The Behavior Modification Gospel

by Matthew Raley

So, I'm watching the ads on "mute" and I notice the repetitive cycling of images. One public service spot against smoking goes like this: parent takes a drag from a cigarette, kid puffs on his asthma inhaler, parent with smoke, kid with inhaler, smoke, inhaler, smoke, inhaler.

Soon, I'm fighting for breath myself.

This is the state of California spending yet more money it doesn't have to change the behavior of its citizenry, and using the time-honored marketing tactic of repetition. It will probably work. I feel guilty by the end it and I've never smoked a cigarette.

Our society is mad about behavior modification. It works.

B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) became one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century by applying a simple discovery. He observed that, if you wanted a rat to press a bar, prodding him with stimuli was less effective than rewarding him after he pressed it. Skinner taught how positive and negative reinforcement could change behavior.

The applications go well beyond marketing and management.

On June 25, 2006, the New York Times published an article called, "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage." Author Amy Sutherland related that, in the course of researching a book about animal trainers, she had an epiphany. "I listened, rapt, as professional trainers explained how they taught dolphins to flip and elephants to paint. Eventually it hit me that the same techniques might work on that stubborn but lovable species, the American husband."

Could she get her husband to pick his dirty shirts off the floor and put them in the hamper? By rewarding small steps toward the desired outcome, she found that, lo, she could.

Her article was on the most-emailed list for a long while.

Evangelical parents are keen to train their kids in the right behaviors, and their focus is overwhelmingly onĀ  modification strategies. Here is some advice on how to deal "creatively" with lying:

Draw up a contract with your child. After everyone agrees that lying, for example, is a cause for correction, establish and transcribe a reasonable punishment. Have you and your child sign and date the document. Then, whenever a situation comes up that would invite lying, gently remind him about the contract. Knowing that you will follow through on the penalty may be the extra incentive your child needs to choose to tell the truth.

Notice that the decision about lying is incentivized. The child makes a voluntary agreement about the punishment, and is reminded of it under temptation. If this scheme works, the child is not being taught to tell the truth, but to negotiate and weigh consequences. If I wanted to nurture a little pragmatist, this is exactly what I would do.

More from the same article:

Last week we ran into a few "heart" issues with Haven. It all came to a head when we caught her lying. Her correction has been to listen to the New Testament on tape. She usually gets to listen to an Adventures in Odyssey tape, but for the next 20 nights she will be filling her heart with the Truth.

Not the New Testament, Mom! Anything but that! Sentimentalizing the consequence with the words "filling her heart with Truth" doesn't cover up the fact that the Bible is being used as negative reinforcement.

Locally, we are dealing with the dark side of behavior modification in the killing of a 7-year-old girl. Michael Pearl's teaching on parenting is now under deserved scrutiny, not because he advocates child abuse (which he does not) but because of his extreme views about training children.

Pearl repeatedly compares children with animals, and uses the words training and conditioning interchangeably, as here (To Train Up a Child, p 12):

If the dog learns through conditioning (consistent behavior on the part of the trainer) that he will never be allowed to violate his master's command, he will always obey. If parents carefully and consistently train up a child, his or her performance will be as consistently satisfying as that rendered by a well trained seeing-eye dog.

"Performance." "Consistently satisfying." Even if that expansive claim were true, I wouldn't want my sons to obey like dogs. I want them to obey as respectful human beings.

Pearl makes an easy target, with this kind of irresponsible comparison and with his outlandish doctrine. But our culture as a whole is fixated on behavior modification. From marketing to management to relationships, we are profoundly manipulative. And evangelical Christians are little different.

I believe Christian parenting can demonstrate the power of Jesus Christ. Christ does not condition children for performance; he raises them up in new life. A parent's job is to guide a unique little person, made in the image of God, to his or her Savior.

This starts with recognizing that the child's soul and conscience are able to relate to God directly, apart from our control (Luke 1.39-45; Matthew 18.1-4; Mark 10.13-16). Further, a wise parent does not frame behavioral issues in terms of giving a satisfactory performance, but in terms of the new life Christ gives (Colossians 3.1-17).

Our parenting should be about Christ, not about us.

It's time to reject the degrading puppetry of behavior modification, regardless of whether the puppeteer is a fundamentalist or a psychologist. We need to engage firmly, humbly, and humanely with children's souls.