You’re parenting wrong: Child-rearing via “positive opposites

This week’s blog post is by The Paternity Test co-host Matt Boresi, who lives in the Edgewater Glen neighborhood of Chicago with his wife (“Professor Foster”) and their 4-year-old daughter Viva, who, not unlike a blogger, will take all the attention she can get, positive or negative.

Your child acts out, so what do you do? Reason with them? Reason with a rabid dog, or a speeding truck or a storm. Repeat your instructions? They’ll wait you out and dance on your grave. Give them a time out? Fine until, in a Bartlebian act of passive resistance, they simply refuse. Hit them? You just taught them that hitting is a way to solve problems–which works fine in a Zack Snyder movie, but less so in a world with assault charges. And the more attention you give the bad behavior, the more you’re feeding the bad behavior. Your child’s bad behavior is quicksand, and the more you struggle, the faster you sink.

The solution–such as there is any way to win in the Kobayashi Maru that is parenting–is a bit of applied behavioral analysis known as “positive opposites.” It’s a psychological concept that’s been around for a while, but a recent Atlantic article interviewing a leading researcher of “positive opposites” in parenting, Dr. Alan Kazdin at the Yale University Parenting Center, has the web buzzing about it lately. (Slow news day. The net ran out of “Crying Jordan” memes, I guess.)

This method is more concerned with establishing good behavior than combating bad behavior, which must largely be ignored and ridden out. If the child is to be punished (which is not very useful, but perhaps just), punishment must come swiftly and in the moment, because the real work isn’t done in the 10 percent of the time when your child is curb stomping you, it’s done in the 90 percent of the time when they aren’t. It’s not about futile efforts in getting rid of the problem, it’s about creating what you want to put in the problems place.

“B-b-but,” you say, “that’s surrendering! I’m not going to let my kid get away with acting out! This word doesn’t need more Millennial snowflakes! I’ll, by God, horse whip them ‘till hell won’t have it again!”

Well, I have to ask, how’s that working out for you so far? Suppression leads to escape behavior, aggression leads to return fire. (And hate leads … to suffering, or so I’ve heard.) You’re building resentment, teaching your child to avoid you, to evade you and what can you really do to them, at the end of the day? You’re stuck with them until they’re young adults. In the immortal words of Tony Soprano, “If [the kids] realize we’re powerless, we’re @#$%ed.”

So, when your child is exhibiting the behavior you WANT from them, praise it–specifically and effusively.

“You didn’t want to do what I told you, but you did it anyway. I like this much better than when you kick and scream and throw yourself on the floor.”

“You are sharing your toys right now, instead of snatching them from your guests and hiding under the bed muttering, ‘my precious,’ and that is good.”

“You’re eating at the table politely, instead of running around the room throwing mashed potatoes like the late Patty Duke. This makes me proud to be your dad, instead of making me think about how I gave up my dream of moving to an island to make a living selling puka shell necklaces to white girls with dreadlocks and sleeping on the beach.”

Negative commands, like, “Don’t dump your princesses on the floor” are useless. You might as well tell Cubs fans they don’t need sunglasses if they’d just wear their caps with the bill in front.

Try instead, “It makes me happy when your princesses are in their castle and then they don’t get stepped on.

Or try the fake choice: “Do you want to put your princesses in their castle or clean up the playdough?” Because asking “Would you like to put your princesses in their castle?” Is the same as asking “Would you like to put your princesses in their castle or would you like to go scribble on the term papers I’m supposed to grade while I put your princess in their castle?” (Hint: They’ll choose B.)

Now, this kind of child rearing isn’t an instant fix. Put your “Survivor” album on repeat and lock it in for an arduous 18 year training montage, but it (theoretically) works, and, let’s be real, nothing else does, so you might as well give it a shot.

Take notice of civilized actions, give specific praise (it doesn’t have to be too much and they don’t need a jeep with a bow on the roof just because they DIDN’T push their sibling into the lake today) and give positive options and constructive choices.

You can even play out pretend versions of situations and give rewards. (“Show me a tantrum where you DON’T throw my iPad into the oven. Good! You get an extra book tonight.”)

Don’t give attention to bad behavior, even if it’s negative attention like scolding and spanking. That is, as the French say, “succès de scandale.” Or, as the Americans say, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” I suppose it is more appropriate for me to work it thusly, however: Give positive attention to good behavior. You see what I did there?

Speaking of positive, I’m POSITIVE this won’t work right away and you’ll be super mad you read this. But keep at it. You’ve got nothing to lose but those tantrums.

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