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Q: The mother of two small children writes that when she takes them to indoor play areas she often finds herself dealing with parents who not only do nothing about their children's obvious misbehavior, but also defend it. On one such occasion, a small boy was climbing to the top of a two-story spiral sliding board and releasing a toy metal truck, which would come careening down the slide and shoot out the end like a projectile. After it became obvious that the child wasn't going to stop, she picked up the truck and asked him to stop, at which point she was confronted by an irate father who demanded the truck back and told her if she did not like his child's behavior, she should take her children home.

She asks, "What is going on when a parent defends his or her child's right to behave anti-socially, and is this becoming the norm?"

A: According to teachers, it has already become the norm. Fifty years ago, if a teacher called a parent to report a child's misbehavior, the parent accepted the teacher's version of the event, accepted that her child, on any given day, was capable of outrageous behavior, and assured the teacher that her child would be punished. That response reflected the understanding that no amount of good parenting could guarantee good behavior on the part of a child; that every child possessed the ability to act in ways that were completely counter to parental values and teaching. As the once-popular saying went, "Every child has a mind of his own."

Concerning their children's behavior, today's parents think mechanistically, consistent with the cause-effect paradigm of behavior modification, which was absorbed into mainstream parenting thought in the 1960s. This new psychological paradigm has it that a child does not have a mind of his own; rather, his behavior is a direct reflection of things his parents have done or not done in the course of raising him. Obviously, this means that if a child misbehaves, his parents stand convicted. And so, when today's parents hear reports of misbehavior from teachers--or anyone else, for that matter -- they are likely to become their children's advocates and attorneys.

In effect, "behavioral" thinking has transferred responsibility for a child's misbehavior from the child to his parents. When my mother, for example, heard that I had misbehaved in school, she heard a report about me. When today's mom (or dad) hears that her child has misbehaved, she hears a report about herself. There are, of course, exceptions, but this is indeed the norm.

Today's parents fail to realize, and a good number of psychologists fail to accept, that while behavior modification works very neatly on rats and pigeons and dogs, it does not work quite as neatly on human beings. Consequences will cause a rat's behavior to change. Consequences do not reliably cause human behavior to change.

If a rat receives a mild electric shock when it wanders into the "wrong" part of a maze, it will stop doing the "wrong" thing. Likewise, if it receives a morsel of its favorite food when it wanders into the "right" area of a maze, it will keep doing the "right" thing. No amount of reward or punishment, however, will guarantee a change in a human being's behavior, child or adult. If a rat does not learn to do the right thing, the rat's handler stands convicted, but this is not the case with a child. It may be, but it is not necessarily so.

So, when the mom in the above example reprimanded the child for doing something potentially hurtful to others, she was unwittingly reprimanding the child's father, and he responded defensively. Unfortunately, the only "solution" is to do exactly what the father suggested she should have done to begin with: say nothing about the truck-projectile, gather up her child, and leave the play area.

John Rosemond is a family psychologist. Questions of general interest may be sent to him at Affirmative Parenting, 1020 East 86th St., Suite 26B, Indianapolis, Ind. 46240 and at his Web site:
If you or someone you know has parenting problems, call the Parents Anonymous 24-hour confidential Help-Line at 892-2172.

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