Orthodoxy Today
Smart Parenting XI. Smart Tools—Shaping and Consistency

As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away (Matthew 13: 20-21).

Our Lord's words about those persons who hear the word of God initially with joy and then give up, may at first seem like an odd introduction to an article on Orthodox Christian parenting. However, these words are perfectly applicable to parents who have the task of teaching and increasing appropriate, and moreover, Godly behavior in their children as prescribed in the Orthodox Marital Service prayer: "for education [of their children] in thy faith and fear ...." It is also true because, as St. John Chrysostom (2003) reminds us, "if husband and wife order their lives according to God's law, their children will also submit willingly to the same law." Hence the importance for parents to have Christ's teachings "take root" in the center of their hearts and to model Christ-like behavior at all times (Morelli, 2005, 2006).

Behavior is Influenced by its Consequences

Morelli (2005, 2006) mentioned that Contingent Rewards and Punishments are the major factors influencing behavior. It is the rewarding or punishing of the consequences that follow behavior that account for behaviors becoming stronger or weaker. Shaping and consistency are actually behavioral tools necessary for the success of these behavioral management techniques. The goal of their use is to form and strengthen appropriate behavior. If incorrectly applied, however, these same behavioral management techniques increase inappropriate behavior.

Once again following St. John Chrysostom's counsel it is critical "to lay a good strong foundation, based on sound principles." Appropriate behaviors should be pinpointed, that is, those behaviors a parent wants their child to say or do, and when and where. Such behaviors include those that are socially appropriate and conform to Christ-like thought, word and deed. Behavior should never be described or communicated in abstract terms like good, bad, act nicely, or don't misbehave. A pinpointed behavioral description is like a verbal 'videotape': "Johnny while eating I want you to put your milk glass away on the other (far) side of your dinner plate." Johnny can be shown by his parent where to put the glass.

The problem is that children (and ourselves) hardly ever get the perfect appropriate behavior correct on initial attempts. The reasons for this are many. The behaviors may be complex. They may be at the limit of ability, just above the level of what they can perform on their own, what Vygotsky (1978) called the "zone of proximal development." Also, well-learned inappropriate behaviors may be competing with the new appropriate behaviors to be learned. It is exactly in such situations that the first tool to be employed - shaping - is of great importance.


Shaping is defined as the rewarding of successive approximations of the correct response. I purposely used the example of the milk glass and the plate above. It is an example almost every parent will recognize because it is frequently in such a situation that parents first encounter this problem. Invariably, most children place their milk glass at the very edge of the table next to their plates. Invariably children fidget, twist, and swing around with body and arms. Invariably the milk glass is hit and the milk spills all over. Sometimes I almost think there has been more milk spilt than has gone into their children's little bellies.

If a parent waits until the child gives a perfectly correct milk glass placement response: out of reach, on the far side of the plate, success will involve much time (years?) and much spilt milk. Shaping, combined with contingency management, is the tool to be used. Because this example is so basic it easily serves as a template for adapting shaping to other behavioral problems.

Visualization of the Shaping Process

Continuing the milk glass example. The most incorrect response is the milk glass at the exact edge of the table. Consider the following hypothetical dialogue between a parent and child (actually constructed from many such incidents):

Mom: "Johnny, you just spilled your milk." Child: "Aw, Mom!" Mom: "I'll give you one other glass, but you have to keep it here in order to keep drinking it."

Mom places the glass at about the 1 o'clock position an inch or two from the child's plate.The child takes a sip of milk and places it two inches from table edge. (Note this is a slight improvement from the table edge in the initial example.)

Mom (in a pleasant voice): "Ok, Johnny, that is an improvement (better), you put the glass farther back than before, but let's see if you can even do better next time."

Mom again places glass at one o'clock position above. She keeps alert for Johnny's next sip of milk and if he improves she keeps up the verbal praise [reward], if he falls back to placing the glass closer to the edge the dialogue may continue like this.:

Mom: "Johnny, you put the glass closer to the edge than before, sorry but you lost the rest of the milk for this meal. Tonight, you will get another chance."

