Balancing Resources and Treatment

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Suggestions for Raising Children in America

(And Other Democracies)

Click here for French translation

Rearing children in America, i.e., a democracy, means trying to raise individuals who are self-directing. The whole idea is that children control themselves, rather than us controlling them. A good many young adults in America are floundering because they have not learned to be self-directing.

According to statistics provided by the National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences and US Dept. of Education1, only 38% of those without a High School Diploma voted in 2000 versus 77% of those with a Bachelorís degree or higher; in October 1999, some 3.8 million young adults were not enrolled in a high school program and had not completed high school. These youths accounted for 11.2 percent of the 34.1 million 16- through 24-year-olds in the United States in 1999).

According to Dr. Alan Seidman of the Center for the Study of College Student Retention (CSCSR), formerly Collegeways, public and private drop out rates between college freshman and sophomore years for 2002 were 31.5% and 28.7% respectively for BA/BS programs2. His source was the ACT Institutional Data File, 2002.

Most of our homes utilize a system of Praise And Punishment. Praise can be just as discouraging as Punishment. Both are based on someone outside ourselves evaluating our actions. How we feel about ourselves and our actions is much more important.

Four concepts: "Locus of Control", Learning Theory, Behavior Management Techniques and "Psychic Economy".

Locus of Control

Finding out where the power is in yours or your childís life can be simplified3,4(Rotterís Internal-External Locus of Control; table after Weiner, 1980). Do we attribute the things that happen in our lives to our own efforts or, to something outside ourselves? A simplified model follows:

Internal: Ability Effort
External: Task Difficulty Luck

Suppose your child made an "A" on a test. They could say:

While we need to recognize Task Difficulty and the role of Luck in our lives, it is our Ability and Efforts that we can manage. We can use our Abilities and Efforts to select Tasks that are achievable and to "stack the odds in our favor."

An aside here is that it is our mood (long term emotional traits) that determines what happens to us in life. Trying to cope with your thoughts will keep you up at night, because thoughts only last from moment to moment.

Punishment is most often non-productive or counter-productive. There is a similar but more effective technique, Negative Reinforcement, particularly when paired with Positive Reinforcement.

Some Of The Problems With Punishment

  1. You often say what you donít want, not what you do want. For example: "Stop that!", "Quit that!", "Leave that alone!" and "Donít do that!" We donít say what to do in its place.
  2. It only suppresses behavior (as long as you are around to punish, it doesnít occur; turn your back or leave, and it is right back at full strength).
  3. It oftentimes punishes the punisher. You might have looked forward to taking your child somewhere nice or seeing them get something they especially wanted. Now you canít because theyíre "on punishment." You also have to cope with their sulking.
  4. Punishment only extinguishes a behavior if it is severe. There could be dire consequences to severe punishment (injuries to the child, yourself) or reports made to Child Protective Services.
  5. Oftentimes you punish good behavior as well as bad. For instance: "Just wait till I get home, youíll get a whipping you wonít forget!" In the meantime, the child may be totally compliant, which also gets punished.
  6. It evokes the "Fight, Flight, or Freeze response" hardwired into our nervous system. Punished children either withdraw ("learned helplessness", defined as anxious or depressed by some theoretical schemes) or attack. If they attack, it may be passive-aggressive (oppositional defiant, i.e., it's not what they do, it's what they donít do; they forget, lose things, donít finish things, give you partial information, put things off to the last minute, curse adults and peers). Or, it may be overt aggression--stealing, lying, running away, fighting, drugs, etc.
  7. Punishment involves someone controlling the child rather than the child controlling his or herself. A democracy depends on individuals controlling themselves.

Learning Theory and Behavior Management Techniques

If you Give your child something your child considers pleasant, that is Positive Reinforcement. If you Take Away something your child considers pleasant, thatís Punishment. If you Give something unpleasant (e.g., spanking, a grounding, or a time-out), thatís Punishment. If, however, you Take Away something unpleasant, thatís Negative Reinforcement .

Reinforcement, Positive or Negative, increases the likelihood of a response. The Premack principle or Probability of Behavior Rule--a high frequency behavior can be used as reinforcement for a low probability behavior--will help determine what is reinforcing for a person.

Punishment decreases the likelihood of a response, but it has the identified drawbacks.

Your child is supposed to put their dirty clothes in the family hamper each day. Everyday they fail to do this. Day after day, you find yourself more and more angry (this emotion itself tells you something, which Iíll address below).

On Wednesday, youíre fed up so when you notice their dirty clothes on the floor, you tell them "You didnít do what I told you, go to time-out for 30 minutes." This is Punishment.

