December 1, 2010

Down with carrot and stick parenting

Josh grumbles and dawdles when he's told to pick up his toys or do his homework. He has a habit of mistreating his little brother. Jenna can't seem to get herself out of bed on time or keep her room tidy. By the age of twelve the eye-rolling is well underway. At fourteen she barely gives her mother the time of day.

Mainstream parenting books suggest that when the going gets tough, the tough offer carrots and sticks. And if the method fails it's because it hasn't been properly applied. Perhaps Josh acts out because Mom and Dad haven't "motivated" the little guy with a tempting-enough incentive, or hit him hard enough with the stick of "logical consequences."

Though these parenting books don't come right out and say so, their methods are based on behavior modification. The key to getting a child to comply, they say, is the use of positive or negative reinforcement, as if he were a lab rat or a pigeon. I don't know quite how it happened, but sometime in the last forty years or so, B. F. Skinner and his ilk became the go-to guys for parenting advice. Problem is, Skinner's experiments were all done on animals, not human beings. And a child is nothing like a pigeon.

Positive and negative reinforcement as a parenting tool has so thoroughly pervaded our thinking and practice that it's difficult to imagine raising children without it. In the eyes of too many teachers, coaches, and parents, kids are sluggards who would never do a single constructive thing but for the chorus of hollow praise, bribes, and threats running continuously in the background. (If you doubt this, attend a U-10 soccer game this weekend. The "positive reinforcement" is urgent and unremitting.)

But there's a dirty little secret veteran parents have discovered: Behavior-mod tricks don't really work very well. When they do work, say, to help a child develop the habit of making his bed every morning, the success achieved extends just as far as the child is willing to acquire the habit, and no further.

Sometimes a reward works well at first. But then the appeal wanes and a new kind of carrot must be offered. Jenna gets a kick out of affixing a smiley sticker to that cheery chart on the fridge after doing her daily chore, but that only lasts a few days. Likewise with negative reinforcement; the parent of an unyielding child may find himself forced to up the ante, successively removing more and more privileges from Josh's life to the point where there's nothing left to take away except good things, like playing outside or reading comic books.

Time-outs, a surprisingly ineffective tactic given its near-universal use, will get longer or more frequent when the child isn't compliant. And if Josh's parents believe he's spending his alone time deeply regretting that whack he gave his brother, and making a firm purpose of amendment for the future, well, it's possible, I suppose. But a likelier scenario is that he's stewing in his resentment toward those who have, in his eyes, wronged him. Under different circumstances he might have arrived at some contrition on his own. As it is, he may now see himself as a victim and dwell on ways to get even. Ironically, his time in solitary is teaching him a lesson which is the polar opposite of the one his parents had in mind: the importance of personal responsibility and the golden rule.

Carrot-and-stick parenting takes an external view of the child, focusing too much on his behavior and not enough on his motives or intentions. And it shows little respect for his free will, which is treated as an obstacle to be worked around, subverted or coerced into line, rather than what it really is: a gift that separates human beings from Skinner's pigeons and aligns us with the angels, enabling us to choose virtue over vice, or not. A parent who overrides a child's will to prevent him from choosing vice prevents him from choosing virtue as well.

Parents who see their role as helping their children grow in virtue might want to think twice about the carrot-and-stick approach. But what can they put in its place? The long answer won't fit in this space, but a short one was simply expressed by an unnamed headmaster, commenting on the best way to teach the young: "There is only one system of education, through love and one's own example."

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