Excerpts from Chapters 1 & 2
Sometimes, what comes most naturally is what works best in child rearing. Parents feel a natural urge to be affectionate toward their children, for instance, and it’s a good thing they do. Every hug or warm word does important work in helping to build a child’s confidence, sense of security, and self-esteem. Parental affection strengthens both the child-parent bond and the child’s ability to bond with others.
But when it comes to shaping and changing a child’s behavior, what comes most easily and naturally to parents is often the opposite of what works best. In the normal course of family life, parents are frustrated not just by their children’s misbehavior but by a sense that their own ineffectiveness has much to do with shaping that misbehavior. It’s not that we’re bad parents; rather, when it comes to behavior, most of us share some basic instincts and assumptions as parents that don’t do us or our children much good. We turn instinctively to punishment as option one for changing behavior. We nag. We clutter the airwaves with ineffective talk. We endlessly explain to our children why they should behave better. We concentrate so intensely on the behavior we want to eliminate that we forget to praise and reinforce the behavior we want. We say I know you know how to clean your room! You’ve done it before! We say, or think, Your brother, who’s younger than you are, has no problem doing his homework. What’s wrong with you? We believe that our misbehaving child is “just being manipulative.”
The assumptions behind each of these common habits are wrong.
I’m going to teach you a new set of basic assumptions, a new and more effective set of parental instincts distilled from what thirty-plus years of scientific research and working with families have taught me about how to improve a child’s behavior. These revised basics are simple, there aren’t many of them, and they’re not hard to grasp, but they may feel counterintuitive at first. Before you can learn new habits, you need to break unhelpful old ones. So, in this chapter, I want to start by addressing some common myths of parenting, assumptions that come easily to us and can steer us down the wrong path in raising our children. Let’s think a little about the beliefs behind what you do now–what any parent does–and why the parental strategies they lead to might not be working as well as you’d like.
For example, many parents erroneously believe that lots of praise just spoils a child. Praise is one of the strongest ways to influence your child’s actions. It can be the essential ingredient in improving behavior, or it can make behavior worse. The result depends on the quality of the praise and upon how and when it’s delivered. Parents often offer plenty of positive comments to their kids, but deliver those comments in ways that undermine or even reverse their potential good effect on a child’s behavior. So while there may sometimes be a sufficient quantity of parental praise out there–to the point where it feels like a trip to the park is just an opportunity to hear “Good job!” repeated hundreds of times in a dozen different voices until the words have no meaning–the quality of its delivery is very uneven, causing much of it to miss its target.
You don’t necessarily have to speak to encourage your child toward particular behaviors. Giving her a hug, a kiss, or simply your undivided attention can all serve to reinforce a behavior. They can all be very effective–think about how you used them all to encourage your child when she was just starting to walk–but they can be misused, too. For example, your being on the phone is often a cue for your child to make all sorts of requests. Can I have a snack? Can I go outside? Can I have a pony when I’m twelve? Finally, you cover the phone with one hand and hiss Yes! Yes! Whatever! Can’t you see I’m on the phone? Attending to the requests and giving in to them just serves to reinforce the habit of interrupting you on the phone. Your child, noting that asking for things while you’re on the phone tends to get attention and positive answers, will probably do it again next time. The solution? Tell her When I’m on the phone, please don’t ask me for things. It can wait until I’m off the phone. If you ask when I’m on the phone the answer will always be no. If you wait until I’m off, the answer may be yes or may be no, depending on what you’re asking for. Then, of course, you have to follow through and really ignore your child while you’re on the phone.
Misguided or poorly delivered praise can make it effective in exactly the wrong way, or make it ineffective. One good example is the practice of praising the child’s general qualities–You’re so smart, What a good boy you are, You’re the greatest–and not the specific behavior you want the child to do more of: I’m so impressed that you sat right down and practiced the piano for twenty minutes, like a big boy. Another example of ineffective praise is “caboosing,” in which the parent adds a negative comment to positive praise, thereby diluting its useful effect. Parents will often say something like, It’s good you cleaned up your room, and then caboose it with a zinger, like, Why can’t you do this every day? The implicit reprimand for past bad behavior tacked onto praise for good behavior actually weakens the reinforcement of the lesson that cleaning one’s room is desirable.
Most parents do not, in fact, praise their children’s behavior too much, even if they think they do. There seems to be a hardwired Eeyore in us all that accentuates the negative. The human brain is set up to be super-responsive to negative stimuli, far more responsive than to positive stimuli. Parents, therefore, respond much more to misbehavior than to good behavior. When they’re under stress, that’s even more the case. We tell our clients at the clinic to “catch your child being good”–to look for and create chances to notice good behavior and praise it.
A lot of very good research tells us that praise, properly used, is one of your most reliable tools in changing your child’s behavior. I will teach you the nuts and bolts of how to praise most effectively. It’s not complicated, but praising your child the right way is more precise and purposeful than simply filling the air with cries of Good job!
Excerpt from Chapter 2: The Positive Opposite Approach
Parents often tell me, “I’ve tried some of these things already. I reward good behavior, I’ve done points charts and all the other stuff you’re talking about, but it hasn’t worked. Why is it going to work this time?” It’s going to work this time because we’re going to do it right, and we’re going to rely on a deep body of reliable scientific research to show us how to do it right.
I’m often reminded, when working with parents at the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, that one of the virtues of this program is also one of its curses: it takes very familiar concepts and presents them in unfamiliar ways. The things I ask you to do to change your child’s behavior are not like quantum mechanics; they’re not mysterious or ultrascientific-sounding. Most of what I ask you to do looks sort of like common knowledge or common sense, and parents often make the mistake of assuming they know all about it just because they’ve done something like it before. But, in fact, success usually lies in the details, and the details can be fresh and surprising.
And you will be surprised, I think, to see the range of behaviors we can address by attending to the details. The Kazdin Method® has been successfully used at home, at school, and in the community to change all sorts of behaviors. Here is a sample of behaviors we have repeatedly helped parents change over the past thirty years:
Not complying with parental requests
Having a bad attitude
Speaking offensively or harshly
Having catastrophic tantrums
Being careless in playing with siblings
Hitting peers, parents, teachers, or principals
Playing disruptively with peers
Not engaging in self care (bathing, brushing teeth, getting dressed)
Not going to bed on time
Not letting parents know where you are
Not taking medicine
Not socializing with other children
Copyright © 2008 Dr. Alan Kazdin