Behaviour Modification: How to Alter Your Child’s Attitude Without His Awareness

One of the things about Aristotle that has been bothering me lately is his negative attitude towards a lot of things. Some time back I wrote about the “helpless child syndrome“, lamenting over the fact that Aristotle appears “incapable” of doing things whenever I am around. Although we’ve managed to address that issue somewhat, I’ve noticed that his general outlook towards life is very negative.

Here’s a typical scenario with Aristotle:

Me: We’re eating at “insert name of restaurant”
Aristotle: I don’t like it.
Me: How do you know you don’t like it? You have never eaten there.
Aristotle: I know I won’t like it.

It was a similar response when I asked him to try Monster Tennis. He kept insisting that he wouldn’t enjoy himself. After a lot of cajoling, he finally went and discovered he really liked it.

I realise that certain characteristics are inherent in an individual. According to studies cited in Brain Rules for Baby, temperament is something that you cannot change – a child who is born anxious will always remain anxious. Yet, after reading The Creativity Post – You Become What You Pretend to Be – I can’t help but wonder if it is such a loss cause after all. If Salvador Dali could “pretend” to be an extrovert until he really appeared to be one, then surely some inherent characteristics can be changed.

Perhaps the case of Salvador Dali is not a good example because he made a conscious effort to change. What about an individual who has no inclination to do anything about his attitude? Well, it appears you don’t have to “believe” to change. In fact, you don’t even have to be aware of it to change. Simply altering your facial expression without conscious thought about the emotion you are feeling will suffice because the change in your posture affects your physiology. Here’s a case in point from Psychology Today:

The CIA researchers in a further experiment had one group of subjects listen to recordings of top comedians and look at a series of cartoons while holding a pen pressed between their lipsBan action that makes it impossible to smile. Another group held a pen between their teeth which had the opposite effect and made them smile.

The people with the pen between their teeth rated the comedians and cartoons much funnier than the other group. What’s more, neither group of subjects knew they were making expressions of emotion. Amazingly, an expression you do not even know you have can create an emotion you did not choose to feel. Emotion doesn’t just go from the inside out. It goes from the outside in.

That gives me hope. If I simply told Aristotle to smile even though he didn’t feel like it, he would give me 101 reasons why he couldn’t smile. But if I made him do something that resulted in a smile without him being aware of it… ah, now that could work.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

10 thoughts on “Behaviour Modification: How to Alter Your Child’s Attitude Without His Awareness

  1. This topic itches me with the word : “awareness”. I think if a child’s character is worth to be corrected then it’s definitely worthwhile for that message  to be delivered clearly  instead of making  “pretense measure” without their knowledge that their behavior is generally unacceptable. My query in mind is would that ” pretense measure” has far-reaching impact to actually alter a child’s life  towards correcting a generally negative attitude towards life, for instance,  if that’s what negative behavior  we want to correct  or would the impact of pretense only  stay on surface and resurface subsequently as the pretense is not significant enough to leave a mark in the child’s life after all ? I have no idea to this. But let me quote what said by Mr Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders that ” too often schools are faced with pupils who have never had any boundaries in their home lives – where there has never been a sense of right and wrong. It goes to say further that “Parents are not willing to say ‘no’. That short, simple word is an important part of any child’s upbringing and it’s desperately important that children have a sense of right and wrong. But we often come across children who have never been told that something is wrong.” 

    So at the very least, I think the right and not so right senses should be conveyed through.


    Sent from my iPad


    1. FZ – Once again your insightful views are much appreciated. I understand where you are coming from and I totally agree that discipline to correct “right” and “wrong” must be instilled in our children. When a child does wrong, it must be communicated that the behaviour is unacceptable. For instance, we cannot allow our child to hit another child no matter what the justification.

      The behaviour modification in this instance refers to the correction of a negative trait that does not necessarily have a clearcut “right” or “wrong”, where the impact is purely personal in nature. In our case, the only person who really suffers from Gavin’s negative attitude is himself because by refusing to try new things, he misses out on potential new pleasures to be discovered. Of course, should his negative attitude lead to a situation with more severe repercussions, I would not hesitate to step in and let it be known that the behaviour is unacceptable.

