Interview with Dr. Alan Kazdin 2

A Conversation with Alan Kazdin about The Everyday Parenting Toolkit

The Everyday Parenting ToolkitQ: Your last book was about defiant children who pose special challenges to parents, teachers, and other adults who care for them. This book deals with more everyday parenting situations. Why the shift in emphasis?

A: After the other book was published, I received endless requests from parents, in person and also by email from all over the United States and other countries around the world. They were asking for help in handling regular, everyday childrearing experiences. The messages were very much along the lines of “Okay, so your approach works with children who are aggressive, who have extreme tantrums, or have other special needs, but I need help with everyday behaviors. How do I get my child to get dressed in the morning, to get ready for daycare or school on time, to eat more than one or two foods, to accept ‘no’ without a tantrum, to interact nicely with a sibling, to bathe and get to bed on time, to show respect when speaking, and to stop spending her life on her smartphone or computer?” Parents were asking for a shorter, leaner, step-by-step approach to how to handle these challenges. This book was a direct response to this need.

Q: So this book covers more ground, but it’s also shorter than the last one. There are so many conceivable parenting situations you could have dealt with; you can’t possibly attend to them one by one. How do you cover the range of possibilities and still offer practical help to a parent who wants help with a specific problem?

A: First, the book does give examples showing in very concrete terms how to apply the approach to many of the common problems that parents report. For example, things like getting a child to bed or having that child ready on time, doing homework, practicing a musical instrument—those are spelled out in detail, so many of the most common parent concerns and possibilities are in fact directly illustrated.

But the book also provides a template, a way to identify whatever goals for your children you might have as a parent and then move specifically from those goals to getting the change you want. So you can specify the outcomes, taking into account any special circumstances of your family life and your individual preferences, as well as the individuality of your children. We give you the template, and you plug in their special needs and circumstances.

Q: Can you give us a sense of what’s in the template?

A: We can break down an approach to handling a parenting challenge into three phases. A, for antecedents, is what parents can do to set up or get a particular behavior to occur. B, for behavior, deals with how to get from little or no behavior, such as a few minutes of homework before quitting, to the final goal, something like completing all homework every day. C, for consequence, covers what happens after a behavior that will get it to occur more reliably and become a habit. Within each component, we present a variety of techniques that have been well studied in research. One nice feature is that there are many ways to get the desired behavior, and parents can select from many options to accommodate different views and situations.

Q: You argue in the book that by making relatively small changes in family routines parents can do a lot to improve the chances that this ABC approach will produce good results. What’s the science behind that?

A: We draw on the research on childrearing to help parents develop the specific behaviors they want, and also to develop broader character traits such as honesty, kindness, and respect. But there’s also strong research that has focused on how parents can provide what’s called a nurturing environment, which means more general characteristics of home and family life that influence children. For instance, we know that routines and rituals in the home, simple things a parent and child or the whole family do on a regular basis, can help improve how a child does at home and at school, and can also make parents more effective in helping their children. And we know that a nurturing environment can have broad effects on children—better mental health, better physical health, better performance at school.

Q: A lot of the book’s examples are drawn from your experience directing Yale’s Parenting Center. What kinds of challenges are bringing parents to the Yale Parenting Center these days? What do they want you to help with? Have you seen much change in what parents need from you?

A: The challenges that parents bring to our center include all the usual concerns of childhood and adolescence. So, for example, helping a child play nicely, show cooperation, get ready on time, not have tantrums—that’s all pretty common. For older children and adolescents, getting them to do homework and be civil around the house also are common. So there are pretty timeless commonalities among many families.

Yet there are also many changes in family life that have made all of this new and different. First, more than ever before, children are connected to social media through their smartphones, tablets, and computers. What that means is that there are full-time connections with peers and peer interactions that are very much out of sight of the parent and that dilute time with parents and parental influence.

And many children have more programmed lives—lessons, sports teams, special tutoring, and more, all of which can put pressure on everyone in the home, which shows up in how families interact. That can combine with the fact that parents’ lives today often involve more complex domestic schedules than in decades past. Multiple jobs, dual careers, more of a scramble to divide up and handle the responsibilities of childrearing—for many families this can increase stress a little bit, and stress can get translated to more oppositional behavior from your kids. And parents have less support than they may have had in the past. Fewer relatives nearby who can help, less contact with neighbors, less of everything—except desperate late-night Googling, of course, and that doesn’t always lead to the most useful advice.

Q: You call your book a “toolkit.” Why a toolkit? Why does it help to think of parenting that way?

A: The many techniques the book discusses are there to be drawn on if and as needed, very much like tools. You don’t walk around the house all day carrying tools, but you have them somewhere near at hand for when you need one. It may be that you can get your child to bathe or to come home at curfew without any special techniques or effort. But it may be that bath time or curfew has turned into a big drama that eats up a lot of your energy and causes problems in your household. So you turn to the book, which offers an array of techniques that parents can draw from when they need to achieve some change that just isn’t happening naturally or is causing too much conflict. Sometimes you can get a screw in the wall to hang a painting just by using your fingers. But sometimes a Phillips head screwdriver is exactly what you need to do the work quickly and efficiently.

Also, like the tools in your toolbox, the techniques in the book have special uses. Sometimes you need to help your child to do more of something she only does a little now—like homework, or socializing with other kids. Sometimes you’re not seeing any of the behavior at all and you have to build it up from scratch. Sometimes she’s doing too much of the wrong thing—like talking back, or lying. Those are three different kinds of problems, and they require different tools.