Note the behavioral elements in the above example. The desired behavior was pinpointed (concrete). Johnny was told and shown exactly the "good" behavior that was expected. He was also told the consequences of doing or not doing it. (keeping the milk: a reward or losing the milk: a punishment). This serves as a "warning" for the child. When unpleasant consequences are not told to the child ahead of time they seem arbitrary and capricious and children usually view them as "unfair."

In such cases, children often become emotionally agitated and no learning takes place. The parent also spoke in a pleasant voice, so the child would not think his parent was "mean and nasty" and thus would focus on the relation between his behavior and the consequence. It is putting the responsibility of the consequence on him. Similarly, the child is less likely to respond in an emotionally agitated way. Finally, the mother realistically rewarded "improvements" leading to the exact appropriate behavior (shaping). In such cases the child will fall back a few times but behavioral research shows that gradual steady improvement will continue until the desired behavior is learned quite effectively.


Consistency means applying these techniques as close to 100% of the time as humanly possible. In clinical-pastoral settings, in order to make the point of how important consistency is, I will sometimes rather dramatically say to parents: "I don't want 95% consistency or 99.5 % consistency nor 99.9% consistency, but 100% consistency." Consistency is most important when learning new behaviors. It is also most important when dealing with problematic inappropriate behaviors. But individual differences in strength of appropriately-learned behavior are also very important and must be taken into account when applying the consistency tool.

Case examples

To make this point I will give an example of doing a chore with an older (driving age) adolescent:

Case A: Tim is a well-behaved 17 year old, does well in school, completes assignments, does assigned chores at home, informs parents of his whereabouts and meets curfews. One of his chores is to mow the family lawn by Friday afternoon (behavior) and he earns the family car to drive that Friday night (reward).

Friday is the prom day. Tim has a date and has saved some money to buy his date a corsage, rented a tuxedo etc. He forgets to do the lawn. He asks his parents for the car and tells them he will do the lawn the next day. What do the parents do? Tim is responsible, has a history of appropriate behavior, keeps his word and does very occasional missed chores promptly. My recommended decision: Give Tim the car, tell him to have a good and safe time and you trust him because of his past behavior and that he will do the lawn the next day as he promised.

Case B: Mark is ill-behaved 17 year old, doesn't do well in school, despite aptitude, displays behavioral disruption in school, rarely does assigned chores at home, does not inform parents of his whereabouts and infrequently meets curfews. He could earn the family car on Friday evening (reward) by appropriate behavior specified by his parents including mowing the lawn by Friday afternoon (behavior).

It is prom day that Friday. He had been kindly and specifically reminded that if he does the lawn by Friday afternoon he will earn the family car use for the Friday prom. (His parents have also ensured an adult chaperone will have Mark "in sight" for the entire evening.) Mark has a date and has saved some money to buy her a corsage. He has also rented a tuxedo, etc. He "forgets", as usual, to do the lawn. He asks his parents for the car and tells them he will do the lawn the next day. What do the parents do? My very strongly recommended decision: Do not give him the car under any circumstances.

He is to be told (in a pleasant tone of voice): "Mark, it was your choice, you were told ahead of time what the conditions for use of the car were. Gee, too bad you didn't plan for this. I guess you will have to find other alternatives."

Parents with adolescents like Mark usually find this very hard to say. They usually think to themselves: "This is a once in a lifetime event; I have to let him have the car, look at the money he spent, and his date's expectation." This is exactly the problem. The parents are enabling Mark to be irresponsible. How can Mark learn responsibility unless he confronts the realistic consequences of his actions? His parents, out of misplaced sympathy, are teaching Mark to act irresponsibly. They are also not fulfilling their Godly duty as parents and are thus "falling short" and "missing the mark," two of the common descriptions of sin, given by the spiritual Fathers of the Church.

Mark's parents were aware of their role in creating behavior problems or of the gravity of their sinful behavior. St. Paul ordered the Thessalonians: "…we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat" (2 Thessalonians 2:10). Such parents are giving their children to "eat" (getting the car) when they are capable of working (mowing the lawn). This article is written in the spirit, not of judgment of any specific parents (as only God judges), but in the words to the Thessalonians (2 Thessalonians 2:15) "as a brother."

