Here's a parenting book you perhaps haven't heard of: The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child. Not the most enticing title when you're glancing across the bookshelf. If you were to nevertheless decide to pick the book up, you might put it right back down; the cover image's just awkward. I feel like the Kazdin team could have benefited from some branding assistance. But 'don't judge a book by its cover ' fits here because it's actually a very helpful book.
If you'd told me ten years ago when I kicked off this mothering gig that I'd be dog-earing pages in a comprehensive book on positive reinforcement and the use of effective rewards to modify behavior, I'd have raised an eyebrow. Probably both. Even two or three years ago I might have been too skeptical and resistant to read this book. Why? Because I was squarely in the "no-nonsense, I-mean-business" parenting camp. I wasn't interested in what I considered bells and whistles to encourage my children to behave properly. They'd behave properly because it was the right thing to do; my (of course loving) firmness and consistency would ensure this. Our culture's problem is too much positive reinforcement and too many rewards for the entitled kids in our culture; how could heaping onto this help?
Fast forward to now. I'm so glad I encountered this book. And I'm even more glad I took it seriously and played around with its concepts. It forced me to take a hard look at myself, my underlying parenting beliefs, the dynamics that existed between my children and me, and the real limitations of my kids. Especially one kid. And it helped me explore ways to bust her, and us, out of some hard and stubborn ruts.
Kazdin's a student of the great B. F. Skinner, father of behavioral conditioning, and he's devoted his career to customizing key behavior-shaping concepts to working with kids. The book pays quite a lot of attention to the reasons why parents who employ a largely authoritarian style may resist these ideas, and why doing so can serve to shoot themselves in the foot in working with (especially challenging) children. He says many parents use punishment as a primary tool to create behavior change, and he discusses negative and deepening cycles that can be created - for both parents and kids - when punishment takes too central of a role. How punishment itself can damage the relationship between parent and child, sometimes permanently.
Kazdin walks step by step through the 'why' and 'how' of behavior-shaping, and he makes a big point of saying "this is not your average sticker-chart reward program." And it's not. It's an elaborate and time-intensive process, replete with laser-like focus on the part of the parent. But in my experience, it really moves the dial. Significantly. The method unlocks the kid's ability to tap into- and to be willing to practice and grow in - the very skills they're short on.
I mentioned that a parent with an authoritarian disposition has to lay aside her preconceived notions to consider Kazdin's thoughts. Same goes for a Christian parent who'd say she's primarily interested in heart issues. The concept of "behavior modification" - and even the idea of widely employed rewards - seems dicey to such a parent. Are we focusing on the wrong thing here? Are we employing gimmicks, paying off kids for doing what's right, when we're supposed to be training souls? Kazdin speaks to this directly by saying that behavior and emotion/personal makeup are inextricably connected, each affecting the other. He writes, "We can change interactions between people, as expressed in behavior, and cause both child and parent to be less irritable, less angry, less hurt, and less hurtful in their interactions with each other. When we smooth interactions at the level of behavior, more often than not we also see immediate results in feelings such as appreciation and love... That's why it makes sense to work on behavior."
It got me thinking. Remember C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity? "Do not waste time bothering whether you 'love' your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disking him more." Changed behavior leads, according to Lewis, to a changed heart. Which is close to the same point that Kazdin is making (and the principle his program's based on).
Looks like Kazdin's succeeded in securing himself a permanent spot on my bookshelf.