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Evaluation of Behavioural Modification
As Applied to Parenting of Young Children
Dec 1996 Alan S.L. Wong

Evaluation of Behavioural Modification
    As Applied to Parenting of Young Children

Behaviour modification assumes that virtually all human behaviour is learned and the best way to correct behavioural problems is through retraining ... controlling the consequences to shape the behaviour.

Reinforcing Desirable Behaviour

Behaviour modification has merits as it is true that behaviour that is reinforced is likely to be repeated. We found the giving of rewards helpful to cultivate skills or habits needed for independent living such as brushing teeth, bathing, bowel cleaning, etc.

However, we have to be careful not to communicate a "works" mentality in our children ... that everything they owned were earned. There were times when we gave gifts for no reason or awarded rewards even when the "star chart" is incomplete to communicate the meaning of "grace" ... God giving us what we do not deserve.

Although there is a place for the use of rewards in Christian parenting, I question the ability of behaviour modification to bring about character change. The behaviour modification approach tries to make changes in a person's external behaviour rather than his inner thoughts and feelings. But is this a real change?


God alone can bring about a transformation through the new birth resulting in new attitudes and behaviour (2 Cor. 5:17). Please note that some rewards as used by many parents are NOT true reinforcements of the behavioural modification kind. A reinforcement is a desired reward given immediately after a behaviour and one that increases the probability of that behaviour occuring again. Therefore, a reinforcement is not ...

  1. A reward that is given long after an act was completed ... because that reward does not affect the behaviour that has already taken place.

  2. An offer of reward for future performance ... because that offer of reward may or may not affect behaviour in the future.

Ignoring Undesirable Behaviour

The behaviour modification approach can also be used to change undesirable behaviour. The converse of reinforcing is ignoring. Undesired behaviour that is ignored is likely to be extinguished. Ignoring is not easy as we are used to attend to bad behaviour. But remember, behaviour that gets your attention is reinforced!

Christian parenting, however, is not indifferent to bad behaviour. Rather it is choosing to ignore undesirable behaviour at the point of occurrence and then at a later time talking to your child about what is wrong with his behaviour. We found "ignoring" effective to extinguish emotional outbursts such as whining, sulking and temper tantrums.

Punishing Undesirable Behaviour

You can also use punishment (e.g., physical spanking) as a means of decreasing the probability of an undesired behaviour happening again. The rod has a definite place in Christian parenting.


Use of the rod coupled with correction (of what is wrong) and instruction (of what is right) will give wisdom (Prov. 29:15a).

By the way, note that punishment is not the same as negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement involves the removal of something unpleasant (i.e., relief) whereas punishment is the addition of something unpleasant. Moreover, your child cannot avoid a punishment by changing his present behaviour since the undesired behaviour has already occurred. But he can avoid a negative reinforcement (i.e., experience relief) by changing his behaviour right then.

External Conditioning and Internal Choosing

Some parents may testify that their children do not respond easily to reward and punishment. Adherents of the behaviour modification approach may argue that reinforcements are relative and that these parents have not found the right motivation for their children. The behaviour modification approach seeks to explain behaviour based on external environmental conditioning ... placing all responsibility for a child's behaviour on the parents. It fails to consider that man made in the image of God has a free will. Your child is capable of choosing his own behaviour ... for good or evil.

Causes and Consequences of Behaviour

Behaviour modification focuses on the consequences not on the causes of behaviour. It is important to note that cause is antecedent to behaviour while consequence is subsequent to behaviour.

Cause Behaviour Consequence

When my younger son was about two, he would wake up every morning and cry. If I were to use the behaviour modification approach, I should ignore his crying. But this might lead to more distraught.

I guessed that the reason for his behaviour could be that there was no one else in the room when he woke up and he cried in fear. So every morning I would drop whatever I was doing and rush into the bedroom with a broad smile and a chirpy "Good morning" whenever I heard him arousing from his sleep. I did this over a period of time and his crying stopped.

Is your child misbehaving because he is restless or because he is rebellious? Without discerning, we may use the wrong method of discipline.