Intervention with Problem Behavior

Please note if children or adolescents such as Mark are to be helped, this is but step one of a long, many-step,100% consistency, program. But to do this is to make use of the intelligence faculty God created us with and the Godly love and concern parents are to have by their Blessed marital vocation. I want to present an example of the application of the principle of contingent reward-punishment consistency, with a younger child, and a case in which I took a more direct role other than as consulting with the parents as in the previous cases.

Case C: Lizzy is an average 7 year old child in second grade. In October she was referred for clinical intervention because she will not do her reading assignments at home. She has undergone preliminary psych-educational evaluation and no problems were found. She also has been examined by her pediatrician and other medical specialists and again all reports are normal.

Her mother is a divorced highly trained health-care professional. She has adjusted her work schedule to that of Lizzy's school schedule. Immediately after school, Lizzy is cared for a short time by a neighbor who has a child in the same grade and school. They have a snack and play. Lizzy's mother arrives home about 5:00 PM, makes supper, gets Lizzy ready for bed and then it is homework time. Lizzy can watch half to one hour of TV at 7:00pm, followed by bed time.

Her resistance to reading 2-3 pages of a basic reader would be called oppositional. It is a complete refusal. If forced in any way, Lizzy begins a temper tantrum and crying. When Lizzy's mother told her unless she reads she cannot watch her favorite TV show at 7:00, her crying becomes a mournful wailing. He mother "feels so sorry" that she always gives in. She can't bear to see her daughter cry and be so sad.

Parent training commenced. Lizzy's mother had to be taught the basics of behavioral management and emotional control (Morelli. 2005, 2006a, 2006b). The tools discussed in this paper: shaping and consistency were an important part of the parental training. Lizzy's mother had little confidence (sense of self-efficacy, Bandura, 1978) that she could perform the intervention tasks, thus I made the clinical decision, in collaboration with Lizzy's mother, to model (perform) the appropriate intervention and actively manage the lack of appropriate behavior (reading). All of this was first discussed and agreed to by Lizzy's mother.

Lizzy was to attend short evening sessions with her mother. The sessions started at 6:00pm. They lived literally minutes from the office so getting home was very prompt. Lizzy was not "oppositional" in all behavior, only reading. She was generally a compliant child in most other activities. The incentive to attend the sessions with her mother was to see if they could "get along better together during homework time."

Week I with Lizzy

The first visit, I had Lizzy sit next to her mother and we all chatted. I equally asked questions to both of them and gave answers to questions. Her dislike of reading was discussed. I asked her the name of the book and a little of what it was about. She gave short answers, which was all I wanted. I did not want to focus on it, just bring it on the table. To an untrained observer it would appear like a typical social visit. We all agreed it was "fun" talking. Lizzy mentioned her favorite TV show was at 7:00pm, which she would watch when she got home. I subtly introduced the "contingency" and told her because she came with her mother and we had such a nice talk (appropriate behavior), she had earned the program viewing (reward). I spoke this in a very loving, sweet tone of voice. We ended with how nice it would be next week to meet again, and I told Lizzy,"I was looking forward to hearing her tell me about the program she "earned" this evening."

Week II with Lizzy

The following week was generally a repeat of the first week. I told her it was good to see her again so we could talk and she could tell me all about her program (appropriate behavior). I told her how great it was that she could tell the story and how much fun it was to hear about it and I looked forward to the same next week (social reward). We also talked a little about how she hates books and reading. Now another step was added, (shaping)."You know," I said quizzically, "I would like to see this book you hate so much." I told her earning the TV program next week would not be by coming and telling me the TV program story, but by just bringing in her reading book. I told her she would not have to read. I pleasantly reassured her, "I just want to see it, but remember only if you bring it in do you earn the TV program." She said she understood and agreed.

