There are so many sources of advice for parents trying to improve their children’s behavior. Why did you enter this crowded field?
I was frustrated to see so that so much advice available from parenting books, websites, and talk shows violates what is known from decades of scientific research on child rearing and human behavior. The advice in most of these books is based on outdated views, platitudes, and pop psychology. It may sound authoritative to a desperate parent who’s looking for any help she can get, and some of the advice may be okay, but far too much of it is deeply flawed. For example, let’s say your child has a catastrophic tantrum every time you say no. What can you do to change this incredibly disruptive behavior and bring some peace back into your household? Most books say you should sit down with your child to let him express why he is angry in words rather than actions. Or they urge you try to understand why he’s angry, explain to him why it’s bad to have a tantrum, and so on. All of these are great strategies for talking to your child, but they’re not helpful in controlling tantrums and replacing them with better ways of responding to disappointment or frustration. The research tells us that talking and explaining are weak methods of changing behavior. The stronger approach is to define a positive opposite—a good behavior to replace the one you don’t want—and then reinforce it consistently and often enough that it becomes your child’s default setting.
You’re a scientist, with a distinguished career in research, teaching, and clinical work. What inspired you to write a book for a popular audience?
Discovery still inspires in me the wonder and excitement that I felt when I was just starting out, but I’ve come to see just how slowly research findings trickle from universities and research labs into everyday life. For thirty years, my clinic staff and I have worked with families who come to us, sometimes from all the way across the country, because of their children’s oppositional, aggressive, and antisocial behavior. We’ve also worked with families whose children are just a little challenging or are going through a period when they could use a little help. We have seen significant, lasting changes in thousands of children, and we and other researchers have documented these changes and the treatments that made them happen. We know what works. There is good science that can help parents, and parents can use the help, since child rearing is enormously challenging, even on a good day. I was inspired to write this book to help get the word out, since for years parents have been telling me, “You should write a book for us, not just for other scientists, that explains how to do this stuff.”
What’s the single most essential thing you want parents to understand about changing kids’ behavior?
I want parents to understand that although they’re not necessarily responsible for whatever behavior problems their child might have, there is much they can do to develop the behavior they do want. You really can change your child’s behavior, and you don’t have to get tougher on your child to do it. In fact, too much harshness is often part of the problem. The book provides concrete, thoroughly tested procedures that are likely to achieve the changes you want, while also freeing you from the sense of constantly being at war with a misbehaving child.
What’s a good example of a common parenting habit that can be improved by paying attention to the details you emphasize?
Praise is a great tool, one of the strongest ways to influence your child’s actions, but it’s often misused or wasted. Little changes in how you give praise can make huge differences. The research tells us six things about effective praise: it should be (1) enthusiastic and (2) specific; it should include (3) verbal and (4) nonverbal elements, such as a smile or a gentle touch; and it should be (5) frequent and (6) immediately follow the desired behavior, which means you praise this behavior whenever it happens, and you create opportunities for it to occur a lot.
Right now you’re probably thinking that six things are too much to keep in mind, but really they’re not. Say you’re trying to get your five-year-old daughter to go to bed without making her usual gigantic fuss. The moment she starts to walk toward her room, say something—with a nice smile and enthusiasm—like That’s great! I asked you to go to your room, and you started right away. Kiss her forehead, or give her a high five. Right there you’ve already hit most of the high points. The praise was enthusiastic, specific, and both verbal and nonverbal; it was immediate, and, because you’ve been looking for every chance to offer praise, probably also frequent. This is far more likely to work than simply saying “Good job!” a thousand times a day.
In the book you discuss widespread parenting myths. What’s an example of a commonly held belief that the science doesn’t support?
The misunderstanding and misuse of punishment go at the top of the list. For too many parents, trying to change behavior mostly means noticing what they don’t want and punishing it. Even if they don’t want to punish their child, they think it’s their duty to do so, but the research tells us that it’s not very effective. That’s because punishment doesn’t teach a child what to do, and it doesn’t reward the desired behavior—the only effective way to get the child to do it. Punishment also has bad side effects, such as increasing a child’s aggressiveness and tendency to avoid you, which can make it harder to improve his behavior. Research shows that even if punishment temporarily stops unwanted behavior, it will return at the same rate, or worse, in the hours or days to come. Your child’s resistance to punishment escalates as fast as the severity of the punishment does, or even faster, so you have to get harsher and harsher to achieve the same result.
