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.