Week III with Lizzy

The next week Lizzy brought in the reading book. The three of us chatted a few minutes and I, by pre-arrangement with Lizzy's mother, told her to sit in the waiting area, and that I want to look over Lizzy's book "very carefully." At the same time, I emphasized in very "sweet" tone how proud I was she brought in the book, and that was all she had to do to earn her TV show. She was very pleased. I looked at it … commented on the pictures, read a few of the words. I told her that as she was doing so well, having nice talks, and bringing in the book, "Lets see if we can even go a little further next week, bring the book in again, but we will only add reading one sentence and it is a short one! .. OK?" My tone of voice was gentle and soft. Lizzy agreed. In leaving the office with her mother, I said "Lizzy earned watching the TV program tonight … have a good time." I also added, "Lizzy ageed to read one sentence next week to earn watching the TV program; isn't that great?" I said this in a pleasant upbeat tone.

Week IV with Lizzy

The next session began similar to the previous sessions. Mom was asked to sit in the waiting area. After a short chat, I said pleasantly, "Ok, Lizzy, time to earn watching the TV program tonight, just one sentence has to be read, here is a real short one." I handed her the book. She threw it down on the couch. I ignored this inappropriate behavior. Over the next few minutes I reminded her again. She stonewalled. I just continued in the same pleasant conversation over the next few minutes. When time for her session was over, I called Lizzy's mother and in a pleasant but saddened soft voice said: "I really feel badly, Lizzy decided she didn't want to earn her TV program tonight, so she cannot watch it." Lizzy began to cry profusely. "But", I said cheery and upbeat, "she will have another chance next week." The crying continued with tears gushing forth. I continued with a sad countenance, saying I felt so badly she chose the way she did. I really did feel badly. But, I knew that consistency in the behavior-consequence contingency relationship was the only way to increase reading and having Lizzy enjoy the TV program.

Subsequent Sessions

I will summarize the next couple of sessions. In the beginning of the next session Lizzy would not read. I responded sympathetically with "Oh! Lizzy, I feel so bad if you do not want to earn the program you like so much, by not even reading a short sentence." About a couple of minutes before having to leave she picked up the book and read a short sentence (appropriate behavior). I was effusive with glee and delight for her. The smile on her face indicated she found my social reward greatly pleasing. She also actually read a second sentence.

The next session was easier. I offered to read one sentence after she read one. In subsequent sessions we soon progressed to a paragraph (this is first reader so a "paragraph" are two or three short sentences), the bottom of a picture depicting the text, and then advancing to a book. Also "behavioral homework assignments" were given using the same contingencies. Lizzy's mother was given a chart, we went over it with Lizzy and showed her how we would mark a successful reading time and the reward (the 7:00pm TV program of that day).

Debriefing Lizzy's Case: Understanding Consistency and Shaping

In Case C, both shaping and consistency are clearly illustrated. The goal is to read independently. The successive behaviors to be rewarded leading to the goal (the definition of shaping) included: coming to the session, bringing the book, reading a sentence, reading more sentences, generalizing to the home setting, and finally independent reading behavior related to the grade level Lizzy was at.

Consistency was also demonstrated. Some appropriate behavior closer to the goal behavior had to be performed before any reward was earned. No reward is given before appropriate behavior occurred since this in effects rewards inappropriate behavior (procrastination, not-reading, using the examples above). No sell-out to emotion occurred ; the parent knew this procedure was to help the child. The only criterion for delivering the reward was the appropriate behavior. Money spent on corsages, the expectations of others, all the amount of previous planning, the social importance of an event, or the personal factors of emotion the child or parent "feeling badly," fatigued or stressed make no difference. The focus is: appropriate behavior earns rewards 100% of the time.

Eventual Goal: Self-Directed Intrinsically Motivated Behavior

As indicated in Case A, when a child or adolescent has a solid history of displaying appropriate behavior, the consistency rate can fall below 100 % especially, for the necessary examples that I have discussed above. In actual fact most children and adolescents who act responsibly most of the time are already on some pattern of interaction with their parents where the previous appropriate behavior has been rewarded and occurs at such high rates, that 100% consistency is no longer needed.