Meanwhile, your child is learning all sorts of bad lessons from you. Hitting teaches hitting as the way to respond to life’s problems; yelling teaches yelling; becoming angry teaches anger, and so on. Modeling is a very strong way to teach behavior, stronger than punishment, which helps explain why the harm you do with harsh punishments can multiply and last a long time. And, of course, punishing a behavior is still a form of paying attention to it, and any kind of attention can encourage your child to do something again. And yet, in many cases, even the most loving and conscientious parents think that they have to punish and punish to change behavior.
Let’s talk a little more about punishment. It seems to be a flashpoint in debates about kids’ behavior, and everybody seems to have a strong opinion about it. Are you saying that there’s no place for it in your method?
No, the research shows that punishment can be a small, effective part of a program that also features lots of positive reinforcement of the behaviors you desire. This kind of punishment is mild, brief, and sparingly used, and, if possible, it occurs when the behavior first surfaces, so it can short-circuit an unwanted sequence of actions before that sequence can get fully underway. Sometimes all it takes is a well-timed look or word to stop misbehavior. Technically, that look or word is punishment, or the threat of it. But parents typically wait until the misbehavior has run its course, then punish severely, frequently, and often angrily, and that usually doesn’t work. I devote a whole chapter to punishment to show you how you can punish less and be more effective as a parent. In fact, one leads directly to the other.
What do you say to parents who tell you, “Those techniques might work on other kids, but you don’t know my kid”?
The well-researched principles and techniques of changing behavior are fairly universal, but they have to be customized to each particular situation. Your child really is unique, which means that we have to adapt those universal principles to fit his or her individual case. Part of what makes a program effective is its flexibility. In my work with parents, and in my book, I’m always helping them find ways to make the program work for the child.
You note in the book that your methods for improving behavior can be applied successfully to kids of all ages, and also to adults. So is there anything about kids’ behavior that requires special methods, or are all people pretty much alike?
The basic principles of behavior change can be applied to the full range of people, from infants to residents of nursing homes, but children do have some unique qualities. For one thing, although people of all ages can learn new behaviors, the malleability of childhood is a special opportunity. You’re catching a person at his or her most supple, and bending the twig really does affect the future growth of the tree. Second, and perhaps even more important, children depend on their parents and other adults in a special way. Teaching better parenting skills changes the parents’ behavior, making them more effective at improving their child’s behavior.
Is your method just another rewards program? What do you say to the parent who says, “I already tried point charts, stars, stickers, and all of that, and they didn’t work”?
Rewards are part of the program, but not the most critical part. They become effective only when combined with its other, more vital aspects, such as reinforced practice. While you’re doing the program for the few weeks or so that it usually takes to change a behavior for good, you want to create lots and lots of opportunities for your child to do the behavior and enjoy its pleasant consequences. There’s a sequence to it: you set up the good behavior with clean, clear prompts; the child does it; and then you make sure that good things happen as a result—praise, points on a point chart, rewards, and so on. The rewards are part of the sequence, not the whole purpose of it. Rewards, by themselves, without the rest of the sequence, will probably fail. A point chart in a vacuum is not likely to work. But embedded in a program that systematically connects behavior to consequences, it becomes a powerfully effective tool. So in the book I do devote space to showing you how to use a point chart properly. Many parents who come to my clinic say they’ve tried them without success, but when I ask exactly what they did, it almost always turns out that they got bad or incomplete advice about how to use one. Believe it or not, there’s good scientific research on point charts and the right way to use them.
You’ve headed the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic for eighteen years, and before that you ran other such clinics. Have children’s behavior problems changed over time?
The children who come to us are younger than before, and that’s in part because increased demands are placed on them at earlier ages, such as asking them to function well in preschool and daycare settings where misbehavior is less well tolerated than it might be in the home. And they get more, and earlier, exposure to images of violence—in videos, on the news, from all directions.
Any final thoughts? One last thing you wanted to say?
People have strong feelings about child rearing, and the strength of one’s passion for this or that parenting strategy is often unrelated to any accurate sense of how effective it might actually be. In my experience, nobody ever shrugs and says, “I don’t know. How do you handle a screaming child?” No, one parent says, “You whack him!” and another says, “You help her get in touch with her feelings!” and a third says, “You ignore him!” and so on, all with equal fervor, all with a similar unwillingness to consider alternatives. When we talk with parents at the clinic, we usually say, “You may well be right, but let’s try it another way for a few days and see if we can make a change for the better.” After all, they wouldn’t come to me in the first place if they were perfectly happy with the present state of their household.