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Sex, Spicy Food, and Parenting: Behavior Modification Gets a Bum Rap

davidlivermore | April 30th, 2011 2 Comments

As a young parent, I wasn’t big on bribes. You know—Be good and I’ll let you get a new toy. I wanted my daughters to make good choices for their own right and to think through the ensuing consequences. Yeah—that didn’t work out so great during the toddler years.

Over the last several years, I’ve spent a lot of energy cautioning against behavior modification. I just wasn’t convinced that getting people to artificially change their behavior demonstrated much about who they truly are on the inside. I’ve tried to make my point by saying things like:

  • We get all excited when teenagers aren’t doing drugs and having sex. But how is their character being formed from within? You can be a straight-laced kid who is bitter, cynical, and rebellious on the inside. Just because you “behave” a certain way doesn’t mean a whole lot.
  • Marital faithfulness means little if it’s simply following the behaviors that are “supposed” to go along with fidelity. Our spouses want faithfulness because we desire them and want to save intimacy for them, not because we’re just forcing ourselves to behave a certain way.
  • What’s the point of telling people the politically correct labels for various ethnic groups if they don’t actually view the Other with respect. PC lingo does little to really promote inclusion and effectiveness.
  • And knowing the “right” way to hand someone a business card in China isn’t going to have much to do with whether you can actually be effective working with the Chinese.

You get the idea. Whether it’s in religious circles, educational settings, or work place contexts, a lot of energy is spent trying to get people to artificially change their external behaviors without really dealing with what’s going on internally. And frankly, I’m convinced that more than ever, the greatest challenges facing our generation have far more to do with interior issues of what we value, how we think, and how we see the world rather than with external behavior changes and policy reforms.

HOWEVER…maybe our inner currents aren’t as disconnected from our external behaviors as I’ve often made them sound. Ions ago, Artistotle said, “We acquire virtues by first having put them into action.”

In a pretend, analytical world from which we get a lot of seminar-speak and classroom theories, it sounds great to say—Let’s get people to change from within and their behavior will naturally flow from that.

But as pointed out in David Brook’s new book, The Social Animal, our behavior isn’t nearly as neat, rational, and linear as that!

Of course my wife Linda wants me to be faithful for all the right reasons. But surely she’d opt for the “artificial behavior” rather than the alternatives, even when it seems “forced”.

Or let’s take something a little less intimate than faithfulness to my wife. My youngest daughter Grace (pictured above) has had the lowest “spice tolerance” of anyone in our family. But this year, she decided (on her own—I promise!) to try eating spicier foods. She started with easy stuff life tikka marsala and medium salsa. Now she’s ramping up to various Thai curries. At first, she tolerated it and kept a plate of pineapple nearby to reduce the burning sensation. But she’s just recently announced that Thai food is her favorite.  Full confession—I couldn’t be happier. So maybe there’s been some subversive behavior modification going on by her father. And she certainly hasn’t gulped down a full bowl of authentic Tom Yum soup yet. But what started as some small changes in her eating behavior has begun to translate into what she actually likes and enjoys.

I’m still pretty convinced that character development, effective cross-cultural interaction, or breaking addictions ultimately lies in something that’s both deeply personal and transcendent. But I’m beginning to see that all my energy spent on rants against “behavior modification” could probably be better spent elsewhere…err…like “training” myself to not check my email and other tech inputs every 90 seconds.

Changing behavior alone is not enough. But it often precedes changes in our attitudes and feelings. Like they say at Alcoholics Anonymous, “Fake it until you can make it!”

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