Alan Kazdin and Carlo Rotella have a sensible essay on Slate discussing how to change your child’s problematic behaviors. Key principle: it isn’t enough to punish the bad behavior. You have to find an opposite behavior and reward it.
They also discuss some of the frustrations and challenges of trying to eliminate problem behavior — things like extinction bursts and a tendency of stressed parents to unwittingly engage in variable reinforcement, which entrenches rather than eliminates the behavior.
But part of their sensible answer is: do you really want to bother? I was generally familiar with the learning-theory stuff, but a little surprised at how common many of these behaviors are.
Many unwanted behaviors, including some that disturb parents, tend to drop out on their own, especially if you don’t overreact to them and reinforce them with a great deal of excited attention…
Approximately 60 percent of 4- and 5-year-old boys can’t sit still as long as adults want them to, and approximately 50 percent of 4- and 5-year-old boys and girls whine to the extent that their parents consider it a significant problem. Both fidgeting and whining tend to decrease on their own with age, especially if you don’t reinforce these annoying behaviors by showing your child that they’re a surefire way to get your (exasperated) attention. Thirty to 40 percent of 10- and 11-year-old boys and girls lie in a way that their parents identify as a significant problem, but this age seems to be the peak, and the rate of problem lying tends to plummet thereafter and cease to be an issue. By adolescence, more than 50 percent of males and 20 percent to 35 percent of females have engaged in one delinquent behavior—typically theft or vandalism. For most children, it does not turn into a continuing problem.