The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child by Alan E. Kazdin

I’ll be the first to say that I don’t think Lucy is a particularly defiant child. However, toddlerhood is a trying time for any child, so I figured why not pick up a few tips from the experts on naughty behavior? I can use all the help I can get!

Kazdin’s method consists almost completely of positive reinforcement. In his study, he has found that behavior is most consistently changed through “catching the child being good” and offering praise and rewards (as opposed to punishment). The basic idea is nothing new, but Kazdin is quite specific about how to praise, how to create the reward system, and when (if ever) to use punishment. He stresses that you don’t need to implement these systems forever, just long enough to make the behavior habitual. He likens it to an adult wanting to create a habit of exercise — it might be hard to begin, but once exercise becomes a regular habit, it feels more strange to not do it.

One of the most helpful concepts he describes is identifying the “positive opposite” of the negative behavior so that you can set up the expectation of what you’d like to see. So, for example, instead of your goal being “Lucy won’t hit Rosie,” you focus on something like, “Lucy will touch Rosie gently.” I found this idea really helpful for us, especially since Lucy seems to misbehave (and hurt her sister) mainly to get attention. One of our trouble-times was going for a walk in the double stroller. Lately, at the beginning of the walk I say to Lucy, “I really liked how you gave Rosie nice, gentle pats on the arm on our last walk. I’m going to be watching to see if you can treat her with gentleness and love again on this walk.” Then, during the walk, I’ll stop a few times and praise Lucy for her behavior. “Lucy, I noticed that you had you’ve been sitting peacefully next to Rosie and tell her about the cars on the street. That is really kind and loving! Good job.”

I appreciate Kazdin’s clear instructions about specific praise, creating reward charts (one of the inspirations for our sticker system), and enacting simulations of the desired behavior. He also has some pretty interesting thoughts about punishment, essentially saying that it doesn’t work on its own to actually change behavior — it will stop the behavior in the short term, but it doesn’t make the behavior less likely to occur in the future. Punishment, he says, instructs a child to not do something, but doesn’t teach them what to do instead. His view of punishment is to keep it quite mild (not even raising your voice), keep it short (less than five minutes in a time out, no matter how old), give the punishment immediately after the infraction, and only use it in conjunction with lots of praise and positive reinforcement.

Strangely, Kazdin doesn’t address the toddler age group — the youngest children he describes are four years old — but the concepts are easily applicable to little ones. He does go on to describe how to use these ideas with older children and even teenagers (modifying the reward system to suit their desires). It’s a little hard for me to believe this would work with teenagers, but I’m not there yet, so who knows? I do have some other questions, like, “When and how do you stop the reward chart?” I assume it will become clear, and it might take a little longer for a toddler than an older child, but I do hope I’m not going to be giving out stickers for bedtime behavior when Lucy is in college.

I do have a more philosophical struggle, too. In many of my favorite child-rearing books I read, they encourage parents not to offer rewards for behavior, aiming instead to nurture a “self-disciplined” child — one who is able to make good choices because they want to do right, not just because they want to please their parents. In theory, I like this idea — wouldn’t it be great to raise daughters who can be trusted to make good decisions when they are out with their teenage friends? However, I am finding it really hard to live this out during the two-year-old-phase. Lucy just doesn’t have the maturity to have conversations about making good choices! She is much more “cavewoman” these days (to borrow from Harvey Karp’s image), so I think I’ll have to just put the self-disciplined child idea on hold for a few years.

So, there is a lot I like about this book — not the answer to all our problems, but it is definitely worth reading, and definitely helpful for parents of toddlers. Here’s to more shiny smiley face stickers!


Considered in this review: The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child: With No Pills, No Therapy, No Contest of Wills, by Alan E. Kazdin.

3 Replies to “The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child by Alan E. Kazdin”

  1. Thank you for the review, I think I would like that book, I might just go get it! I have read the happest toddler on the block and love it. It has helped us with some communication blocks. I find that when I am stressed Madelyn acts the worst (or I just can handle the behavior in a positive and so the neg. comes out and makes it worse).
    We do however do a lot of talking about choices. One thing we have learned is that toddlers like to have a choice. You can wear this or this, you choose. You can have milk or water. … So we have extended that into our obersvation world. “Oh, madelyn look at the man on the motorcycle, what is he missing?” “a helmet” “do you think that is a good choice or a bad choice?” “bad” “why” “I don’t know….because he could get really hurt”. When I am driving we do a lot of the game “what do you observe” she loves it. We try to point out things that reflect people making choices so she develops the inner dialouge (sp?) and it seems to be working. She now points out when she made a good/poor choice. But we will see if it helps in the long run or just makes her judgemental of others :-0.

  2. When we discipline Abby we use the “full circle” method taught in a class at our church called Entrusted with a Child’s Heart. First, we talk about what she did wrong. Then we discuss what she should do next time. We ask her to apologize and we forgive her. Finally we pray and hug.

    It was also hard for me to just tell her “you obey Mommy and Daddy just because” so I tend to talk about how obedience is how we show God that we love Him (I know, kind of abstract for a two-year-old), thus obeying Mommy and Daddy is a way that she shows us that she loves us (and God).

  3. Ann – we found that the sticker chart phased itself out, no problem. We had made one for Benjamin for bedtime behavior and it had 4 weeks worth of sticker spots. As we approached the end of the chart, I made a new chart but didn’t get around to printing it (James prints it at work where it can be printed in color). Anyway – a few days went by with no chart and he didn’t even seem to notice. He still stayed in bed just fine and didn’t ask for stickers in the morning.

    After we came home from the hospital with Isabelle and he decided to start getting up at 5:45 in the morning, we got out the never used new chart and made it a “stay in bed until the light turns on” chart, so he now sleeps to a more reasonable 6:30.

    In conjunction with the stickers, we do talk about how when he does what we ask it makes us happy and when he doesn’t, it makes us sad. I figure this is kind of a simple way of describing obedience to a toddler. Now when he does something he knows he’s supposed to do, like stay in bed or pick up his toys, etc. he’ll say “I made you happy?” and we’ll respond with “Yes, it makes us very happy when you obey.” I had a hard time at first with the rewards for similar reasons to you – it felt a bit like bribery to me. But in thinking more on it, I think it is difficult for a toddler to understand a vague concept like doing what is right or obedience. The rewards help to teach them what is right so that eventually the rewards aren’t necessary anymore.

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