Behavioral Shaping

By Len Lantz, MD


Behavioral shaping, or behavior-shaping, is a strategy for changing a person’s behavior through rewards. Essentially, it is shaping or molding a certain behavior pattern.

Behavior-shaping was first studied and defined by B.F. Skinner, the psychologist who developed behavior analysis, who classified it as a form of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is based on only rewarding desired behavior. Dr. Skinner was able to train animals to perform tasks by only rewarding the behavior that led to the outcomes he wanted, such as getting a rat to press a lever for food or teaching pigeons to play ping pong.

The findings in many cases of behavior-shaping were that when the reward stopped, so did the desired behavior, so it comes as no surprise that parenting experts have not invested much time and effort in behavior-shaping as a parenting strategy. However, children are not the same as Dr. Skinner’s rats and pigeons. It turns out that parents can use behavioral shaping to create a new routine or baseline expectation in their homes. And that does not mean that you have to hand your child a cookie every time they use a tissue instead of the back of their hand when they have a runny nose.

The strategies covered in this article use a broader interpretation of behavioral shaping that involves gradual changes to a preferred behavior, which eventually becomes the new normal or default behavior. 


Experts in behavioral interventions are going to cringe at this article because I’ll be using terms like punishment and reward as regular folks (not behavioral scientists) use the terms. Whether something is a punishment or a reward depends on the perspective of the people involved. Consider the common example of getting kids to do their homework. If a child does not do their homework, a parent might not let them play video games. From the parent’s perspective, video games are a privilege and reward for the child doing their job (homework and chores). If the child does not do their homework, they do not receive the reward.

From the child’s perspective, they might see playing video games as a fundamental right. They might own their smartphone or gaming system if they received them as gifts. If they are older, they may have worked and saved money to buy their electronics, therefore they might believe they should have full control over those items. If a child is not allowed to be on their phone or gaming, they see might see it as punishment or a violation of their rights.


There is only one rule when using behavioral shaping as a parent: Grandma’s Rule. 

Dr. Lynn Clark defines Grandma’s Rule as “after you do your chore, then you get to play.” That’s it. Do the required task, then chill out and enjoy being a kid. The reward can be something you do intentionally, such as showing your child appreciation or giving them a treat or simply letting them spend their time however they want.

Here are some examples of how parents reinforce Grandma’s Rule with their kids:

  • “Buddy, pause your game and get your homework done, please. You know the rule. Homework, then electronics. Please hand me your phone. I’ll hold onto it while you get your work done so it’s not a distraction.”
  • “I hear that you want to clean your room later. I’m telling you that ‘later’ is now. The sooner you are done, the quicker you can get back to your activity.”
  • “We’ve already discussed this before, John. You get one hour of electronics per day. If you want to earn another hour of gaming, I want to see you outside playing for an hour first.”
  • “Janie, you’ve been asleep in your room for an hour. It’s time for you to get up, sweetie. We can talk about what you want to do and need to get done with what’s left of the day. Also, I need to run errands. If you come with me, we’ll stop by Starbucks.”
  • “I know that you plan to spend the day with your friends, Sam, but check the chore calendar. You were supposed to have the lawn mowed yesterday. Text your buddies and tell them you are going to be late. Come find me when you are done with the lawn so I can check it, then the afternoon is yours to spend however you want.”

If kids are not doing some form of work (chore or school), then they are usually playing or relaxing (experiencing a reward). That play or relaxation might be music, art, reading, video games, daydreaming, taking a nap, checking social media, hanging out with friends or playing with toys. Some teenagers have actual jobs; however, Grandma’s Rule still applies: after you do your chore (taking care of your responsibilities at school and home), then you get to “play” (spending your free time at an optional job to have more spending money).

Even though the rule is simple, it can sometimes feel like a very hard rule to enforce. Parents face real challenges in enforcing some rules because most are not trained in behavioral strategies, and some children have higher needs, are more oppositional and have a more challenging temperament than others. Also, not all parents have the same amount of time, support, skills or awareness to address these problems early when they are more easily fixed. Control of your child’s electronics is a big factor but not the only factor in getting them to do the activities they need to be doing.

If you find that you cannot consistently enforce Grandma’s Rule by turning off the games, taking your child’s phone, shutting down their computer or dislodging them from their room and bed, then you are in trouble and would likely benefit from working with a behavioral specialist.


Other than leaving it up to your child to reward themselves, you can reward behavior that you like to see in other ways. In the book The 5 Love Languages of Children, Drs. Ross Campbell and Gary Chapman identified different ways kids know that they are loved.

• Physical touch: hugging/snuggling

• Words of affirmation: telling them what you appreciate about them or providing a specific compliment

• Quality time: time with them one-on-one, such as an outing or Special Time (see my article, “Special Time – the Most Fun You’ll Have as a Parent”)

• Gifts: small treats or gifts with a special meaning attached

• Acts of service: doing something nice for them (this usually means going out of your way)

Do you know what matters most to your child? Understanding your child’s love language will help you to be assured that you are communicating your love for them in the way they best understand and desire it. It would be irrational to start by withholding affection from your child, but when you are seeing more of the behavior that you want to see, you can reward them by showing them love in the way they best understand it.


Kids resist change, especially when it makes them less comfortable. When using behavioral shaping, you need to be clear on what the rules and consequences are. You then need to be calm and consistent as you work to get your kids back on track if they are off-task. Over time, arguments over the changes in expectations diminish because it is the new standard by which you do things in your home. You are not setting a new rule for one day, you are setting it for every day. Your ultimate goal is to help your kid to become self-directed in successfully allocating their time between work and play. They will also be rewarded by other positive outcomes that result from taking care of their obligations. They should not be interrupted in the middle of their play if they have completed other expectations. There is a benefit to getting good grades and positive feedback from teachers. They may earn an allowance for their chores and will find that they have less conflict and more positive time with their parents. Kids are universally happier when they have less conflict with their parents.


Parenting can be an incredibly challenging task. Parents are not trained as behavioral strategists and even if they were, there can be many aspects to parenting that feel outside of your control. However, if you are struggling with your child, there are steps you can take to help them do the things they need to be doing. One of your duties is to help your child thrive in the long run, which sometimes involves causing them discomfort now. Having basic rules can help you ensure that your kids are prioritizing their time. In doing so, the expectations and rules are clear and this will eventually become the new norm and routine. It will also improve your relationship with your kids over time. You will be having fewer conflicts as they are getting their top priorities done first.


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