Say you have a problem child. If it’s a toddler, maybe he smacks his siblings. Or she refuses to put on her shoes as the clock ticks down to your morning meeting at work. If it’s a teenager, maybe he peppers you with obscenities during your all-too-frequent arguments. The answer is to punish them, right?
Not so, says Alan Kazdin, the director of the Yale Parenting Center. Punishment might make you feel better, but it won’t change the kid’s behavior. Instead, he advocates for a radical technique in which parents positively reinforce the behavior they do want to see until the negative behavior eventually goes away.
As I was reporting my recent series about child abuse, I came to realize that parents fall into roughly three categories. There’s a small number who seem intuitively to do everything perfectly: Moms and dads with chore charts that actually work and snack-size bags of organic baby carrots at the ready. There’s an even smaller number who are horrifically abusive to their kids. But the biggest chunk by far are parents in the middle. They’re far from abusive, but they aren’t super-parents, either. They’re busy and stressed, so they’re too lenient one day and too harsh the next. They have outdated or no knowledge of child psychology, and they’re scrambling to figure it all out.
Parents in this middle group might turn to Kazdin and his parenting interventions. I spoke with Kazdin about his unusual method. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Olga Khazan: Where do people get their ideas about parenting? When people have a kid, what determines the kind of parent they’ll be?
Kazdin: It’s not determined or dictated completely by one’s own parents. For example, most of the children who are abused do not go on to be abusive parents. On the other hand, some things are transmitted through two ways. One of them is modeling. There’s an enormous impact that modeling has on a person, and parents don’t often use that strategically or constructively. Things that parents model very often influence how children behave as children and adults. For example, the way that parents discipline their children is how children discipline their peers. For parents who are very sarcastic, a child will be very sarcastic with their peers, and so on. The more a child is hit by his or her parents, the more a child will hit his or her peers.
The other thing is, our brains are wired to pick up negative things in the environment. It’s thought to be very adaptive, from an evolutionary standpoint. If you have a partner, significant other, or a child, if they do 10 nice things, that 11th one that you didn’t like, you’re going to really be all over.
Now you start groping for the various options that there are. The ones in your repertoire are likely to be ones from one’s parents, and also likely to be ones from other relatives.
And this is dictated by one’s personality, too. So, for example, one’s personality might be a little, tiny bit more impulsive. Some are more extroverted, some are more introverted, and all this is also normal.
Something called “temperament” is a physiological predisposition that is evident at birth. So, for example, young children with a very adaptive temperament, if they don’t get fed right away, it’s no big deal. If a mother hands them to some stranger, they don’t start crying and pouting. These are just variations in humans that are quite normal. So that temperament also dictates how much [a parent] can take before you respond.
Or let’s say you’re one of those moms who have postpartum depression. If it lasts for very long, you really alter how you rear your child. You’re much less warm and affectionate.
[So] your mom and dad, one’s own personality beginning with temperament, the influence of one’s peers, other mothers and fathers, and then what we just said, stress. All those things can increase or decrease reactivity.
So you’re really desperate. You shout; you try to reason; you think you’re a wonderful parent. You think that you’re just the greatest parent in the world. You sit down and say, “No, we don’t stab your sister. She’s the only sister you have, and if you stab her, she won’t be alive much longer.” It’s always good to do that with your child, to reason, because it changes how they think; it changes how they problem solve. It develops their IQ, but it’s not good for changing behavior.
So it’s good to do that, but apparently it doesn’t change behavior. And once that fails, and we know it fails because parents have this wonderful expression, sadly, “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times.” What the research shows is that telling an instruction does not change human behavior very well.
Khazan: What does that mean?
Kazdin: For example, there’s probably not a cigarette smoker on the planet who would say, “What?! Smoking is bad for me? Why didn’t you tell me that?” Telling people, it can help, but it usually doesn’t change much behavior.
Parents might start out reasoning, but they’re likely to escalate to something a little bit more, like shouting, touching, firmly dragging their child, even if they’re well-intentioned. The way to get rid of a child’s negative behavior is not to do the punishment. Even a wonderful punishment, gentle punishment like time-out, or reasoning—those don’t work.
Khazan: So what’s the short version of how to change behavior without punishment?
Kazdin: What it amounts to is an area of research that’s called “applied behavior analysis,” and what it focuses on are three things to change behavior: What comes before the behavior, how you craft the behavior, and then what you do at the end.
There are a whole bunch of things that happen before behavior, and if you use them strategically, you can get the child to comply. Let’s say the child always just folds her arms and says, “No.” That’s not such a big deal—that’s actually easy to change—but a parent’s not going to be able to do it. They’re going to say, “You better do it because I say so,” or, “We have to go,” or, “You better do it now or I’m going to force this on you,” and that’s typical parenting.
So what comes before the behavior?
One is gentle instructions, and another one is choice. For example, “Sally, put on your”—have a nice, gentle tone of voice. Tone of voice dictates whether you’re going to get compliance or not. “Sarah, put on the green coat or the red sweater. We’re going to go out, okay?” Choice among humans increases the likelihood of compliance. And choice isn’t important; it’s the appearance of choice that’s important. Having real choice is not the issue—humans don’t feel too strongly about that—but having the feeling that you have a choice makes a difference.
