Published by Olga Khazan on Mar 28, 2016

Say you have a problem child. If it’s a toddler, maybe he smacks his siblings. Or she refuses to put on her shoes as the clock ticks down to your morning meeting at work. If it’s a teenager, maybe he peppers you with obscenities during your all-too-frequent arguments. The answer is to punish them, right?

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Not so, says Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center. Punishment might make you feel better, but it won’t change the kid’s behavior. Instead, he advocates for a radical technique in which parents positively reinforce the behavior they do want to see until the negative behavior eventually goes away.

As I was reporting my recent series about child abuse, I came to realize that parents fall roughly into three categories. There’s a small number who seem intuitively to do everything perfectly: Moms and dads with chore charts that actually work and snack-sized bags of organic baby carrots at the ready. There’s an even smaller number who are horrifically abusive to their kids. But the biggest chunk by far are parents in the middle. They’re far from abusive, but they aren’t super-parents, either. They’re busy and stressed, so they’re too lenient one day and too harsh the next. They have outdated or no knowledge of child psychology, and they’re scrambling to figure it all out.

Parents in this middle group might turn to Kazdin and his parenting interventions. I spoke with Kazdin about his unusual method. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Khazan: Where do people get their ideas about parenting? When people have a kid, what determines the kind of parent they’ll be?

Kazdin: It’s not determined or dictated completely by one’s own parents. For example, most of the children who are abused do not go on to be abusive parents. On the other hand, some things are transmitted through two ways. One of them is modeling. There’s an enormous impact that modeling has on a person, and parents don’t often use that strategically or constructively. Things that parents model very often influence how children behave as children and adults. For example, the way that parents discipline their children is how children discipline their peers. For parents who are very sarcastic, a child will be very sarcastic with their peers and so on. The more a child is hit by his or her parents, the more a child will hit his or her peers.

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.

Now you start groping for the various options that there are. The ones in your repertoire are likely to be ones from one’s parents, and also likely to be ones from other relatives.

And this is dictated by one’s personality, too. So for example, one’s personality might be a little, tiny bit more impulsive. Some are more extroverted, some are more introverted, and all this is also normal.

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