Beyond Behaviorism

Posted by on Oct 29, 2010 in Essential Development | 4 comments

The last couple of posts I have been unpacking praise

and trying to make the distinction between praise used as manipulation and praise that is simply the natural response of the heart when we see the great mystery manifesting through our child in the form of some new capacity or insight. What I am really pointing to is the importance of stepping out of the judgmental layer — the layer where punishments and manipulative praise are believed to be the best way toward appropriate behavior.

Not only is behaviorism ineffective in the long run, it is also harmful to our relationship with our child.

“Now wait a minute!” come the cries from the gallery!

“Are there not some actions and behaviors that are clearly wrong, bad, or amoral? Are there not other behaviors like sharing and being kind that are better than other behaviors like hitting??”

To this I would have to answer, absolutely yes.

We must each have our own moral code to go by and to help our children work towards as they develop maturity.

Values are incredibly important and we should not shy away from sharing these hard-earned lessons with our children. Better yet, we should become embodiments of those values. But here is the distinction: If our interactions with our children are mostly coming from the “behaviorist layer” that exists in each of our psyches, then our children’s sense of self-worth will rise and fall according to whether or not they are living up to the superego-standards presented by the all-knowing, all-moral kings and queens of the land – we parents. That kind of self-worth is very unstable, always one mis-step away from collapse into worthlessness, and leaves the child/adult chronically tense, vigilant, and ultimately defensive. From this place maturation is impeded, not supported. And maturation is actually what is ultimately needed for all truly moral behavior (as opposed to morality based on dogmas).

So what is the alternative to behaviorism?

How can we help our child towards behavior and interactions that accurately reflect the truth of our interdependence and support maturation in place of stunting it? How can we promote kindness, sharing, and compassion without the downsides of behaviorism? Here is a way that I have come to make sense of this very tricky process.


There are five essential elements of relational nourishment and these forms of nourishment are what Life needs to do its job of maturing our children.

1. Unconditional love — On one level this is loving your child exactly as they are; letting them know you value them for existing, not for what they do or don’t do.  On another level, when you recognize that they are a gift from the mystery — from Life itself — you can’t help but feel respect and humility, and then love naturally arises. So love is not something we do; it’s what we are when we reconnect with the mysterious brilliancy that made all of this possible.

“It is with the heart that one sees rightly: what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

2. Space — This is providing the room for our child to be and become herself. This is not neglect, but space as nourishment.  It requires a certain amount of wise protection from physically unsafe things as well as psycho-emotional room to develop their own autonomy, agency, and ultimately a sense of responsibility for their actions. In part, this is giving our child room from our ideas and feelings, thereby allowing for a deeper contact with themselves as the ultimate source of feelings, insights, and intuitions by which they can successfully navigate their lives.

“The heart is the true inner teacher, the source of inner guidance we all have as our birthright.”


In the presence of unconditional love, spaciousness, and structure, our body-minds come to a state of rest.

We find peace in our bodies and our house becomes a home. We maintain contact with Basic Trust and our Inherent Value.  This state of rest is where we grow, mature, and relate most easefully. And it is also the state from which we can feel our intrinsic motivation begin to move us out into the world: our curiosity, our vitality, our creativity, and self-expression. This is the essence of emergence: the freedom to be and become ones Self.

“Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest of human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

In addition to Unconditional Love and Spaciousness, Life needs two forms of guidance to help our children navigate this world: Mentorship and Healthy Limits.

We are not simply spiritual beings, perfect as we are. We are also raw material that will take a lot of time, experience, and support to reach our intended potential. We are also human beings living a physical life here on earth, and this physical world has certain rules by which it operates. We need guidance from our elders to learn how this place works.  That guidance comes ideally as Mentorship and Healthy Limits which not only guides behavior in the short run, but will promote maturity over time.

3. Mentorship — We can act as guides in helping our children learn our social protocols and the cultural values we hope to transmit. In the early years, we will often be scripting behaviors and soliciting good intentions while simultaneously helping them develop their own mindsight. Mindsight — the development of self-insight and empathy — ultimately results in intelligent and compassionate interaction with others through the process of maturation, particularly the integrative process. Perhaps the most powerful acts of mentorship arise out of our own behavior in life. Ideally, we will embody the qualities and behaviors that we want our children to develop. Mentorship also involves the illumination of what is totally unique and divine in our child and the marriage of their ordinary consciousness and the truth of interdependence with their inner daimon’s relentless desire for expression.

There are two ways of spreading light; by being the candle, or by being the mirror that reflects it.”

