What do you say to your elementary-school-aged children about the mass slaughter of children at an elementary school? People should be ready to respond honestly to their children’s question, but at the level they are asked and with the minimum of detail necessary.
One of the most common concerns for parents is the worry that their children, especially preadolescents and adolescents, are just not motivated to do anything. He doesn't really show much interest in anything or talk to anyone, and texting or Facebooking his life away seems like a pallid substitute. Understandably, parents worry that a child who seems inert now may be on a trajectory to become a full-time slacker in perpetuity.
Rewarding the desired behavior is just one element of positive reinforcement, which a deep body of reputable research over several decades has established as the most effective way to change behavior.
Research demonstrates that teenagers do not suffer from some special inability to reason. Larry Steinberg and other researchers explain the steep rise in risk-taking behavior that comes with puberty by elaborating the interplay between two brain systems. The social-emotional system, which develops robustly in early adolescence, seeks out rewarding experiences, especially the sensation afforded by novel and risky behavior, and is also activated by the presence of peers. The cognitive-control system, which undergoes its great burst of development in later adolescence, evaluates and governs the impulses of teenagers.
Let’s say that there’s something you really, really want your child to do: complete toilet training before starting preschool in a few weeks, or eat more than the three P-foods (pasta, pizza, potato chips) he’s currently willing to eat, or take a bath without putting up a fight. Your expectation is reasonable, and you are being as positive, constructive, encouraging, patient, consistent, and gently firm as any parent could be. Well, OK, you lost it once or twice, which is only human, but for the most part you’re doing everything right: diligently practicing the behavior with your child, enthusiastically praising any steps in the right direction and awarding stickers on a chart so masterfully designed that it belongs in a psychology textbook.
Let’s say you find out that your child is being bullied by a schoolmate. Naturally, you want to do something right now to make it stop. Depending on your temperament and experience, one or more of four widely attempted common-sense solutions will occur to you: telling your child to stand up to the bully, telling your child to try to ignore and avoid the bully, taking matters into your own hands by calling the bully’s parents or confronting the bully yourself, or asking your child’s teacher to put a stop to it.
How do you decide whether to seek professional help in dealing with a child’s misbehavior? Families come to the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic because they were referred by a school official or a pediatrician, because Family Services or a judge ordered them to, or because the parents decided on their own that they needed help managing their children’s behavior. Even if parents are inclined to let a problem fade away on its own, and even if it’s likely to, they’re not always in a position to wait for nature to take its course
Thanks to more than 50 years of research, we know how to change children’s behavior. In brief, you identify the unwanted behavior, define its positive opposite (the desirable behavior you want to replace it with), and then make sure that your child engages in a lot of reinforced practice of the new behavior until it replaces the unwanted one. Reinforced practice means that you pay as much attention as possible to the positive opposite so that your child falls into a pattern: Do the right behavior, get a reward (praise or a token); do the behavior, get a reward.
If you’re a parent, you are probably familiar with being provoked into a blood vessel-popping rage that instantly overwhelms any resolution you might have made to stay calm. That’s because kids are amazingly good at refining behaviors that they can turn to when they’re upset or angry, especially in public, to make their parents even angrier—in fact, insanely angry. Let’s just stand back for a moment and appreciate the virtuosity of the 6-year-old who trails along behind you every morning on the way to school wailing that you’re mean because you make him wear an uncomfortable backpack or wrinkly socks, or the 9-year-old who demonstrates her budding independence and wit by being rude to you in front of others.