Helping Children Become Themselves: How Can I Fix My Kids

Several years ago I was invited to be a discussant for a controversial presentation given on our university campus. The presenter represented extreme and simplistic views. One of the statements made by the presenter was, “We must keep our children from using drugs and having sex until they are 25 because once people are 25 they normally do not initiate substance use or illicit sex.”

The presenter’s idea is ingenious. The problem is, how do we allow children to have normal growth opportunities without the risk that they may be involved in undesirable behavior? The Lord has taught that we do not learn decision making without opportunity and opposition. It is necessary for us to experience sorrow in order to know the difference between good and evil. The idea of making children’s decisions for them fits well with the observation made by H. L. Mencken. “There’s always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible and wrong” (Peters, L. J. (1977). Peter’s quotations: Ideas for our time, New York: Bantam, p 428.)

Everyday parents choose to follow Heavenly Father’s great plan of agency or Satan’s perverse plan of captivity. Daily we are tempted to go the safe route, grabbing the child’s hand from every cookie, locking them up against temptation, and rewarding every performance of duty. Satan would have us believe that the only option to such hyper-vigilance is to leave children to the vagaries of nature, hoping they stumble through life without serious injury. He does not want us to discover God’s way.

Anyone who ever tended a garden knows the better option. It is not enough to throw seeds to the wind. Nor can one compel a bounteous crop. Rather, we plant wisely. We tend carefully. We water regularly.

So it is in raising children. Sandra Scarr (1992), writing as president of the Society for Research in Child Development, suggested that parents should help children become themselves. That is a revolutionary statement. Become themselves. Not the fulfillment of our dreams. Not the model citizens we design. Themselves. With sensitive care we can help the radishes flourish and the tomatoes prosper. But even the most conscientious or creative gardener cannot sprout zucchini from apricot pits.

Our job is to provide the conditions that optimize development, that help a zucchini seed become a thriving crop (and ultimately a neighborhood pestilence) and an apricot pit become a fruit-bearing tree. Our job is not to form and mold but to provide conditions that encourage the full expression of each seed’s eternal nature. We cannot make them into one thing or another. We help them fill the measure of their creation and thereby find joy. That is the immutable law of nature.

The branch of psychology known as learning theory suggests that people can be trained to behave in desired ways through systematic use of rewards and punishments (as well as appropriate modeling). John Watson, a prominent American psychologist some decades ago, presented the extreme learning position:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—into a doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, even into beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of ancestors.

Notice the interesting presumption: “I can take a normal infant and make anything I will of him or her.” The ability to change people so fundamentally has traditionally been ascribed only to God. For any mortal to presume to do the same is reminiscent of the ancients who hoped to build a tower so that they could ascend into heaven and replace God with a more sympathetic administration.

Let’s consider an example of managing a child’s misbehavior adapted from the recommendations of a learning guru.

Parent: What would have been better than hitting your sister?

Boy: I hate my sister. I like to hit her.

Parent: I can see that you like to hit her but what should you do?

Boy: You want me to leave her alone.

Parent: That is an excellent answer. I appreciate your mature response. Please show me how you will do that.

Boy walks across the room without hitting his sister.

Parent: That is exactly what you should do. When you control yourself like that you will earn some very valuable privileges.

Such parental behavior suggests that “valuable privileges” are the key to motivating good behavior. Children are the sum total of what they are rewarded for.

Discussions about the fundamental nature of humans may seem like academic babbling. It is not. Maybe humans are like animals to be trained to run the mazes of life and peck the levers of goodness and productivity. If that is the case, then it is our duty to carefully manage the contingencies (anything that can be rewarding) in each child’s life. The clear, if cynical, message of this philosophy is that you can buy anything in this world with money, tokens, points, pellets, and stars. It suggests that each soul is only a hollow corridor in which we hear the echo of our pats, nods, and praise.

Yet maybe we are like seeds to be cultivated into the fullest expression of our nature and potential. While none of us may know the potential in any given seed, we can witness in humble wonder as it unfolds the miracle of life. But we are commanded to be more than idle spectators. We prepare the soil. We prune any blockages of the light. We clear the furrow so that water can flow to the plant. And we provide life-giving nutrients so that the seed may fill the measure of its creation. Yet, in the final analysis, it is God who gives the increase.

Learning theorists suggest that we ignore most of children’s misbehavior. For example, if a child throws a lego at a parent while they are playing together, the parent may get up and leave without any apparent response and return when the child is playing well again. This is to be repeated as often as the child throws a lego. Presumably the child will learn that the misbehavior of throwing a lego will rob him or her of parental companionship. That is probably true for some children.

Others may delight to discover how little it takes to control a parent.

A child developmentalist would probably take a different approach. The best parental reaction to a thrown lego depends on the motivation of the thrower. If a child is tired of building with legos, it may be time to take a walk or play ball. If a child is at the little-scientist stage of development, a parent might place a bowl in front of the two of them and invite the child to use the bowl as a target for legos. If the child needs direction, the parent might say, “It looks as if you have begun building a house. Tell me about your house. Would you like to put one of these windows in it?” The antidote for lego-throwing depends on the child and the circumstances.

The enormous appeal of learning theories is that there is a simple formula for solving all problems: ignore bad behavior, reward good behavior. The great power of the developmental approach is that it acknowledges that any solution to any problem depends on the stage, mood, and personality of the child. This approach is messier. But it does not presume that there is one solution to all problems. Every patient at the doctor’s office needs a customized treatment.

The battle between scholars who favor a learning model and those who favor a developmental model is as endless as any resurrection debate between the Sadducees and Pharisees. Each side sees persuasive evidence in support of its view. The debate will not be finally settled in the scholarly community. But, in my view, it is easily settled by the gospel of Jesus Christ.


Several times in my life I have observed families as they instituted reward systems to motivate and form their children. In every case it has evolved into a manipulation and counter-manipulation system with frustrated parents and conspiring children. Is the failure only because the parents failed to use the system properly?

Mark Lepper has done extensive research on rewarding behavior. He has shown that when you start to reward children for doing something like coloring that they have always done for the joy of it, they will refuse to color any more unless they are rewarded. The motivation has moved from internal and natural to external and imposed.

That makes sense. Giving rewards changes the rules of the game. The objective becomes getting the reward rather than joy in the use of talents. Alfie Kohn, a commentator on psychological nonsense contends that the quality of performance actually declines when we start rewarding people. The reason is simple. Rewards shift the focus from performance and expression to reward and self-interest.

Many a parent has tried rewards to motivate children only to find that their children become very savvy at negotiation, stalling, and even strikes. If we live by manipulation, we die by manipulation. Children are not pliant clay that can be made into anything the parent chooses. Children are not mercenaries who can be bribed into goodness. Children are offspring of God with divine natures and eternal destinies. An earthly parent’s job is to help each child discover the full expression of his or her divine mission.

Learning theorists often claim research as an ally. Research reportedly shows that only their approach can reliably change behavior. Indeed behavioral approaches (rewards and punishments) can train certain behaviors. That has been demonstrated repeatedly in the lab. But they are effective because they first reduce us to the level of animals and they reduce desired change to micro behaviors. The tools of behaviorism work best with pigeons and rats. If our goal is to cultivate divine nature, such tools are insulting and insufficient, even counterproductive. Since our eternal missions are written in our souls, tokens are merely a disgraceful distraction from the still, small voice. No number of changed micro behaviors can add up to a mighty change of heart.

In the next installment in this series I will recommend specific ways parents can cultivate children’s wise use of agency without the use of rewards or manipulation.

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