Stack of books

So what is ‘behavioral science’, anyway? Where the journey begins

The breaking point for me was 24.8 weeks pregnant. I’m not sure why the .8 even matters, except for that I know I was counting the hours until I had to actually be responsible for the person growing inside me, so I was a little obsessed with the passage of time. Plus, I’ve always liked precision.

Armed with a sleeve of saltines and Rolaids in one hand and a stack of books in the other, I was determined to use the rest of my sentence—that is, my pregnancy—to do my best to figure out what the hell I was I actually supposed to do when they sent me home with the baby currently taking up all the space in my body.

I had always been a reader and a researcher, and as long as the little growing being inside me was going to insist that 1 am was bladder trampoline time and not sleeping time, I was going to try to figure out how to parent—from the experts, and definitively, with no room for mistakes.

I was not just looking for some general guidelines about parenting. I wanted the rulebook—the way to parent, the right way.

Y’all, I know.

But it’s the same insanity that told me that I was only going to feed my baby homemade organic food that I grew in my backyard and chewed myself that fueled this naiveté. I just wanted to have some assurance beyond always peeing myself when I sneezed, and I don’t that’s too much to ask.

So, I scoured every book I had ever heard of from other moms or seen on Oprah or found in the half-price book bin. And I read, and read, and read. The stack of books grew faster than my belly and while I kept telling myself that it was perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to gain 10 pounds in two weeks, I also told myself that I would find the book that would give me a roadmap for parenting.

Spoiler: I never found that book. I did find a whole set of books that were way too granola for me and a whole other set of books that were way too rigid for me. I found some books that seemed to be written as a hot-faced challenge to other books and plenty of diametrically opposed arguments, and at least one little nugget worth tucking in my pocket in every single thing I read.

But where were the guarantees—the science of parenting? In a world with the technology to make a baby formula Keurig, surely there was some verifiable proof about how to parent my child and not screw it up.

It turns out I was looking for the right thing in the wrong place. Parenting books are steeped in pop psychology, as in popular psychology, as in the thing that is popular RIGHT NOW. It’s the breakdown of most recent discoveries, filtered through the influences of the immediate culture and economy and politics and all sorts of variables.

Don’t get me wrong, new ideas are great, but they aren’t time tested, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. I wanted something more immutable if I was to apply it to something as precious as my child. I would find that assurance in the study of behavior analysis (ABA), which is essentially the science of behavior, or behavioral science.

So what is this ‘behavioral science’ thing?

The history of the science of behavior extends to the 20th century and is based in the philosophy of behaviorism, which is the idea that learning happens by interacting with one’s surroundings. Behavior analysts have conducted thousands of studies in the laboratory and out in the real world that have helped to shape a set of behavioral laws. Behavioral laws are predictable ways in which behavior is developed and changes over time.

Predictable behavior was exactly what I was looking for! Yes, give me the formula!

Of course, it’s not that easy. It never is. But, it’s also not impossible. There is a way to understand, predict, and even control behavior, and it’s all in behavioral science and the behavioral laws learned from that practice. Now, don’t let the word ‘science’ scare you.

It’s science, but it’s not rocket science.

When we talk about behavior as a science, we just mean that it is a pursuit of gathering knowledge and organizing that knowledge so that we can understand and explain it better. Anyone can understand the principles of behavior and learn how to apply them to help their child to succeed and grow.

Now, we are talking!

That was the birth—see what I did there—of the real (thinking) mom. I wanted to use more than just feelings and intuition, though both would certainly be a part of the process. When my feelings about parenting betrayed me, as feelings are so willing to do when things get tough, I wanted a strong, safe space where I could find strength and parent with confidence.  For me, behavioral science was—and is today—that safe space.

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