A lot of people associate the word science with cold, remote abstractions, the opposite of your relationship to your kids. But scientists who investigate parenting and child rearing are finding out all kinds of things that can make family life not only easier for parents and children but also warmer, closer, and happier. In psychology and related fields researchers are studying everything from the most effective way to ask your child to do something (the way that’s most likely to lead to the child doing it) to how and why parents punish so much even though it doesn’t work very well. The body of good research produced by these scientists grows more robust and useful every day.1 Their findings confirm some instinctive parental habits. For instance, research on the effects of comforting touch is telling us more and more about how good for your kids it is, not just psychologically but biologically, to be hugged by you. When you follow the urge to hug your child frequently, the likely good effects include not only reducing stress and promoting bonding and attachment but also strengthening the child’s immune system. The research also shows why other ingrained parental habits make life only more difficult for adults and children alike. Take nagging, for example. We (I say “we” because I’m a parent, too) tend to act as if repeatedly reminding a child to do something makes the child more likely to do it, but the science clearly shows that the opposite is true: more reminders equals less chance of compliance.
There’s good science out there, and parents need it more than ever. They’re pulled in more directions than ever before and get less help than ever from other adults. They have less time with their families because of the normalizing of the two-career couple (or, for that matter, the three-job or four-job couple) and the technology-assisted expansion of work to fill even the smallest gaps in the day, so that parents are never beyond the reach of e-mails or text messages that draw them away from family time and back to work. There are also more single parents than ever before: in the United States, 41 percent of births are to an unmarried parent, and many parents are raising kids largely alone because of divorce. More grandparents have primary responsibility for rearing children, and there are more blended families in which different approaches to raising children can come into conflict. And, crucially, parents are increasingly isolated, cut off from the support systems and sources of advice that have traditionally helped with child rearing, such as neighbors and grandparents.2
That all translates into more and different kinds of stress on parents. You try mightily not to pass this stress on to your kids, but its effects can sneak up on you. Take, for example, that typical twenty-first-century mini-storm in which you get an emergency text message from the office and then your toddler melts down or your preteen goes into attitude overdrive. “Just my luck,” you may think. “This is the last thing I need right now.” It’s natural to think of the simultaneous onset of work-related and family-related crises as a coincidence—bad parental luck—but they’re often deeply connected. A number of studies show in detail how stressors on parents modify how they interact with their children, often in ways that increase noncompliance. When a parent is under stress, especially when stress is made worse by isolation, the effects can be measured by changes in tone of voice, the quality of prompts to children, patience, and the ability to pay attention to a child—all of which can make a child more difficult to manage. Just a little more edge in your voice, just a little more or less slack in reaction time can make the difference between a child doing what’s asked of him and pitching a fit. And, of course, a difficult child is another stressor, which in turn stretches and isolates the parent even further, and the whole cycle goes around faster and faster.
Feeling on their own and in need of support, parents increasingly turn to our age’s principal substitute for community and extended family: the Internet. Studies show (yes, somebody’s studying this) that parents go online for advice more than they go to their own parents or to others who are raising children of the same age. And there is indeed some useful information to be had online if you know where to look. The problem is that much of it is not presented in a way to make it useful to nonscientists, and, more important, even the best advice is buried in an electronic infinity of bad advice, bad science or anti-science, and confident admonitions to do things that won’t work and may well make your life worse: talking your child’s tantrums to death, for instance, or whupping the badness out of your child, or using time out for hours until your child learns her lesson. It can be difficult to tell the good advice apart from the bad, especially when you’re not an expert and in a hurry. And you probably are in a hurry, especially these days.
I direct the Yale Parenting Center, a service for families at Yale University that works with parents who want help with their children. Families in nearby cities and states come to the center for face-to-face sessions, and through our online setup we work with others from across the nation and in other countries. We see all kinds of kids and parents, all sorts of situations and problems, including some very extreme ones, but typically we focus on families that are dealing with the common challenges of child rearing. Sometimes these parents need a little help to get them through a rough patch, a child’s particularly challenging developmental stage, or a sticky situation—of which we’ve seen all kinds, including a lot of out-of-control tantrums, teasing and fighting among siblings, children who won’t do homework or practice an instrument, and every kind of teen attitude you can imagine. And sometimes they don’t have a pressing problem at all, and they’re just looking for assistance with normal day-to-day parenting, like managing multiple kids’ schedules or preparing for a fast-approaching transition to adolescence.