If, instead, you said, "This is Wednesday and I see your clothes are on the floor from Sunday. I want you to stop what youíre doing and go sit in the time-out chair until you can come tell me: 1) where we agreed they are supposed to be taken and, 2) your plan to do this now and in the future without requiring reminders." This is Negative Reinforcement. The desired behavior is specified and, the child getting out of the chair is not dependent on the clock ticking, it is dependent on their doing something, i.e., changing their behavior.

Another example of Punishment versus Negative Reinforcement is the child that you have indulged. You have given them everything they have asked for, bought them what ever they wanted, but still, they are sulking. When the child acts like this, you often hear "It's not fair!" They are unhappy and you cannot make them happy.

Punishment again would be "Iím tired of your whining, pouting, brooding, sulking and moping around. Go to time-out until I say you can come out."

Negative Reinforcement would be "Iím tired of your whining, pouting, brooding, sulking, and moping around. Go to time-out until you can come out and say something pleasant." Again, their coming out of time-out is not based on an arbitrary time that you impose, but on their behavior changing.

These interventions can be analyzed with the following Table adapted and similar to that of Lefrancois (1983)5:

Pleasant Unpleasant
Give Positive Reinforcement Punishment
Take Punishment Negative Reinforcement

Borrowing from Dinkmeyer (Sr., originally, and now Jr. too) and McKayís Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP Parenting program) model6, use your emotions to determine what is going on between you and your child.

If you feel: Your child's goal is: Your child feels:
Annoyed Attention Annoyed because they feel ignored
Angry Power, control Angry because they feel over-controlled or out-of-control
Hurt Revenge Hurt
Disappointed, discouraged, like giving up To lower your expectations of them Disappointed, discouraged, like giving up

Psychic Economy

Donald Schaffer, M.D., a psychiatrist (U.S. Navy, retired) in Memphis whom I have worked with for several years, emphasized the importance of this concept7. Your mind can productively input, store, and process a limited amount of information.

Your "psyche" is affected by the breadth and depth of your "phenomenological field" (personal resources, the combination of your personality, intelligence, familial background, life circumstance and life experiences). You need to recognize your limits.

Since there is only so much of you to go around, there are several institutions existing in society to help people cope. These include Government, Family, Religion, Education, Economics (work), Language (e.g., reading), Arts, Recreation, and Healthcare. Analyze your own familyís involvement in these and where youíre over-involved and under-involved and adjust your life accordingly. Try to fight only those battles you think you can win. Save much of the rest to help nurture yourself and those around you.

Summing Up

Catch your child "in the act of doing good" and ask them how they feel about what theyíve done. Once they affirm they feel good about it, only then add that it makes you feel good, too. This reinforces their being able to bring about good feelings in themselves without waiting for others being around to validate them, and that they can bring about good feelings in others.

When you experience the same emotion as another person (such as your child), we call that empathy (not sympathy).

Tell your child what to do as well as what not to do.

Ask your child to tell you What they did, not Why. This makes communication very clear. Most of the time they will answer "Why did you do that?" with "I don't know." Guess what? They probably don't know.

For example:
"What did you do?"
"I didnít put my clothes in the dirty clothes, as promised."
Then, as above, you say: "This is Wednesday and I see your clothes are on the floor from Sunday. I want you to stop what youíre doing and go sit in the time-out chair until you can come tell me: 1) where we agreed they are supposed to be taken and, 2) your plan to do this now and in the future without requiring reminders."

Do your best to treat your child with respect and they will respect you.

We hope you find these techniques helpful. Please feel free to save this web page as a document, print it and/or share it with others if you wish. Parenting groups are offered in most areas in the United States. Consult your local library, community mental health center, or community resource center.
In Memphis, TN, call LINC (901) 725-8895.


  1. National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2001/dropout/ExecSumm2.asp
  2. Seidman, Alan. The Center for the Study of College Student Retention (CSCSR),
  3. Rotter, Julian. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcements, Psychological Monographs, 80, Whole No. 609.
  4. Weiner, B. (1980). The Role of Affect in Rational (Attributional) Approaches to Human Motivation. Educational Researcher,9, 4-11.
  5. Lefrancois, Guy R. (1983). Of Children, Fourth Edition. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing., p. 101.
  6. Dinkmeyer, Don Sr., McKay, Gary, D., and Dinkmeyer, Don Jr. (1997). The Parent's Handbook: Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP). Atascadero, Ca: Impact Publishers, Inc.
  7. Schaffer, Donald (1995). Personal Communication.