So now that’s what comes before the behavior.
And now the behavior itself. When you get compliance, if that’s the behavior you want, now you go over and praise it … very effusively, and you have to say what you’re praising exactly.
Here [at the Yale Parenting Center], we deal with two kinds of children. One is that they are very aggressive and have serious psychiatric problems. And the other one is that they come in for normal kinds of issues that parents just want some help on. Children come to us with very extreme tantrums—45 minutes on the floor, hitting parents, maybe breaking things, just causing havoc—and the parents want to change the tantrum. They’ve punished the child for the tantrum, but of course, that’s just going to make it worse. They say, “Can you do anything about the tantrum?”
I ask the parent, “Does the child ever have a decent tantrum?” And the parent usually says, “No, doctor, that’s why I’m here.” So we say, “We’re going to develop with you and practice with the parent, something called a ‘tantrum game.’ We’re going to do simulations, fake tantrum situations, like pilots going through a flight simulator.” And so the parent will go to the child and say, “Okay, Billy, we’re going to play a game.”
Meanwhile, a game is an antecedent, so already, no one’s tense or punishing anything. Already, we’re in a situation that’s going to be really, really good.
I say, “We’re going to play a game, and here’s how this goes: I’m going to tell you you can’t do something, but you really can. And you can have a tantrum and you can get mad, but this time you’re not going to hit mommy, and you’re not going to go on the floor. And it’s only a game, but if you can do that, I’m going to give you two points on this little chart.”
So the mom leans over and smiles and whispers in this cute way, “Okay, Billy, you cannot watch TV tonight.” And Billy, have your tantrum, and don’t hit mommy or go on the floor.
[After the fake tantrum], the child is probably smiling a little bit and the mom says with great effusiveness, “That was fabulous! I can’t believe you did that!”
Getting the child to practice the behavior changes the brain and locks in the habit. And we’ve only done it once. So now we say to Billy, “Billy, I bet you can’t do it again. I don’t think there’s a child on the planet who can do this twice in the row.” Billy’s smiling and says, “No, I can, I can do it,” and I say, “Okay, okay, we’ll do one more.”
Now you do this again and the same thing happens. If the tantrum has many different components, you change your requirement—this time, you don’t do whatever. You practice it, maybe once or twice a day, and you do this for a while.
As you do this every few days, now there’s a real tantrum that occurs outside the game. And that tantrum is either a little or a lot better. Now, you go over there and say, “Billy, I can’t believe it. We weren’t even playing the game, and look at what you did; you got mad at your sister, but you didn’t hit anybody! Billy, that was fantastic.”
You do the game maybe a little bit more, but what happens now is that the likelihood of these tantrums outside of the game being good tantrums, really increases.
[The change] usually takes about one to three weeks. But this is just one thing. Parents come to us for children setting fires and beating up teachers—that’s the serious side. Or they come because their child won’t eat vegetables or won’t do the homework.
The basic fundamental approach is, what is going on before the behavior that you can do to change it? Can you get repeated practice trials? Can you lock it in with praise? What happens is that parents think of discipline as punishing, and in fact, that’s not the way to change behavior.
This works for all ages. Let’s say you have an adolescent daughter and she says to you, “Mom, you are such a bitch. What have you ever done for me? You only think of yourself.”
That makes parents want to jump out of their windows, because their whole life has been devoted to that damn child. So how do we get rid of teen attitude? We call it positive opposites: Whenever you want to get rid of something, what is it that you want in its place? Because getting rid of it is not going to do it.
Khazan: With the teen example, what’s the way to develop the opposite, positive behavior?
Kazdin: The teen may be at the dinner table and just being quiet and not saying negative things. Well, when you’re starting out, one of the positive-opposites can sometimes be reinforcing the non-occurrence of the behavior. And you just say, “Marion, it’s nice having dinner with you; it’s nice that you’re here.” What that does is reinforce the likelihood that Marion will be at the dinner table and not say negative things. Marion might also say, “Can you pass the avocado and garbanzo stew?” And you just say, “Of course.”
There, you don’t want effusiveness.
You proceed from easy to more complex behaviors, and soon you have Marion outside the dinner table, saying nice things. We train parents to jump on those occasions that will build it up, and pretty soon you don’t get the “You’re a bitch” anymore; you build positive opposites. You don’t try to suppress— “Don’t give me attitude for all I’ve done for you!” What research shows is that it will lead to escape behavior on the part of the child. It will lead them to avoid you as soon as they get home from school, and it will model negative interactions toward you.
Khazan: This is so fascinating to me, because I have a feeling this works, but I also feel like this is a hard thing for parents to decide to do. Is that your sense also?
Kazdin: It is, and part of the reason, it goes against what we’re trained to do. It runs counter to what we think of—if a child isn’t doing something, you have to punish it.
Parents are very frustrated because they think they don’t have any tools that are effective, so they’re going to use power. And power makes things worse.
We don’t change their children. We change the parents, so they can change their children.