We’ve seen thousands of children at the Yale Parenting Center, from toddlers to teens. But it’s important to make clear that the methods I’m presenting to you in this book are not just the product of my own experience. They’re drawn from the findings of science, which means that they’re drawn from the experiences of a much larger pool—thousands of scientists and all the many, many people they have studied. These experiences have been systematically collected and analyzed, and that analysis is continuously tested and refined. Science does not have all the answers, of course, but it’s our best means of accumulating information and improving knowledge over time. The scientific method has allowed us to make gradual progress to the point that we can control diseases that used to be incurable; it’s why we can send a spaceship to Mars, which used to be a science-fiction fantasy; and it’s why we can now effectively treat formerly intractable afflictions like anxiety and depression. This book is based on what scientists in psychology and allied fields—not just me, but a whole profession’s worth of fellow investigators—have learned that can help you do everything from toilet training your child to dealing with typical teen issues like enforcing curfews and managing greater independence.
The parents I meet need a guide that bridges the gap to the best science and makes it immediately available to them in the most practical ways. So that’s what I set out to do in this book. I’ve already written a book for parents that focuses on the particular challenges of dealing with defiant and oppositional children (The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child); this book, by contrast, is intended for parents who are dealing with the kinds of everyday challenges that come up in most households. It brings the most useful results of the research on parenting and child development to you in the form of concrete tools and strategies for your home, illustrates their applicability with everyday examples, provides guidelines on how to use the tools to address fresh situations that may come up in your household, and focuses on routine everyday life behaviors that are challenges to most parents most of the time. This is a parenting handbook for daily life, in other words, at a time when many parents feel, for good reason, that they need more guidance than ever before.
Think of this book as a how-to manual that not only offers effective solutions to common parenting problems but also shows you how to break down and deal with the bewilderingly infinite variety of challenges that come up as you raise your children. It’s a book you can turn to when dealing with typical concerns ranging from specific behavior problems to more general matters that transcend the label of behavior, like attitude or character. It will help you work on a concrete issue, such as toilet training or teeth brushing, teaching a child to accept “no” without a tantrum, or smoothing out a conflict-ridden after-school or curfew routine. It will show you how to help your child take more responsibility for doing homework, practicing an instrument, doing chores, or coming home on time. And it will offer ways to help a child develop interests and qualities like respect for others, honesty, good friendships, or altruism. Parents aren’t concerned only with behavior, of course; they’re urgently interested in their children’s character and developing attitude toward the world. But those larger traits will inevitably be expressed as behavior—an honest child will tell the truth; a generous child will perform acts of generosity. By building those behaviors we also work on developing the broader qualities associated with them.
I’ll offer plenty of examples, but I won’t try to go through all imaginable possibilities case by case. I think it’s vitally important to show you a few basic, flexible principles that you can adapt and apply on your own to the limitless variety of situations that come up in the course of regular family life. These basic principles aren’t abstractions (of the unobjectionable-but-vague “be firm but fair” variety the parenting literature abounds in); rather, they’re specific tools with specific uses, simple enough to master quickly but adaptable to deal with the most complex family situations.
Let’s say, for instance, that your twelve-year-old is dragging her heels on weekday mornings and your five-year-old turns every trip to the supermarket into a tragic opera. You’d really like to fix these problems now, and you don’t want to embark on some extended personal odyssey of discovery to get to the solutions. So, you check this book—not because it devotes a separate chapter each to morning routines and trips to the supermarket but because a quick look will allow you to review some basic and extremely handy principles. In each case, you know what you don’t want the child to do, but have you translated your wishes into a clearly defined behavior you do want and can explain to your child? Now, how do you set up the behavior with effective antecedents to increase the chances of success? Do you have the consequences lined up to reinforce the right behavior, lock it in, and turn it into a habit?
The core of this book is the ABCs: A for antecedents, which is everything that happens before your child does (or doesn’t do) what you want him to do; B for behaviors; and C for consequences, which is what happens after your child does (or doesn’t do) what you want. The book brings together research in these three areas—how what happens before, during, and after affects the likelihood that a child will do what parents want her to do. I’ll show you how to break down a problem into these three components, and I’ll offer you tools to deal with each of them.
