Book Excerpt: How to Discipline a Defiant Child

In this book, I present a method for changing your child's behavior that is based on good science — on what we currently know about children's behavior from the results of sound, well-conducted studies. I do not offer impressionistic beliefs or unsupported opinions about childhood. I'll be telling you something about the research and basic principles that underlie this approach, so you get a sense of why it works, but my emphasis will be on what to do and how to do it.

One great virtue of the method is that the same principles and techniques apply to the full range of situations for children and adolescents. I'm talking about everything from the milestones of normal child development — eating, toilet training, sleeping in one's own bed, not having tantrums — all the way to potentially more serious behavior problems like fighting or stealing. The method has been demonstrated to be effective even in those more difficult situations in which there are other problems in the home, such as when parents have physical or mental health problems, or engage in drug use or domestic violence. As long as you are committed to systematically taking this approach to changing the behavior of your child, even an imperfect and partial application of the method produces results.

First, you must shift your own focus of attention. As parents we tend to be experts on what we want our kids not to do. For example, I want him to stop whining, talking back, and ignoring me. I will teach you to focus more positively on what you do want your kids to do — When it's bedtime, I want her to go directly, quickly, and quietly to bed — and give you the tools to methodically reinforce that behavior until it replaces the behavior you don't want.

You'll learn how to build up the behaviors you want: how often your child must practice the good behavior in order for it to "take," how to set up situations so that the behaviors you'd like to see are much more likely to occur, how to create more chances to practice, how to praise most effectively, how to set up and give rewards that work, how to get from the desired behavior never happening to seeing it happen a lot, how to troubleshoot and improve a program that's not working well enough. I will have much to tell you about the details, because they can make all the difference between success and failure.

When you commit to positively reinforcing the behavior you want, you can be kinder to your child while being more systematic. We tend to fall into a trap of believing that getting serious about behavior problems means getting negative: more punishment, tougher standards, "zero tolerance." But positive reinforcement requires a very different kind of effectiveness from a parent: better praise, more purposeful rewards, greater attentiveness to a child. It draws you and your child closer together as it makes you a more effective parent.

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