Edith Wharton

4. Healthy limitsThe loving provision of these limits yields three primary benefits:

  1. Keeping our children safe and guiding them towards healthy living of all kinds
  2. Giving them practice to develop self-regulation, impulse control, and respectful and responsible behaviors
  3. Supporting them through the adaptive process which leads to resilience in the face of adversity

Outside of the context of unconditional love and spaciousness, limits will much more likely be experienced as controlling by the child. This will provoke their protective instincts, close the child off to our guidance, and lead to a more strained and less enjoyable relationship. The key to avoiding this dynamic is to say “no” to the behavior while simultaneously saying “yes” to their being and to the relationship.

“What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”

Martin Luther King Jr.


5. MistakesThe word “mistake” comes to us from the perspective of judgment. From this layer of the psyche, we are trying to classify an event or a behavior as right or wrong, good or bad. The attempt to classify things in this way can sometimes help us move toward our goals in life, but many times it can be a hindrance to the dynamic, intelligent unfolding of Life.

If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”

Mother Teresa

Here are three reasons that “mistakes” are actually nourishment:

  1. “Perfectionism” is born of fear/anxiety and promotes these states in our children. Shelving our more perfectionistic tendencies for a more authentic tussle with the messiness of life is an embodiment of confidence that nourishes our children.
  2. Mis-attunements are necessary to learn about interactive repair and how, in the end, the mature amongst us always choose love over being “right.”
  3. Mistakes are the sand and grit of life from which we may develop competence, confidence, and resilience.

There is so much more that can be said about each of these elements of relational nourishment, but I am afraid that if say anything beyond the 1500+ words I have already said you will never visit this site again. So alas, let’s get to the take home.

Take Home: By offering our children these essential elements of relational nourishment in place of the punishments and rewards born and raised in the more judgmental and dogmatic layers of our psyche, we will be supporting their slow, but steady movement towards healthy living and moral behavior. At the same time we will preserve their wholeness, their sense of inherent value, and promote the maturity that ultimately solves most (if not all) behavioral problems.

“How true Daddy’s words were when he said: ‘All children must look after their own upbringing.’ Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”

Anne Frank

Let our “putting them on the right paths” be our own artful blend of relational nourishment that ultimately supports our child’s unique creative dance toward maturity.

Check out the Loving Discipline Home Course for more details on how to apply the five essential elements of relational nourishment in real life!



  1. Great post!

    I have met many, many parents who have felt that “disciplining their child” feels, in their guts, wrong, arbitrary, unsettlingly rooted in power relationships and far too focused on “MY” (the parent’s) needs than the child’s.

    However, the alternative is… often complete anarchy, unsatisfying to anyone. Humans crave order and peace, and family life without these things is stressful for almost anyone.

    I read a metaphor once that really works for me– wish I could remember the source. It was, not surprisingly, a Waldorf type, I do recall.

    Discipline, the person wrote, can be conceived of as the banks of a healthy river. No banks at all, and you have a flood. Control the flow too tightly, and you have a raging firehose, exploding out the “other end.” But river banks that are naturally developed create a healthy system, with natural ebbs, flows, and “discipline” that feels not stifling, but life-giving.

    Again, this post was awesome! Thansks.


  2. Good counsel all around. Perhaps we are the candle and the mirror, “we” being the world with its continual opportunity for we parents to grow past the mistaken ego-identities that make us need to call the shots and only contributes to our suffering.

    Not only is this good parenting advice, it is a viable path to happiness and equanimity. Here’s to the mutuality of our efforts. Namaste

  3. Love that metaphor of the healthy river banks Grace – thankyou! It seems to me that both limits and freedom can be expressions of love if only the connection is maintained. It often comes down to self-regulation. When I become dis-regulated (move into the reactive mode) I don’t think I convey the lessons well to my son. By that I mean that I don’t think I really promote a more ordered mind in that moment and therefore do not help him in understanding the situation more clearly or help him stay integrated. So not ideal, but again probably still OK. My mistakes absolutely teach me: seeing that little bottom lip stick out and having him come sink into me after I have raised my voice with him makes it real clear that I need more practice and self-awareness. And I think he also learns that other people have feelings too, are not perfectly controlled and infallible, and most important – that through his vulnerable expression of emotion daddy reads his cues and comes back into love and connection. I think that is a very powerful learning for all of us: to stay vulnerable with those we love and invite connection rather than demand it.
    And thanks for your insights, as always Bruce.

  4. “Are there not some actions and behaviors that are clearly wrong, bad, or amoral? Are there not other behaviors like sharing and being kind that are better than other behaviors like hitting??”

    This, in my opinion, is exactly the problem with behaviorism! It will tell a person not to do XYZ but will not tell a person WHY they shouldn’t do XYZ other than fear of getting caught. There is a difference between “you shouldn’t hit your sister because you will be grounded” and “you shouldn’t hit your sister because she is a living, feeling being like you and does not deserve to be hit.” Empathy and selfless altruism are major stumbling blocks for behaviorism.


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