To Condition the Child

Jacob Lee and Matthew Snodgress

There is no one individual who influences the development of a child more than the parent. Every aspect of the child’s progression through life, beginning  with their genetic makeup, is greatly influenced, if not completely determined by, the parent figure in the child’s life. Parent figures choose the climate which the child will grow up in. Whether that is in regard to family dynamics, intellectual stimulation, or social development. One way parents dictate the development of their child is through discipline. The methods and means of disciplining a child can impact their life socially, behaviorally, and even intellectually.

Some methods may effectively keep a child “in line,” but they could be harmful in the long term.  One such example of this damaging  discipline  is in the  book  To Train  Up a Child by Michael Pearl. This book is one which encourages corporal punishment and  and authoritarian approach to parenting. The authoritarian approach is embodied by a disconnect between parent and child. It is a relationship of power exercised by the parent over the child, with little mutual understanding or discussion.  Parenting in this style can be effective at the time, but comes with many dangers for the child’s future as many children become unhappy and unfriendly due to their parent’s lack of understanding of their needs. Perl’s book takes this approach to a new level. It encourages strong discipline in the face of any sort of disobedience. It takes the stance that parents have dominion over their child, and thus should exercise parental power over them.  The author encourages regular use of corporal punishment with an implement for any offense. This regular use of violence is not only emotionally and physically traumatizing for the child, it can also result in a form of classical conditioning. As the child is regularly beaten for wrongdoings, they begin to associate the implement being used, or even the voice of their parent with physical and psychological suffering. Such a strong negative relationship between parent and child results in very unhealthy relationships for the child in the future with peers, other authority figures, and eventually their own children.

However, dangers do not only lie in extreme approaches to parenting such as the one described above. Other, more mild examples of parental disciplinary action have also shown to harm the future development of the child socially. Just as Watson’s model of classical conditioning was illustrated in the case above, Skinner’s model of operant conditioning can prove to be harmful as well. When parents fail to adopt disciplinary practices with their children that are not consistent, the child can develop bad behaviors in adolescence and as adults. Operant conditioning states that reward for good behavior and punishment for bad behavior are both effective means of social development, or discipline. However, it is also clear that if discouragement of certain behaviors is not firmly consistent, meaning that sometimes there is a positive outcome,  then the child will continue the “bad” behavior in hopes of  hitting this positive outcome again. This type of behavior can evolve into adulthood as other addictive behaviors such as gambling. In order to prevent this for the child, a parent must be consistent in their treatment. A mixture of reward and punishment are beneficial as long as they remain constant for the child over the long term.

Considering each of the four modes of operant conditioning–positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment–not every method alters undesirable behavior in children equally. In an article from the Global Post, negative reinforcement used to reduce certain behaviors may unintentionally exasperate them (Anderson, 2013). Consider the following example: a child unwilling to eat certain foods may attempt to throw them; so naturally, a parent prevents this action. In doing so, the parent removes an object to encourage, ultimately, the behavior of eating that food; yet the child now understands that throwing leads to removal of the unwanted food. Since negative reinforcement encourages a particular behavior, certain contexts, such as this example, can inadvertently cause a child to form inappropriate associations (those not intended by the parent). Moreover, both positive and negative punishment, while sometimes necessary, can create an authoritarian parenting style when implemented excessively, which does not contribute to the child’s positive development to the degree of an authoritative style.

According to Bridget Bentz Sizer in an article titled Seven Tips for Practicing Positive Discipline, positive reinforcement has prolific effects on child behavior regulation (Sizer, 2013). She maintains that parental attention, time, and verbal encouragement are perhaps the most effective tools in enhancing desirable behaviors; and indeed, children require the acceptance and emotional support of parents or primary caregivers in order to develop properly across various domains (cognitive, social, emotional, etc.). Sizer reasons further that if the child spends more time behaving desirably, he or she will, consequently, spend less time behaving undesirably. Eventually, all desired behaviors have been positively reinforced so frequently that they significantly outnumber undesired behaviors and constitute the majority of the child’s energy and attentional investment, hopefully streamlining the positive developmental outcomes available to the child as he or she grows older. Of course, positive reinforcement cannot sustain positive development without consistency, an aspect of parenting particularly difficult to maintain when allowing relatives, friends, or others temporarily to care for children.

From personal experience, my own parents ensured that I followed consistent rules, such as a consistent bedtime and respectful regard for my elders. I learned that there were predictable features of the world and that my behaviors could evoke consistent effects aligned with these predictable features. For example, knowing that calling my grandfather “sir” would produce a positive response in my mother allowed me to act appropriately so that I could acquire her emotional reinforcement. Interestingly, my parents raised my younger sister more permissively, giving her ambiguous bedtimes and little instruction regarding how she should address older relatives. In consequence, her behavior has proved problematic for them since she does not behave consistently herself. As such, the responsibility for her correct behavior (however defined) is delineated to my parents and, in fact, to the parent of any child and is contingent on consistent, positive reinforcement resulting from an authoritative parenting style.




Anderson, A. R. Tips on the Misuses of Negative Reinforcement for Parents. 2013.


Pearl, Micheal. To Train  Up a Child. 1994.


Sizer, Bridget. Seven Tips for Practicing Positive Discipline. 2013.


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