And why behaviorism doesn’t really work.
A contributing problem to strictly behavioral approaches with kids these days is that often, in the short-term it appears to work. So, we keep on doing it. I can make almost anyone comply if I have a big enough stick. But in the long term, our intended consequences backfire.
See, we can find a kid’s biggest motivator we can get them to do almost anything. It works for big people, too. If I find your biggest motivator – the thing you could least stand to lose – I would have significant leverage to change your behavior. For example, if you were a parent and I knew your kid was one of the most important things on the planet to you, and I had the power to keep you from your child, I could get you to do almost anything, right? For instance, let’s say I thought you were too shy.
As a mother, I decided I was going to “teach you a lesson” and make you get up on stage in front of hundreds of people and sing an Adele song. Would you do it? Unrehearsed and embarrassed, you would probably say no. Would you change your mind if I said, “Sing right now or you don’t get to see your kid?” Chances are, you would comply and sing your ass off. Even if you are full of shame or in tears. Would you be grateful that I pushed you to do it? Regardless, your first response is just going to be, “Just give me back my kid!”
Does it work? Yup. I got you to comply, to do what I thought was best (even if my intentions were good). If I knew a kid’s screen time, access to his phone, or recess time was his biggest motivator, I could threaten to take that away in order to get him to do his math sheet, and he’ll likely do it. Although I got him to comply, when I play like this, I am often not playing the long game. I got his immediate compliance in the short-term; however, the question remains, what does that leave him with? If I get him to do his math sheet one day by taking away his screen time, what will he say the best day when I ask, “Hey buddy, can you sort out all of these books for me?” What do you think his response would be? Potentially, “No way” or, more that likely, “What happens if I don’t?”
When compliance from people we love or teach is predicated on what they stand to lose, they will never be motivated by respect. They will be motivated by fear. And fear is very different from respect.
Mahatma Gandhi’s words have never been more fitting:
“Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear and punishment.”