As any parent knows, raising children is, to say the least, very challenging. This is exacerbated by unprecedented stressors in the lives of the often two-career, or three- to four-job, parenting units whose free time can be compromised by the technologyassisted expansion of work, which often monopolizes even the smallest increments of free time. To boot, the lack of extended families that historically were essential in child-rearing makes things even tougher for us parents.
An overwhelming number of parenting books, podcasts and advice columns both religious and secular mean to advise parents how to better raise their children in this environment. These books are well intended, and they range from offering authoritative to more permissive parenting styles (with the occasional authoritarian style outlier). Yet almost none of them are based on scientific research.
The strength of Dr. Alan Kazdin’s book is the science behind it. For more than three decades, his dedicated group of physicians, psychologists and clinicians at the Yale Parenting Center have been studying parenting styles clinically, as well as compiling and analyzing various theories, beliefs and practices of others working in the field. Over time, his crew at the Parenting Center has integrated the best of these studies into a cohesive parenting “toolkit.” It is a readable, sensible—and occasionally counterintuitive—and easy-to-apply system to help parents handle the mundane, enervating stressors: the temper tantrums, the refusal to do what is asked (whether it be homework or anything else), and the behavior issues that make childrearing feel more like spiritual warfare than a joyful partnership of growth.
One of Kazdin’s core principles is that of the “positive opposite.” He observed that most parents focused on what their children shouldn’t do rather than on what the parents would rather the children do. Kazdin retrains the parent to focus on compliance rather than defiance. This seemingly small detail is crucial in establishing the framework of his ABC parenting system, an acronym standing for antecedent, behavior and consequence.
One of his more interesting chapters is on antecedents. Most of us hope that our children will fulfill our age-appropriate verbal requests—in general, to just behave. When children don’t, they run the risk of being reprimanded, a negative consequence. But what if we could create the optimal condition for success? Antecedents are prompts established by the parent for the child, setting them up to successfully complete the desired behavior. It helps motivate children to do what is asked. For example, by using a calm voice, open body language, a loving touch or smile, and the simple word “please” can, as Kazdin points out, greatly affect the desired behavioral outcome.
His chapter on behavior focuses on how to properly encourage desired behavior by incrementally helping the child effectively engage in that behavior, then praising him or her specifically for it and following it up with some sort of hug or highfive or another form of physical touch. He strongly encourages explicitly practicing desired behaviors.
Dr. Kazdin’s other chapters on consequences focus on how to implement the “positive opposite,” that is, positively praising desired behaviors instead of punishing any negative behaviors. Kazdin indicates that punishment only stops the behavior for the moment that it is delivered. It won’t prevent repetition. Punishment also traps a parent. It locks it into a parent’s repertoire.
Finally Dr. Kazdin offers a number of chapters helping organize the principles he has enumerated. He gives a number of reallife examples and a framework on how to implement all the tools in the kit.
It’s a worthy read. My wife and I have implemented much of it in our home, getting our kids into reading books instead of trying to sneak in another video game or television show. It’s cut down on our nagging and raised voices. It’s also allowed us to pray together as a family in thanksgiving for each other and our blessings—a far cry from the perpetual personal prayers for patience and self-control (and forgiveness) that far outnumbered the former. It seems that those prayers are being answered.
Anestis Jordanoglou is Managing Editor of PRAXIS magazine. He and his wife, Evis, have two children, Harrison, 8, and Maria, 6.
Alan E. Kazdin, The Everyday Parenting Toolkit, The Kazdin Method for Easy, Stepby- Step Lasting Change for You and Your Child (Mariner Books, 2014), 208 pages.