Positive Discipline: An Update, An Apology and Fact Checking the Fact Checker

Even someone who fact checks parenting experts and parenting advice needs to be fact checked once in a while. 

I was wrong. I admit it.

I made a hasty comment about the odds of a parenting expert thoughtfully and readily answering my question about the three praises for every one reprimand.  For those of you who wasted two hours watching the family-friendly movie Parental Guidance over the holidays, make that three put-ups for every put-down. Such recommendations are at the heart of Positive Discipline, a rather general term to describe a child behavior management strategy that I featured in my last post, my attempt to call out good/reasonable/sound parenting advice (in addition to admirable media coverage of said advice) in the new year. Did you see it, mom, I'm trying. I am not above admitting my errors or listening to my mom (happy birthday!).
So I owe an apology to Alan Kazdin, Professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry at Yale, a child psychology expert cited in the WSJ article about positive discipline who got back to me ASAP over the weekend, his personal time, with a refreshingly candid and informative explanation of why he and his colleagues specify 3 "positives" (praise, affection, head rubs, etc) for every reprimand or timeout.

Kazdin reported they use this as a guide and point out to people that although there is no empirical evidence quantifying the exact number they have found it to be helpful, especially more so than a general instruction. As he told me via email "to say, 'reinforce the appropriate behavior more than you punish the inappropriate behavior' has been too nebulous so that is why (we use) something more concrete but qualified as just a guide."  Although it's not clear exactly why this works, perhaps because it forms a tighter parent-child bond, it seesm reasonable that simply punishing or telling kids what not to do doesn't always make clear what they should be doing. That's where the positive reinforcement comes in. Basically it's letting your kid know what you expect. 

Kazdin also clarified a few other issues. The first, his work has shown the merit of positive reinforcement to tamp out poor behavior when used in conjunction with the more typical consequences or discipline. Even when parents substitute a gentler form of punishment (i.e. time outs rather than spankings) it's more effective in reducing the bad behaviors if parents supplement the punishment with the positives (i.e. praise, affection, etc.). To simply switch without the praise or hugs is often not particularly useful. This wasn't crystal clear in WSJ's Smarter Ways to Discipline piece that did mention all praise all the time is not the way to go, advice that seems rather obvious to anyone who has ever spent a minute or two with a child who never hears the word no. The parents of that kid, listen up, you might need to swap a few mild glares for more hard core options. The rest of you, swap the bad with the good.

What does the swap look like in reality? Take a look at a scenario Kazdin suggested:
So, for example, your older boy is always picking on his younger sister and you go to this boy and you grab him by his shoulder and you say, “you stop bullying her, you stop doing that or I’m going to hit you.” The child stops at the moment and then it still continues for the rest of the day or the rest of the week. And the parent runs in and says, “If I’ve told you once I’ve told you 1,000 times, stop hitting your sister!” That’s all going to fail. We know that from decades of research now.

What to do? The boy and the girl are interacting nicely, you run in there and you say, “You are playing so nicely, that is really great.” And then you touch them. Do that once a day, three times week, you’ll change the fighting that goes on between them. Is Your Child A Brat? Use Rewards, Not Punishment via Big Think
Note the positive used in the similar context of sibling interaction. The compliment is not randomly inserted into daily life (i.e. during bedtime when mom finally remembers she has 2 more warm fuzzies to dole out) but given in context of the previous poor behavior. Thus the next time your son is acting like a perfect gentleman to your daughter (or the reverse), consider a kind word or two about his fine conduct. But don't praise his innate gentlemanliness or other instrinsic, intransient qualities, stick to admirable efforts and actions unless you'd like to reduce future good deeds, remember The Peril of Praise. Has it really been five years since that cover story?

For those of you with tweens, sorry, forget the swap altogether and just do your best to ignore the whining, eye rolls and naked attempts at independence for the next decade or so unless of course there is actual nudity or semi-nudity (i.e.mid-riff halter top) in which case please try to compliment your daughter the next time she wears clothing/more clothing. No, I have no empirical evidence to support that particular advice.

So go, return to the family fold, prepare a few compliments to later sprinkle on some acts of kindness or depending on where you're at, age-appropriate behavior and/or dress. Personally I will try to throw out some more too. I don't know if it works but my mother is insisting and it is her birthday. 

Truth be told, my track record with the experts generally has been pretty good. I find most people do respond to my emails. Academics tend to respond the most readily but the last few have not with the exception of Dr. Kazdin. Did you catch his lack of subterfuge, rather obscure jargon aimed at confusing or distracting us from an non-answer? I appreciate that. I suspect there's an inverse relationship between actual knowledge/expertise and conscious attempts at mystifying the rest of us.

Don't let the pop-psychology-esque website fool you, check out "A Conversation With Alan Kazdin" and his explanation for why he finally wrote a book for the general parenting crowd and the biggest parenting myths (hint: it's about discipline). If you don't have time for the book and your child isn't in the principal's office right now, then just read the conversation.  No, I didn't fact check all his assertions but still, worth your time.

In a moment sure to win us over at Momma Data, in his email reply Kazdin also allowed that the nature of journalism often conflicts with the "the lengthy, too detailed, too qualified comments of university life." Preaching to the choir, that man.

P.S. Still finishing up the reading for the Best Parenting Books of 2012. It was either finish them when the kids (finally) returned to school or finish them over break and ignore my kids (and husband, mother-in-law, parents) so I could sooner blab to you about the books that will make you a better parent or at least enhance your parenting experience. 


Anonymous said...

I don't think this positive approach is so new. It is how my parents raised me and I am trying to do with my kids. Yes they are still young but I do think it really helps.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hi Anony,

Bet my parents would recognize this too. I'm sure there's a plug for it in the Bible too somewhere. It's not like modern psychology invented it.