The Alan Kazdin Method for Making Your Children Behave

So now that's what comes before the behavior.And now the behavior itself. When you get compliance, if that's the behavior you want, now you go over and praise it ... very effusively, and you have to say what you're praising exactly.

From The Atlantic article: The Alan Kazdin Method for Making Your Children Behave

A very interesting article for me because I've been recently discovering the depths of positive-reinforcement and how it can work. I think everyone knows the theory that it's a good thing to do but it's rare to consciously put it into practice in your life.

This article has some pretty nice insights about how it might work with kids. But not just that, I think positive reinforcement is something adults probably should practise too. Another reason it's particularly interesting for me is because I've gotten into babysitting this last year and have just started to notice more and more the relationship between parent and child.

Highlights (It's quite long but I think the examples are important to call out. Plus the article is long so really this is me cherry pickin the good stuff):

  • The other thing is, our brains are wired to pick up negative things in the environment. It's thought to be very adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint. If you have a partner, significant other, or a child, if they do 10 nice things, that 11th one that you didn't like, you're going to really be all over.
  • So you're really desperate. You shout, you try to reason, you think you're a wonderful parent. You think that you're just the greatest parent in the world. You sit down and say, “No, we don't stab your sister, she's the only sister you have and if you stab her, she won't be alive much longer.” It's always good to do that with your child, to reason, because it changes how they think, it changes how they problem solve. It develops their IQ, but it's not good for changing behavior.
  • So it's good to do that, but apparently it doesn't change behavior. And once that fails, and we know it fails, because parents have this wonderful expression, sadly, “If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times.” What the research shows is that telling an instruction does not change human behavior very well.
  • There are a whole bunch of things that happen before behavior and if you use them strategically, you can get the child to comply. Let’s say the child always just folds her arms and says, “no.” That's not such a big deal, that's actually easy to change, but a parent's not going to be able to do it. They're going to say, "you better do it because I say so,” or “we have to go,” or “you better do it now or I'm going to force this on you,” and that's typical parenting.So what comes before the behavior?

    One is gentle instructions, and another one is choice. For example, "Sally, put on your,”— have a nice, gentle tone of voice. Tone of voice dictates whether you're going to get compliance or not. "Sarah, put on the green coat or the red sweater. We're going to go out, okay?" Choice among humans increases the likelihood of compliance. And choice isn't important, it's the appearance of choice that's important. Having real choice is not the issue, humans don't feel too strongly about that, but having the feeling that you have a choice makes a difference.

  • And now the behavior itself. When you get compliance, if that's the behavior you want, now you go over and praise it ... very effusively, and you have to say what you're praising exactly.
  • This works for all ages. Let’s say you have an adolescent daughter and she says to you, “Mom, you are such a bitch. What have you ever done for me? You only think of yourself.” That makes parents want to jump out of their windows, because their whole life has been devoted to that damn child. So how do we get rid of teen attitude? We call it positive opposites: Whenever you want to get rid of something, what is it that you want in its place? Because getting rid of it is not going to do it.
  • The teen may be at the dinner table and just being quiet and not saying negative things. Well, when you're starting out, one of the positive-opposites can sometimes be reinforcing the non-occurrence of the behavior. And you just say, “Marion, it's nice having dinner with you, it's nice that you're here.” What that does is reinforce the likelihood that Marion will be at the dinner table and not say negative things. Marion might also say, “Can you pass the avocado and garbanzo stew?” And you just say, “Of course.”You proceed from easy to more complex behaviors, and soon you have Marion outside the dinner table, saying nice things. We train parents to jump on those occasions that will build it up, and pretty soon you don't get the, “you're a bitch,” anymore, you build positive opposites. You don't try to suppress— “Don't give me attitude for all I've done for you!” What research shows is that it will lead to escape behavior on the part of the child. It will lead them to avoid you as soon as they get home from school and it will model negative interactions toward you.