Some psychological research indicates that when behaviors that indicate competence achieve high rate or frequencies (like Tim's behaviors in Case A above), intrinsic motivation takes over (Deci 1975). Bandura (1986) indicates "in social cognitive theory, interest grows from satisfactions derived from fulfilling challenging standards and from self-percepts of efficacy gained through accomplishments …" When developed, it appears as if behaviors are being performed without observable external rewards. However, such high rates of appropriate behaviors are actually the product of a long history of the successful external rewards for such behaviors that have now been internalized (cognitive self-statements). Using the tools of shaping and consistency helps parents to enable this to come about.

The Spirituality Behind the Behavioral Tools

With Godly insight into the problem of what we today are calling consistency, St. John Chrysostom,using the vocabulary of his day, warns parents about providing "external safeguards of wealth and fame", what we have been calling rewards, which shield them from "the winds."

In the words of the golden-mouthed Saint:

Don't surround them with the external safeguards of wealth and fame, for when these fail -- and they will fail -- our children will stand naked and defenseless (Morelli: never having learned responsibility), having gained no profit from their former prosperity, but only injury, since when those artificial protections that shielded them from the wind are removed they will be blown to the ground in a moment. Therefore wealth is a hindrance, because it leaves us unprepared for the hardships of life. So let us raise our children in such a way that they can face any trouble and not be surprised when difficulties come."

These insightful words so aptly describe the plight of Mark in Case B above. Mark was able to get rewards for ill-behavior his whole life. He never had to suffer the consequences of his inappropriate behaviors. He is unprepared for earthly life and spiritual life. If Mark's parents should bail him out with the "wealth" of the family car for the prom, without him earning it, Mark will be in for a rude awakening in "real life." For example, when this landlord, or mortgage lender will not automatically cover a missing payment, or his bank will not cover an overdrawn checking account, etc., will the landlord or bank bail him out? Of course not! Children and adolescents like Mark are ill-prepared for this world.

A Rude Awakening at the Gates of Eternal Life

Of course, even more importantly is our preparation for entry into the eternal Kingdom of God: our next world. Our Heavenly Father, His Only Begotten Son Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Spirit, who seals and sanctifies us will certainly not indwell in those who do not take the personal responsibility of responding to His grace. St. Diadochos of Photiki reminds us: "All men are made in God's image; but to be in His likeness is granted only to those who through great love have brought their own freedom into subjection to God…No one achieves this unless he persuades his soul not to be distracted by the false glitter of this life" (Philokalia, I, italics mine).

Parents should keep in mind the wisdom of Sirach who said, "My son, from your youth up choose instruction, and until you are old you will keep finding wisdom. Come to her like one who plows and sows, and wait for her good harvest. For in her service you will toil a little while, and soon you will eat of her produce" (Sirach 6: 18-19). It behooves parents to allow their children to plow and sow, to do the work of acquiring appropriate social and spiritual behavior, so they will be able to partake of the produce of God's Divine Nature (2 Peter 1:4).

Several effects occur to those who are surrounded with the wealth and glitter of this life. They either become slothful in working to obtain, indifferent to obtaining, or presume that without cooperating with God they will obtain the rewards of His indwelling in us here on earth and in eternity. Either way is a lack of love of God or hope in Him. Who better to teach their children that they can work and cooperate with God's grace than their parents? In the Old Testament, the Prophet Jeremiah said: "It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth" (Lamentations 3: 27). The Prophet uses the harsh imagery of the desert to convey that only by enduring the consequences of life can the virtue of hope emerge: " …let him put his mouth in the dust -- there may yet be hope" (Lamentations 3: 29).

Parental Endurance - Children's Endurance Needed Finally let us meditate on St. Paul's words to the Hebrews: "For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised" (Hebrews 10: 36).


Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Deci, E. L. (1975). Intrinsic Motivation. NY: Plenum

Morelli, G. (2005, September 17). Smart Parenting Part I. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliParenting.php.

Morelli, G. (2006, February 04). Smart Parenting Part II. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting2.php.

Morelli, G. (2006b, March 25). Smart Parenting III: Developing Emotional Control. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting3.php.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (1995). The Philokalia I. Faber & Faber: London.

St. John Chrysostom. (2003). On Marriage and Family Life. Crestwood, NY St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind and Society: The Development of Higher Mental Processes. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: March 17, 2008

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