How to really change your kid's behavior.

Snapshots of life at home.
April 10 2008 2:20 PM

Tiny Tyrants

How to really change your kid's behavior.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

Picture an explosive parent who responds to a child's misbehavior by ranting, screaming, and perhaps hitting. Now picture a calm, patient, gentle parent who responds to the same misbehavior—no matter how provokingly awful—by reasoning and explaining. The rage-ball goes ballistic; the patient explainer works hard to see what's going on inside the child in order to get the child to understand why the behavior must change.

Obviously, the two parents have different effects on their kids. They model different responses to not getting the behavior they want, and research tells us that children tend to reproduce what happens at home when interacting with peers. The child who is yelled at and hit is more likely to yell and hit to get other children to behave a certain way; the child in a reasoning home is more likely to remain calm and persuade.

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But the two parents have one important thing in common: They're likely to be ineffective in changing the unwanted behavior. Their different approaches have different side effects, so to speak (and, of course, managing behavior isn't a parent's only responsibility), but when it comes to changing behavior, the rage-ball and the patient explainer are startlingly close neighbors on the ineffective end of the spectrum. They embody our natural tendency to fixate on unwanted behavior and unwittingly reinforce it by giving it a lot of attention—and then persist in trying either to punish or to talk it into oblivion, both of which almost never work.

More than 50 years of good science tell us that punishment doesn't do much to improve behavior, so the explosive parent's approach will almost certainly fail. All that yelling and hitting qualifies as punishment, after all, and punishment doesn't teach what to do. It rarely succeeds even in teaching what not to do.

The patient explainer will probably fail, too. Trying to change a child's behavior by helping her understand why she misbehaves and why she shouldn't derives from an old-fashioned model of human behavior inconsistent with scientific evidence.

Before going further, let me say that promoting understanding plays a crucial role in raising kids. Explanation and discussion build intelligence and language skills, develop a child's powers of rational reasoning, and teach the difference between right and wrong. Engaging your child on a range of topics has another, even broader benefit: It increases the likelihood that he will come to you in the future to discuss things, including touchy subjects. When you explain something to your child, or when he tries to explain his anger to you, his understanding may improve, and that's good.

But a large body of research tells us that greater understanding is not a strong path to changing behavior. If you are smoking while reading this, you will get the point at once. You understand that some behaviors are not good for you and may well hurt others, yet you do them anyway. Kids are no different. In both children and adults, recognition that one is doing wrong does not automatically trigger a process that will alter the improper behavior.

Parents typically grasp the weakness of the link between understanding and behavior in themselves but not in their kids. They insist on explaining and explaining why a behavior is wrong, even though verbal instructions have proven to be almost as weak as punishment in changing behavior.

It's true that feedback, which means explaining what was right or wrong about a behavior already performed, can change the behavior of unusually motivated, competent people. If you tell a professional ice skater that she's not performing a jump properly because her arms are in the wrong position, she's likely to adjust them. But she belongs to an exceptional subset of human beings. For most people, feedback does not work wonders.

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