Do you have challenges in modifying the behavior of your children?  Are they not acting the way they should?

Einstein said that for every action there is a reaction to follow it. If Uncle Joe comes across ragweed, he always gets watery eyes.  When you’re late turning in an assignment, your teacher becomes frustrated and you might get a bad grade.  However, when you treat your friends well, and strive to maintain the relationship, your friendship grows.

These reactions can also be called consequences, and they can be good, bad, or neutral.  Bad consequences or ones we don’t want are usually called punishments, while good consequences are often seen as a reward.  Neutral ones are just that – neutral.  They just happen through the course of events.  If you think about it, consequences are what parents use to teach their children the rules of life, and how to function in the real world.

Did anyone ever say to you that you get more flies with honey than with vinegar?  There is a lot of truth to that old saying.

When you use rewards to teach someone a behavior, they tend to remember the lesson longer and use it more frequently than when they experience a negative consequence.  If you think about it, it does make a lot of sense.  As a parent or other authority figure like an aunt or grandparent, you are one of the most important people in a child’s life.  They will do just about anything to win your approval.

When you show that you are pleased with something that they have done, they will repeat it again and again to cement their good relationship with you.  It’s simply how relationships work.  Children have a need for love and approval from those around them.  They need the honey much more than the vinegar of punishment.  In short, children need, and want you and the help that you can give them.

You can even see this concept at work in the laboratory.  Scientists use something called “successive approximations” to train animals in the lab.  Basically, this means that they use small steps toward a goal and offer rewards at each successful step.  For example if you want a mouse to go to the path to the left, you reward him when he looks in that direction, when he steps in that direction, and finally when he goes in the direction.

This same principle can be applied to a child.  Let’s take the example of a child’s messy room.  Most kids don’t clean their room very well.  However, if you show them what you want, and offer praise at each successful little step, soon they will get the picture and begin cleaning their room without your constant supervision.

Remember, saying things such as “good job!” when they put something in a drawer, or “Way to go!” when they make the bed can go a long way to modifying their behavior.

Another way to get a child to clean their room or to do any real positive action is to use natural consequences to your advantage.  It will also allow you to teach them about choices.  For example, you could let them know that if they take too long to clean their bedroom, an activity such as playing in a baseball game may be over by the time they are done.  At that point it’s up to them whether or not they want to move faster or postpone the baseball game until a later day.  This way you are teaching them about choices, and what must be done to make their desires a reality.

Of course, negative consequences or punishment should be a part of your tool box as well.  In a way, it works in the same vein as natural consequences.  A child has been told repeatedly not to run in the house, and yet one afternoon he still does, and a favorite lamp in the living room is smashed in the process.  By using a negative consequence, or punishment to teach him the errors of his ways, you can show him how to reason through the consequences of his actions.  A parent can help him to see through the consequence of cleaning up the mess, and perhaps doing chores to replace what he has broken, why the rule of not running in the house was established.

Another common example of the use of negative and natural consequences is when a child needs to learn how to take care of the equipment they use in sports or other activities.  Children by their very nature are rough on things.  They use them to their fullest extent, and don’t always think about how the wear and tear can damage them.  However, as a parent, you can use the negative consequence of confiscating their equipment until they can learn how to care for it properly.  It’s amazing how quickly games like soccer or football lose their appeal when things such as the balls or footwear are removed from the equations.

Another way to reinforce regular and good behavior in your child is to use a calendar to track their daily accomplishments.  For example, if you want your child to wash her face every day, one way to teach her that behavior is to make a calendar where she can mark off each day that she accomplishes this goal.  This accomplishes two different things.  The first is that it reinforces that this behavior is a good one to keep doing, and that the reward for increasing the number of times will be greater.  Again, start small, and increase the number until you get to the desired respect.

Of course, all children will develop bad habits.  If you want to help them modify their behavior, the trick is to discover the reason for their misbehavior.  For example, if your child is not doing his homework properly before he goes out to play, a possibility is that one of the subjects is giving him some trouble.  Perhaps someone at school like a bully or a teacher is giving him trouble.  Another possibility is that he is having trouble reading the board, or hearing the teacher.  Whatever the problem is, discovering the problem, and working with your child on ways to solve it can go a long way to helping to modifying the behavior in question.

If you think about it, teaching a child or an adult how to behave correctly, the use of rewards should certainly be greater than the punishments.  It is also important to look behind the outward behaviors to see if there is something else that needs to be addressed.  After all, if you work on solving the core problem, chances are the behavior will change with positive reinforcement.  Remember though, the real goal isn’t to change their behavior.  The real goal is to help them learn how to make the right decisions and have the right behavior on their own.

Everyone has seen the news stories on television of violent crimes, and wondered who or what could have done these things.  Surprisingly for some, these crimes and bad behaviors could have been predicted, and even prevented if someone nearby had paid attention to the warning signs that were there.  Thankfully, learning how to spot the warning signs is something that every parent can learn how to do and doing so can make a world of difference.

behaviorDr. Kathryn Seifert is a psychotherapist with over 30 years’ experience in mental health, addictions, as well as criminal justice work.   Get her free email newsletter at . Dr. Seifert has authored the CARE 2 and a parent and professional version of “How Children Become Violent.”   The parent version has an orange cover and a kindle book on Amazon. She speaks nationally on mental health related topics and youth violence. She is an expert witness in the areas of youth and adult violence and sexual offending, and understands behavior in children.