Our 5-year-old had developed a nasty habit of throwing things, hitting, and biting people when angry or frustrated. The change in behavior happened all at once and took my wife and me by surprise. Our youngest had always been an emotional guy, but he was sweet and the new behavior seemed to progress from “not-a-problem” to “this-is-scary” in a matter of days.
The outbursts certainly put his love of the Incredible Hulk into perspective: When calm, he was our mild-mannered boy. When pissed off, he was flipping chairs and tearing up books. You wouldn’t have liked him when he was angry. I didn’t.
I should note that my wife and I are avid DIYers — we prefer to do things ourselves rather than calling in outside help. So we defaulted to trying to solve the problem of our son’s outbursts on our own. We were certain we could handle the problem so long as we could find a place to start. Naturally, we wound up looking for help on the internet.
I should say that I didn’t just Google: “Muzzles for children.” I reached out to psychologist Dr. Alan Kazdin, the director of the Yale Parenting Center, who is a great guy I talk to sometimes for work. He’s the smartest person I know on issues related to child discipline. He was the one who directed me to an online course — one of his own making. It’s called “Everyday Parenting: The ABCs of Child Rearing” and you take it through the online learning website Coursera. The course basically walks you through a series of Kazdin video lectures on science-backed parenting techniques, with intermittent online quizzes to make sure you’re actually learning. I enrolled because I trusted Kazdin and, well, it was free.
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Up until the day we logged on to start learning, I’d never taken a class with my wife.
And studying together from bed became immediately problematic: Kazdin’s voice is super soothing. My wife used his video lectures as a sleep aid. It was nearly impossible for her to fight the drowse. She tried to persevere, but I came to understand her snoring as the end-of-class bell.
What was interesting was that even though his techniques were clearly laid out and explained, my wife and I still had to reconcile our perspectives of what we heard. This happened as soon as the first lesson on praise. Kazdin noted that praise should be specific, physically and vocally animated, and end with a touch. Even though my wife and I both heard the same lesson, we must have spent the better part of an hour after the lesson developing a Kazdin-style of praise that would be consistent between us. Our queen-sized classroom became a hotbed for frustration. The only way we managed the frustration was to be more careful and clear about our interpretations of the material.
Predictably (in retrospect), when our bed became a place of learning, it stopped being a place of sex. Besides, after studying ways to keep your 5-year-old from violent meltdowns, the urge to get it on pretty much evaporates.
So we moved the classes. A laptop on the couch was better. Still comfy (and sleep-inducing) but at least the learning was separated from the place where the magic had once happened.
But we kept at it because Kazdin’s methods worked. They worked, in fact, the day we started to praise our child in his very specific way: animated acknowledgment of a very specific request, followed by a touch. Kazdin’s method is meant to be intentionally practiced. You praise the same way every time to reinforce the behavior you want. It has nothing to do with wishy-washy emotions. You are saying and doing the same thing in the same way consistently.
Our kids (both of them) received our praise and, weirdly, began to listen to us, completing tasks the first time we asked. It was a validation of Kazdin’s contention that the way we were praising our children was reinforcing the behavior we wanted. That reinforcement was then literally changing their brains so that their response became habitual.
It was the same thing with Kazdin’s method for asking a child to do something, what he calls the “positive setting event” to a behavior or an “antecedent.” The request is gentle, specific, and includes a choice and a “please.” It’s a very concrete way of asking a child to do something. And my wife and I found that as we practiced, not only did our children comply, allowing us to praise, but it became second nature to us.
In many ways, I think that’s the neat trick behind Kazdin’s method. As much as we were developing consistent positive behavioral responses, we were also changing our own way of approaching situations. That practice was changing us, as parents, too.
That meant that the way we were making requests wasn’t leading to frustration. And when our kid did get frustrated our praise reinforced appropriate ways to express that frustration — mainly taking a deep breath and counting. The techniques started to become a part of our daily life. And that almost made continuing the classes harder. The more his lessons worked, the less motivation we had to continue.
And in truth, we stalled out before the end. We have a couple more videos to go. We’ll get to them. We have to get to them. Because our little guy still Hulks out occasionally and it’s still up to us to make it better.