      That said, there is also scope for using this technique to assist in correcting negative behaviours. Just recently, I was reprimanding Gavin for behaviour I felt was inconsiderate and selfish. With Gavin, there is a specific technique to getting him to listen and going head-to-head with him is not the way (as much as many others have kept insisting to me that it should be the way), but of course, I slipped up on this day and I could see he had shut down. He wasn’t listening any longer and there was no point in my reprimands because he was refusing to listen. So to disarm him, I got him to bare his teeth in a smile. The effect was even better than I anticipated, he started laughing because he couldn’t continue to keep up his angry facade with the grin on his face. After that, I had a serious talk to him about his behaviour and he agreed to cooperate.

      Personally, I felt that it worked in this instance because I got to communicate my message to him and he listened. At the end of the day, it’s about whether you get your message across. I suppose it doesn’t really matter how you do it because the end justifies the means.


  2. Yes, certainly agree with you.

    I think I also take “child’s negative attitude towards life” seriously even though such impact is personal, apparently such attitude serves no good  to our child’s life development when it’s so easily foreseeable that it could lead to  other daunting  lifelong repercussions later if we try to shun that problem, we also don’t  want that attitude to be wiring into their brains that they were born with such inherent flawed nature which was unchangeable, thus repeatedly fail  to recognize to work on that weaken area, hence, certainly agree with you to nip  problems we have many means of doing so…SO, certainly never needs to be only one solution for a problem, like you just said end justifies the means.

    Sent from my iPad


  3. Hmm… instead of saying Gavin has a negative outlook in life, how about thinking it as him being “skeptical”, “wary of new things”, “highly-sensitive” or “jumping to early conclusions”? Perhaps he has his reasons of thinking / feeling the negativity about the new event?

    How about asking him “Why do think you won’t like the restaurant?” If he can’t specify, maybe ask “Is it the name? Or the atmosphere?” Then finally conclude with “Let’s just try and find out if your feeling is right.”

    I try to use the above guiding method when Vee asks for help on a task he probably can complete. “Just try”, “Think of a way to make it work”, etc. are positive phrases that encourage him to take little steps on untested grounds.


    1. Yes MieVee, good point with the labels. I usually keep it in mind but sometimes feel so frustrated with his unwillingness to try things that I slip up. Although I have tried that line of questioning and not really gotten any response. When he was younger, he could still be persuaded to “give it a try” and we “never have to go back again if he didn’t like it”. Now it depends on the time and mood – at his most resistent, he will refuse to eat anything from the restaurant if we insist on going. I have also tried “Think of a way to make it work” and that usually sends him into a spiral of “I can’ts” that makes me lose patience and feel fed up (and I’m usually the last one in the family able to tolerate it because by then everyone else has given up already). With the reasons why he won’t like the restaurant, it is usually “I just know I don’t like it” and he can usually say this without even knowing the name of the restaurant.

      Hmmm… come to think of it, it’s just occurred to me what he doesn’t like – the unknown. Because he can say he won’t like it even if it is a restaurant he has never seen or been to in his life. He doesn’t like things he isn’t familiar with and he reacts very strongly against “the unknown”. Like yesterday, he went go-carting with his father and refused to get into the cart and kicked up such a huge fuss that even his godmother was looking on in chagrin. After bribing him with ice cream, he finally went in and he loved it! He was grinning from ear to ear in all the photos.

      I have talked to him about this and given his past examples of things he thought he wouldn’t like and discovered he likes and he’s good at parrotting that we should always try new things to see if we like them or not but when it comes to putting the words into action, he balks.


  4. Parrotting is a good start, someday he may internalise the message. 🙂

    Guess he’s just very cautious and likes “low-risk” experiences. Trying new stuff is more for the higher risk takers.

    For e.g. I was a very fussy eater when young. Now though no longer fussy with food, I’d be keen to eat only food I’ve tried before. So while hubby is ok with trying a new drink flavour, I won’t do that. Would only go with my usual. He’d buy an interesting-looking fruit, e.g. plout, while I won’t have done that.

    Generally, I’m a much lower risk taker than him.


    1. So I hear and I sincerely hope so!

      Low-risk – definitely Daddy’s boy. Gareth is more like me when I was young – fearless and foolhardy! So in some ways, I think that old adage “fools rush in where angels fear to thread” certainly applies! I definitely like to try new things. Even if it means I won’t like it. Hubby always chatises me about it when I end up with something I don’t like. But I reckon, if I don’t try, how will I know what I’m missing? Then again, Gavin never gave me so much grief when he was Gareth’s age. My white hairs are appearing as we speak!


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