Finally, and importantly, the tools in the book, like those in your toolbox at home, are intended to be used in a temporary way to accomplish a task, and then you put them away. There’s no need to change all of your childrearing practices. You get rid of the tantrums, or develop a consistent habit of getting up in the morning and getting ready for school on time, and then you put the behavior-change tool back in the box.

Q: What’s the one most important principle or habit that a parent should learn from this book?

A: Getting the child to practice the behavior or components of the behavior you want is key. Practice locks in the behavior as a habit so that no special program or tools are needed in an ongoing way. Parents know and can agree with that principle. This book is about noncoercive ways to get a behavior to occur repeatedly, to do so with much less stress on the parent and child, and with more rapid and enduring effects.

Q: You note in the book that sometimes parental instincts lead us to do exactly the right thing, but other times our first impulse actually undermines our effectiveness as parents and makes life harder for us and for our kids. What’s an example or two of a counterintuitive surprise that a parent may find in this book?

A: Sometimes instinct leads us to just the right place. You probably feel an urge to hug your kid, and a startling amount of research demonstrates that being hugged by you is good for your kid. So, great, hug your kid. But it doesn’t always work that way. Our brain is wired to attend to negative things in the environment much more than to positive things. That means much of our attention focuses things our children do that we don’t like. The surprising research finding is that the best way to get rid of any of these negative behaviors is to focus on building specific positive behaviors to replace them. This whole approach strikes a lot of parents as completely counterintuitive.

Another area like that is punishment. The book’s approach defines a pretty minor role for punishment, and yet as parents we often see discipline as meaning how to punish a child to get the behavior one wants. The research is crystal clear on the finding that the most common forms of punishment—time out, harsh reprimands, spanking—are not likely to be effective, and they can have side effects that undermine parent-child relationships and lead to worse behavior by children. The parents I see at the Yale Parenting Center report saying over and over things like “If I told you once, I told you a thousand times . . .” and “If you keep doing that I’m going to smack you,” and yet nagging and hitting are so instinctive that it can take a while for it to sink in that they’re ineffective tools. None of this was told to me when I left the hospital with my first child; it looks like that has not changed.

Science is filled with counterintuitive findings. Exercise is an effective treatment for depression? Drinking very moderate amounts of wine can improve health but going a little beyond that really harms health? Put babies to sleep on their backs to decrease the likelihood of crib death? These findings and others like them have come from years of research that can help us navigate the shoals of everyday life. The toolkit book does the same with childrearing.

Q: You really emphasize the scientific basis for the parenting advice you give in the book. Why is that so important?

A: So much of parenting advice in self-help books and on the Web recommends practices that go against what reliable research has demonstrated to be most effective for parents. You’ll find authoritative-sounding voices advocating more punishment, time-out periods lasting hours, sitting with a child to show you understand why he is aggressive—all of which is the equivalent of “Smoke lots of cigarettes, drink alcohol excessively, especially at breakfast, and combine your foods to maximize fat content.” Parenting advice as a rule should be guided by the principle “First do no harm,” but far too often it’s not.

Science does not have all the answers and often is silent on many things we care about. But it is the best guide we have at any given time. So whether you want to prevent cancer or prevent your children from fighting with other kids or saying nasty things to you, we have considerable knowledge already, even though it’s not perfect or complete. People often reject science in everyday life but return to it when they run into a crisis—a scary diagnosis, for instance. But science can help with the everyday things, and we don’t need to wait for a crisis to draw on it.

Q: You’ve written forty-eight books for fellow scholars. This is now your second book for a general audience. What’s the challenge or goal for you as a scientist in directly addressing parents and teachers?

A: The main challenge is that anyone who has been a child or a parent already has a clear view of how to parent. This may come from what their own parents did or did not do, and it may be influenced by cultural or religious views or other strongly held beliefs. The parents I work with bring firmly held preferences, deeply ingrained, and some of these will conflict with what the science tells us. So, for example, almost all parents I encounter say that they praise their children—and they probably do. Yet to change behavior a different kind of praise is needed; it has to be delivered in a special way to build children’s habits in the ways their parents want, and when you use it this way you can actually cut way down on the quantity. A lot of parents feel obliged to constantly praise their kids, and it’s both unnecessary and ineffective. So there’s no blank parental slate when it comes to praising a child; we have to work with pre-existing beliefs and habits.

Contrast this with other areas of science. When we learn that there are galaxies filled with other planets billions of light years away, for most of us that information goes on a blank slate. Most of us don’t know about this and may not even care. Almost no one stands up and says, “Get outta here—I know there aren’t any galaxies that far out; your science is dead wrong.” But a similar statement by a parent in relation to the scientific research on childrearing will come up all the time.

But look, there’s no point in trying to boss people around. We work with the goals that parents have and try to give them new tools, but make no mistake they already have a toolkit they use. The challenge is not just to give them a better hammer but also to suggest that maybe a hammer is not the tool to use for every single job that comes up around the house.

Q: How would you sum up what this book does for parents?

A: I am a parent and I work with hundreds of parents every year, sometimes individually and sometimes in groups, and I have being doing this for many years. I continue to be deeply moved by parents, their commitments to their children, their efforts—often in the face of adversity in their own lives. Many parents feel they would do anything they could to help their children, and work very hard to provide all the care, nurturing, and help their children need—sometimes even when the children are resisting along the way. Most people know that science has advanced in allowing us to treat life-threatening diseases, land spacecraft on other planets, and predict the weather. But while all this has been going on, scientific findings related to childrearing and family life have advanced as well, and it’s happened mostly under the radar of our culture. The book brings to parents much of what we know that can concretely help them right now. It gives parents effective ways to help their children develop toward the goals they set for them, all while making everyday life less stressful.

Learn more about The Everyday Parenting Toolkit by Dr. Alan Kazdin