Lasting Behavior Changes

We recently asked “What is your most pressing parenting problem?”. We  had several note worthy replies. Here are just a few:

Getting my 11-year-old motivated to do more and to avoid disagreements.

My 9-year-old daughter is very disrespectful and I want to address that.

I not only want to be a better grandparent than I was a parent at 17; I want to set a good example for my grandchildren’s parents.

I want to foster joy and creativity in my child.

My 5-year-old sulks and pouts whenever things do not go his way.

Trying to get my kids to do what they need to do (get dressed, bathe, come to dinner) without threats, counting or other coercion.

Each statement above deserves its own article and comes with its unique history and circumstances.

Yet, it is possible to address so many issues simultaneously by thinking of your child as a river.  Yes, imagine that your daughter is a small stream in your yard.

The stream flows from upstream and meanders to the left in your backyard.  For the sake of this parable, ‘left’ is a manifestation of negative behavior, and ‘right’ refers to positive behavior.

Your child is exhibiting negative behavior, and you’d like to see her take positive actions. So, in our story, the creek is flowing towards the left, and your goal is to change the current to the right.

There are lots of things you can do to change the flow of the water:  You may choose to use oars to manually direct the current in the opposite direction; you can get a powerful fan to blow the waters toward the right; or you may decide to use the force of your hands to guide the water in its new path.

Similarly, you may choose to offer your child an incentive for better behavior, a threat of punishment for negative behavior, or distract your daughter for the issue at hand and hope for the best!

All of your activities at the stream in your yard will have a little bit of impact in the flow of the water, but the current will resume its prior direction as soon as you stop tinkering with it.  So too, your child will likely revert back to negative habits as soon as you cease the incentives or threats.

Only by manipulating the riverbed can you cause lasting change to the flow of water in your yard.  You may not be aware of the bedrock beneath the stream, yet that is what defines the path of the water.

And it is only by fundamentally changing the bedrock of your relationship with your child that real and meaningful behavioral changes will occur.  It is entirely possible that you are currently unaware of the subtleties of the parent-child relationship in your home; yet that is the foundation that determines the dynamics of your family.

Many people continue to kick and slap the water flowing in their yard in the right direction, and they feel continually frustrated to find that a short time later the old situation returned.  Most parents continue to institute incentives and threats, and are surprised that their children do not exhibit respect and compliance.

The Path of Least Resistance by Robert Fritz eloquently describes that when superficial changes are made, lasting changes cannot occur.  If the riverbed remains unchanged, the water will continue to flow as it always has, since that is the most natural route for it to take.  If the underlying structures of your life remain unchanged; the greatest tendency is for you and your family to follow the same direction your life has always taken.

Just as engineers can change the path of a river by changing the structure of the terrain so that the river flows where they want it to go, you can change the very basic structure of your family relationships to create the life you want.


  1. What a beautiful parable. Changes made to the surface only yield slight changes and then revert. I am realizing that although I am going through the motions of being a good mother, I have lost touch with my twelve-year-old daughter, and she is sensing the disconnect. I am looking forward to the teleseminar!

  2. Very interesting perspective; thanks Ellen for today’s dose of wisdom- your emails always come at just the right time when I need a kick of motivation!

  3. I recently heard that the mark of a successful communicator was the ability to use analogies well. Your comparison of the underlying structure of our life to a riverbed was brilliant.

    Definite food for thought.

  4. Ellen, this is a wonderful article and so insightful! I love the visual example of the river, and the words are so true. You have to change the underlying issue, not just the behavior to make a lasting impact! Thanks for another great and helpful article.
    To your success,
    Dr. Laura