How do we teach our children how to behave? It's a big question, and it takes up a lot of space on the parenting bookshelves. We recently attended a lecture given by our local Mother's forum where Dr. Alan Kazdin, the director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, spoke about his recommendations for shaping child behavior.
Here's what I took away.
According to research studies, the best way to shape a child's behavior is to praise positive behavior in the right way so that the child wants to repeat it.
This can be challenging, because when we talk about teaching children to behave, we frequently focus on what we DON'T want them to do, rather than what we want them to do. How can I keep Will from throwing food on the floor? How can I get him to stop trying to poke Andrew in the eye? Should I say no more firmly? Try time outs?
Kazdin would say I need to find the "positive opposite" of the negative behavior I'm trying to eliminate, then work to encourage it. For example, I don't want Will to throw food on the floor. I do want Will to keep his food on his tray, and hand me food he doesn't want in front of him or tell me he's all done when he is finished instead of systematically throwing things against the wall.
Since I do want Will to keep his food on his tray, when he's eating his food and keeping it on his tray, I need to praise him for that behavior, but in the right way. It needs to be immediate, either while it's happening or directly afterwards, it needs to be specific "Great job keeping the food on your tray while you eat it, that's wonderful!", it needs to be appropriately enthusiastic for the child's age, and it helps if you make light contact with the child, putting your hand on their arm, or back or giving them a hug.
Praise pitfalls: Don't praise the child instead of the action - he's not a "good boy" because he kept food on his tray, he's a good boy because he's your son and you love him. The action was good, comment on it specifically. Don't mix your own feelings and emotions in as incentive - "Mommy is happy when you don't throw food on the floor." Research shows that is less helpful than just praising the action without complicating the issue.
Finding the positive opposite of the behavior you want to discourage can be tough, and so can be finding your child modeling that behavior in order to praise it. But over time, research has demonstrated that this is the best way of getting your child to behave differently. "No" stops behavior in the short term, but won't reduce the frequency of the behavior in the future. I still plan to tell Will "No" when I need him to stop something immediately, but after listening to Dr. Kazdin's compelling lecture, I no longer expect that magically on "No" number 518, Will's going to understand and stop throwing food on the floor. I need him to want to keep his food on the tray because it feels good to get praise when he does. (And no, this shouldn't lead to a day filled with praise for every little thing your child does right, after the behavior disappears, it usually stays gone without the need for regular praise to keep it gone. Says research. And you know I love research.)
Something interesting things we learned at the lecture:
It's not about understanding. It's fine to explain to a child why they should not do something, but them understanding they shouldn't do it will not necessarily discourage that behavior. I think every parent has seen their wonderful, adorable toddler look at them with a gleam in their eye right before they do something forbidden, even waiting so the parent can catch them doing it. They know. That's not the problem. The problem is they require motivation to do differently. We need to make them excited for the praise they'll get doing something right, rather than the attention they get when they do something wrong.
Punishment is not very effective at changing behavior, and often has negative consequences.
What if you can't find your child doing the "positive opposite"?
I want Will to stop poking Andrew in the eye. Positive opposite: I want Will to be gentle with Andrew in their interactions. So I need to praise Will when he's patting Andrew's head gently or making faces at him without throwing blocks at his head. If those moments are far between, Kazdin would recommend that I play a game and set up a scenario where Will practices being gentle and I praise him. I'd really recommend reading Kazdin's book for more information on shaping behavior in specific situations. It's called "The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child", a title he apparently fought the publishers hard over for several reasons, and it has a lot of guidance on working to eliminate troublesome behaviors common for different age groups. (Everything from homework refusal and supermarket scenes to swearing.)
This can be time consuming when you have a problem like keeping your toddler away from the hot stove, because it might require coming up with a game where you open the stove door when it's not hot, and praise your child for staying away from it. "I bet you can't remember to back away when I open the stove door! Bet you can't get far enough away!" Blech. I just want to make my biscuits. It might be best for me to focus on one challenging behavior at a time with this positive opposite approach. (But it would be seriously awesome if Will thought it was funny to run in the other direction when I opened the oven door.)
My thoughts on all this:
Will it fix your toddler, pre-adolescent, or spouse's behavior problems quickly and irreversibly? Who are we kidding. It takes time and patience, and it's not fool proof, but it makes good sense, is backed by research, and is easy enough to do. Plus, I can't imagine that praising your child in a specific way for modeling a positive behavior is going to do harm.
This is something I can do and feel good doing. I love setting my toddler up to succeed and praising him when he does. That feels a lot better than the idea of time outs, or perfecting my "mommy glare". This is up there with child proofing my home and using distractions and redirection to shape my toddler's behavior instead of having to say "No" all the time.
Discipline is a word that makes me feel nervous, there's some negative, punitive association with that word. I like to think instead about Education. My job as a parent is to parent myself out of a job. My job is to teach my child how to behave and encourage him to behave in the right way. I like any strategies that help me do that in a way that is comfortable for me as a parent, and this is one of them.
I read a lot of parenting books, in part because I enjoy it, and in part because I don't feel you need to be loyal to one set of advice, but that you can often just learn something useful to add to your parenting toolbox. If this sounds inconsistent, let me try to explain.
In the course of the day, I expect I will try many different recommended ways of shaping Will's behavior. When he approaches the stove I will say "No" firmly and explain that it's hot. I will redirect him to his plastic shovel when he grabs my metal one when we're planting. I will foster a loving connection with him and hope that his desire to please me will positively influence his actions. I will tell him he's doing a wonderful job patting kitty gently when he rubs her fur instead of pulling her tail. I can cite a different book recommending each of these strategies, and I think all of them have a place in my parental toolbox as I help Will learn how to behave, and get him to want to behave that way.
I think Dr. Kazdin's advice will work best for me if I focus on one or two behaviors at a time, so I can consistently look for and praise positive opposites for those behaviors. I've been implementing Dr. Kazdin's advice and praising Will for not throwing food and dishes on the floor with some noticeable success: dinner is hit or miss (either he hits me with the food or misses and hits the floor), but when he eats his cereal at breakfast, nothing gets thrown. And when he's done, he stacks his two bowls (one for milk, one for cereal, he gets to do the mixing) puts his metal spoon in them, and lifts them up to me with the words "All done!" It almost makes up for getting fork-fulls of salmon hucked at me during the witching hour. Almost.
|Why say no...|
|When you can redirect?|