The first four chapters introduce you to the ABCs—antecedents, behavior, and consequences—and how to use them. (It takes four chapters because I devote two to consequences, the most overused and widely misunderstood part of the equation.) Chapter five is about what’s going on around the behavior, the more general climate of a household. Often, you can raise your overall chances of success in improving behavior by making a simple adjustment in the routines of family life: the context.
Finally, in chapter six I focus, with examples, on how to put the pieces together. Along the way, as I’ve said, I’ll be sure to show you not only how to use the tools but how to decide which tool you’ll reach for in a given situation.
It’s important to underscore that the how really matters here. Many of the good-behavior techniques I present to you have many variations. That’s what makes them adaptable to so many different circumstances. Time out and positive reinforcement, for instance, are used not only with children in household, baby-sitting, camp, preschool, and school settings, but also with adults in nursing homes, the military, sports training, and many other settings. Parents can take advantage of the great flexibility of these techniques, adapting them to their own needs, but they still have to use them properly. Success can often depend on relatively subtle nuances in how you use the technique. Time out, for example, is a very popular tool in the parental toolkit, but it’s usually used improperly. Yes, variations are possible, but there are, in fact, more and less effective ways to use time out, and an understanding of the difference between them begins with an understanding of what time out really means: a brief break from stimulation of any kind. And yet adults often do things that undermine the effectiveness of time out: dragging the child to a time-out spot and forcibly keeping her there (which is stimulation, and the wrong kind of stimulation at that); letting the time out go on too long (only the first minute is necessary for changing behavior; everything after that is either neutral in effect or, after about ten minutes, counterproductive); ordering the child to spend the time out contemplating and repenting his sins (when in fact the point of time out is to do nothing at all).
You may recognize some or many of the techniques I discuss. Often, a reader will be familiar with a particular tool, but that doesn’t mean it’s been used properly in the past. You may have said “Good job!” to your child until it makes you ill to hear yourself say it, but I can show you what the science says about how to praise more effectively—and, as a bonus, you can offer a lot less of it and still get better results.
In that connection, it’s important to emphasize that this book isn’t another version of a reward program. If you know the parenting literature or have searched online for help with parenting, you may be overly familiar with sticker charts and the like. You may even have tried such programs, with mixed success at best. A successful program requires all three components: As, Bs, and Cs. Point programs—also known as sticker charts—show up a few times in this book, but always as a minor part of a more comprehensive approach. As they’re typically used, sticker charts concentrate all of a parent’s effort on the Cs, the consequences, with little attention to antecedents or shaping the desired behavior as it develops. But that’s like training a pilot only how to land a plane, not how to take off and fly in all kinds of weather. You have to build a behavior gradually and encourage it to occur in circumstances that make success more likely, and you can’t do it all with consequences. That explains why consequence-only programs for improving children’s behavior, including some very popular ones, don’t work very well. For instance, some families, schools, and even fast-food chains offer incentives for children who get good grades, but that’s throwing consequences at long-term outcomes, which is usually doomed to fail. If you want to teach someone to play the piano, you don’t save up all rewards until the budding musician can play a Beethoven concerto; you shape interim processes like learning scales, practicing regularly, and so on.
So the how (how you use the tools) matters as much as the what (the tools themselves). You have to use the tools properly, especially when you’re just starting to work on building up a new behavior, getting it to occur frequently, and locking it in with the most effective consequences. But you don’t have to be perfect. Less-than-perfect applications of the techniques in this book will still be very likely to improve your child’s behavior. (And, because human beings and not robots are involved, a much greater likelihood of success is all one can responsibly claim for these methods. The research shows that they work most of the time on most people, and at the Yale Parenting Center we see lots of families whose experience confirms that finding.)
And there’s no need to change your life to use every single one of the techniques I offer you in every possible situation. I’m not proselytizing here. If you’re satisfied with your child’s behavior in a given area—he goes to bed on time and without any problem, she practices the piano without too much fuss—you don’t need to consult this book about it. Sometimes you just don’t need to use a tool; if you can open jars of food or remove screws and nails from the wall with your bare hands, leave the tools in the box. But sometimes you really need a tool. If you keep running into the same conflict at the same flash point—meals, screen time, clothing, manners, cell phone, attitude, whatever it is—and you’re sick of lecturing, threatening, wheedling, and punishing, you can make life less stressful for all by reaching for one or more of the tools in the kit presented by this book, and using it properly.