Let's say that there's something you really, really want your child to do: complete toilet training before starting preschool in a few weeks, or eat more than the three P-foods (pasta, pizza, potato chips) he's currently willing to eat, or take a bath without putting up a fight. Your expectation is reasonable, and you are being as positive, constructive, encouraging, patient, consistent, and gently firm as any parent could be. Well, OK, you lost it once or twice, which is only human, but for the most part you're doing everything right: diligently practicing the behavior with your child, enthusiastically praising any steps in the right direction and awarding stickers on a chart so masterfully designed that it belongs in a psychology textbook. You know your child is physically capable of doing what you're asking because he has done it on occasion, but he will not do it with any regularity. In fact, he actively opposes you. Your intense—OK, desperate—interest only seems to inspire more opposition. The more you need your child to do what you want, the less likely it is to happen. You're stuck and frustrated, and you don't know what to do.
This sort of problem comes up often enough at Alan's clinic, the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, that it has inspired a wrinkle in standard operating procedure that's worth examining in detail. For therapists who work with families there, the standard advice is variations on a theme that has been established by 50-plus years of empirical research in psychology: Specify what you want the child to do and prompt the behavior with clear instructions, model the desired behavior yourself and shape it at first by helping the child to do it properly, and arrange for the child to engage in as much reinforced practice of the behavior as possible until it takes root as an enduring habit. If you've been reading our pieces in Slate over the past year-plus, you know that science has identified this as an extremely effective way to change human behavior in general and specifically to develop the habits and daily behaviors you wish to see in your child.
It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that when this usually reliable approach hits a snag like the one described above, the therapists at the clinic have found success in solving the problem by taking what appears to be the opposite approach. They direct the parents to temporarily back off almost entirely: to stop asking their child to do the desired behavior and say it's OK not to do it at all, stop offering praise or other rewards for doing it, and mask their attitude of engaged enthusiasm or frustrated rage with an appearance of bland disinterest in whether the child does it or not. What happens next, frequently, is that within a day or two the child starts doing the behavior with no prompting from parents or anyone else. If you try something similar with your own recalcitrant child, within a few days he or she may well be using the toilet, eating green beans, or bathing without dire struggles.
Why does this reverse in tactics work? And how do we explain its effectiveness in light of what the body of scientific research tells us about behavior?
Consider the possibility that the atmosphere of heightened expectation surrounding the desired behavior is the problem. If every time your child so much as flicks her eyes over a plate of green beans you jump at the opportunity to exclaim, "Ready to try a bite of Big Girl Grow Food and earn three Big Girl Stickers?!" you may well have reached a stage at which even your constructive praise and attention registers as added pressure to be resisted.
To understand how this works, begin from the premise that behavior is heavily controlled by antecedents: whatever you do to set the stage for a behavior to prompt it to occur. For instance, the way you say something—tone of voice, whether there's a "please" in front of it, the kind of interaction that precedes a request—influences the response you receive. We are usually unaware of the range and force of such influences, which can be very subtle.
As President Obama has discovered in pushing health care reform, antecedents that convey even a slight pressure or urgency and even the appearance of a reduction in choice can sometimes have the effect of strengthening opposition that would not otherwise occur or be so strong. Urgency can inspire push-back and resistance to even the most rational pitch—not by everyone, but by a lot of people. The psychological term for that reaction is normal.
In the home, a parent's regular vigilance and responsible parenting can rise to the level of desperation and in turn lead to a reaction: a little more digging in of the heels on the part of the child. Are we merely blaming the parent here? No. What the parent is doing and the child's reaction are both well within the normal range, even though each may see the other as perversely manipulative or unreasonably controlling. Rather, the antecedent conditions (urgency, eagerness, explicit or implicit pressure) in which the request for behavior is sandwiched now make it more unlikely to occur.