they are very, very
good at asking questions (I’m not being facetious here, it’s really
true). Here are a couple of
questions that the children had:
How do they get to be Indians?
Their parents are Indians.
What do Indians do?
They get out of bed. They
eat breakfast. They get
dressed. They go to
school or work.
They eat snacks. They
play. They eat lunch.
They come home.
They go shopping. They eat dinner. They
play. They brush
their teeth. They go to bed.
I know it sounds a
little simple, but at 4 and 5 years old, they don’t need to know about
the history of Native Americans in our country.
They don’t need to know about the history of African Americans in
this country. They don’t need to know about the Taliban.
They are learning what is fair and what is unfair.
They need to know that sometimes people were, and still are,
treated unfairly because they look different or act different or think
different. They NEED to know
that that is NOT okay (I think many grown- ups still need to know that).
They need to know that it’s okay to notice differences.
They need to know that it’s okay to ask questions (and they
don’t even need to use their secret voices).
This summer, my
children (then 4 ½ and 6 ½) and I were at the Tillamook Factory on the
coast. As we were taking the
tour, my children noticed a boy whose legs had been, what appeared to me
to be recently, amputated at the knees.
He was probably in his early teens, but was roughly the same height
as my children. He was
wearing shorts, his thighs were bandaged completely and there was
something attached to the bottom of the bandages where his knees once were
so he could walk on them. When
I saw this boy, my head went on and on about what must have happened and
how he must feel and how lucky I am to have healthy, whole children. When I saw the look on my children’s faces as they stared
at this boy, I knew I had to say something.
This is where it gets tricky.
I thought about the time-honored tradition of “It’s not polite
to stare!” and decided against that route.
I thought about asking the boy about his legs, but being a young
teenager in a new situation, I couldn’t anticipate his response, so I
opted out again. I wasn’t
exactly sure what I wanted my children to gain from this interaction, but
I knew that what I did not want them to go away from it with was fear.
I knelt down and said in a regular voice, “Are you wondering
about his legs?” They
nodded. I said, “I was
wondering about them, too.” Then
I told them about my grandpa who had to have one of his legs amputated
because part of it wasn’t working and then the doctors gave him a wooden
leg. Then we got into a
conversation about prosthetic devices.
Then I gave myself a pat on the back because we all came out of it
I have a feeling that
there is much more in me on this subject that I would like to share with
you, but it is 11:30 and if I don’t end this now, I never will.
Megan just came out (we won’t get into a discussion of sleeping
habits of children) so I decided to give her the quiz.
“What do you know
At Powwows they look really beautiful.
And they have Fancy Dancers.
(We just went to a
Powwow last weekend).
“What do you think
(Accompanied by the eye-roll and the “have you lost your mind?”
Mom, they do the same
stuff we do.
celebrated with a high-five and a little happy dance.
I’m doing my job. But
I know I’ll never be done.
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