HOW TO DEAL WITH YOUR KID’S ANNOYING HABITS
You might want to nag or scold, but positive reinforcement is more effective.
As a child psychiatrist, I have spent eons in school studying developmental psychology and human behavior. Learning this, you might assume that I would know all the research on effective parenting techniques and be a perfect parent myself. You would be wrong on both counts.
There was a question that I wanted to answer, for me as a father as well as for the parents whom I counsel in my private practice: “If your child is doing something that is not harmful, but is also not especially adaptive or appropriate, when and how often should you correct her behavior?”
For example, your 5-year-old is eating peas with her fingers; she’s not hurting anyone, but the grandparents are coming over in two weeks and you’d like to show them that you’ve instilled some basic table manners. Or, when my 9-year-old greets an adult while staring at his shoes, when and how often should I remind him about the importance of eye contact to increase the chances that he’ll actually start attempting it? In my field, the consensus on certain parenting techniques is clear: Repeated studies have shown that spanking is damaging and ineffective, for example. The harmful effects of yelling and shaming, too, have been widely publicized. But what does the research have to say about the mild, low-level scolding and nagging that so many parents engage in?
[Read our field guide to taming tantrums in toddlers.]
After many hours spent reading studies on this topic and interviewing experts, I concluded that I was asking the wrong question. When I asked Alan Kazdin, the director of the Yale Parenting Center and the author of over 700 articles and books on child-rearing, when you should correct behavior you’d like your child to change, his answer was straightforward: “Never!” According to Dr. Kazdin, it is never helpful or effective to scold or nag a child about behavior that’s not harming anyone. “Don’t attend to the eating of peas with fingers,” Dr. Kazdin said. “If you give attention to something, the behavior you don’t want could actually increase.”
Hearing this, I was surprised and a little embarrassed. I can think of dozens of times that I have reprimanded my son (usually gently) for behaviors that were socially inappropriate or merely annoying. When I dug into the research on this topic, though, I learned that Dr. Kazdin was right: Not only is scolding ineffective for long-term behavior change, it can actually make certain behaviors worse.
Some small studies suggest that certain approaches — standing close to the child, maintaining eye contact and speaking softly — may increase the effectiveness of a scolding. But if you want permanent change in the behavior, the evidence is lacking for scolding as an effective technique.
So, if we are looking to decrease behaviors that are socially inappropriate, instead of asking when you should correct your child’s behavior, the better question is probably “How should you modify a child’s behavior to be more appropriate?” Daniel Bagner, a professor of psychology and the director of the Early Childhood Behavior Lab at Florida International University’s Center for Children and Families, told me that after identifying the behavior they want to change (a child looking down at her shoes when greeting an adult, for example), parents should “identify the positive opposite of the behavior, such as making eye contact, and consistently provide positive consequences, such as praise, when the child displays the positive behavior.
“Additionally, it is important for parents to implement the positive consequence immediately after the child’s behavior.”
This idea is also sometimes referred to as “catch them being good.” There is ample evidence that positive reinforcement — providing something positive right after a behavior — is very effective in increasing how often that behavior occurs. What Dr. Bagner is saying is that instead of focusing on the behavior you don’t want, find times when your child is exhibiting the behavior you do want and give that behavior lots of attention.
Dr. Kazdin gave me a very similar message, but I asked him, “What if your child never does the positive opposite behavior, such as making eye contact when greeting people?” Dr. Kazdin said that the secret in that case was to use something called “differential reinforcement.” This is where you find a behavior that is close to the behavior you are trying to get and positively reinforce that behavior. For example, Dr. Kazdin said, “In the example of your child avoiding eye contact, when you go in a room together, ask them to look up. Or say ‘I bet you can’t look up.’ Then, when they do look up, say something like ‘Nice job looking up, that was great’ and smile and give them a pat on the shoulder.” If you keep doing this every time your child looks up, Dr. Kazdin said, he will start to do so more often. And any time you “catch” him making eye contact, positively reinforce that, too. Eventually, you will have more eye contact and less looking at shoes.
Another technique that experts agree on is that, since children tend to enjoy games, it is possible to use games to improve behavior in a fun way that still gets results. In the example of a child eating peas with her fingers, Dr. Kazdin proposed turning it into a contest. “Tell them ‘we’re going to have a game. The winner is the person who can put one pea on their fork and put it up to their lips the slowest. I’ll show you.’
“Then playfully model slowly lifting a pea to your lips on the fork. As soon as your child does it, praise them to reinforce the behavior. Then after the game is over, don’t mention it the rest of dinner.”
I reached out to Jane McGonigal, a best-selling author, game designer, and the director of games research and development at the Institute for the Future. “As a parent, when I’m trying to influence my child’s behavior, I would leverage one of the phenomena we see in gaming, which is that kids love being better at their favorite video games than their parents,” she said.
“So, I would create a game where I would ask my kid to help me do the thing I want them to do. I would ask them to try to spot me not using my fork and eating with my fingers, or to notice if I’m not looking someone in the eye,” she added, “and I would enlist their cooperation in this way and turn it into a multiplayer game where they know more than me and they are helping me. This would give me the chance to model for them why the behavior matters, by thanking them and explaining why I want help remembering.
“Basically, instead of trying to directly change the behavior and telling them what to do, let them experience the fun of ‘owning’ the behavior and being in charge of telling me what to do.”
Since learning more about the science of behavior change, I have been hesitant to give up scolding because it’s easy for me and automatic. But I have been trying positive reinforcement more with my own children and have been thrilled with the results.
Following Dr. Kazdin’s advice, I made a game out of eye contact for my 9-year-old son. I said “I bet you can’t look me in the eye for 10 seconds straight.” He proudly proved me wrong. Now, each time he makes even two seconds of eye contact with me, I smile and touch his shoulder and say something like “Great job making eye contact!”
This approach takes a little more attention and self-discipline on my part, but my son’s ability to make eye contact has been steadily improving, with no more scolding or nagging from me.