Book Excerpt: How to Discipline a Defiant Child

One widely read author assures readers that if children can tell us they are angry, they will not kick us or otherwise express their aggression in unacceptable ways. This is an outdated view not supported by evidence. A large body of scientific work tells us that talking about aggression will not reduce aggressive behavior. In fact, talking about aggression sometimes actually increases aggression. In any case, it will certainly not help a child develop nonaggressive solutions to behavior problems. The whole approach is based on misguided psychology derived from an old hydraulic model, which treated the human psyche like a steam engine that must release pressure in order to function smoothly.

But ideas discredited by science can continue to circulate for years, even decades. Some of the advice — about punishment, for instance — is actively harmful. Some of it is basically benign; it may not hurt, except to the extent that it gets in the way of finding and applying more effective solutions. Often, the advice offers fine general tools for living but not direct paths to addressing your concerns about your child's behavior. In addition to teaching practical skills, this book will equip you to read the parenting advice with an informed critical eye.

Perhaps the greatest danger posed by bad advice is that it discourages parents from pursuing solutions that really do work. Some of the bad advice out there looks superficially like the good, evidence-based advice. All kinds of experts tell you to praise your child, or set up a point chart, or use time-outs instead of harsher punishments. But most of them don't pay any attention to the good research on how to make these strategies effective. Nor do they systematically connect the strategies to the real reason why they work, which is that they encourage reinforced practice (of which I'll have more to say in chapters 1 and 2) to occur. Success and failure are determined in the details, and scientists have studied those details with an exactitude that I want you to be able to take advantage of. If you happen across mediocre, impressionistic advice that's not based on good science, and you try it, and it fails to change your child's behavior, you may decide that praise or point charts or time-outs don't work at all. And that would be a tragedy, because when done right, they work very well indeed.

This book is all about doing it right. My main goal is to put the science at your disposal in a practical, efficient way that you can use to improve your child's behavior.

So, Relax

Before we get started, I think it's important to establish some perspective. Your child is most likely perfectly normal, which is to say that she is wonderful in many ways but occasionally misbehaves (and the research shows that even the very best-behaved kid listens only about 80 percent of the time).

Kids are people, and people respond to the method of positive reinforcement this book teaches; it works. Our research shows that about 80 percent of even the most serious cases of child conduct disorder respond well to my method, and chances are good that even the very worst moments you confront with your child fall far short of the threshold that all of these serious cases exceed.

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