Q: So, what did you learn from this lucky development?
R: It took me a while to fully understand how this all worked. After a bit of consultation with my colleague, a bit of reading, and considerable reflection, it became clear that we actually had utilized a well-established concept – although with a younger child than it was typically applied to.
Here is how I came to understand it: The unexpressed goal was to keep Mike calmer during diapering. To reach that goal I needed to make his flailing about a less positive experience, and it appeared that turning my face away accomplished that step. His behavior reduced when he no longer had my attention. Put differently, when I stopped reinforcing the behavior I didn’t want, the behavior lessened. Then when I quietly rewarded his calmer behavior by talking softly to him, that behavior increased.
Q: That does sound encouraging. Could you summarize all that so I can keep it clear?
R: I’ll try. In summary, there were two parts of the process:
When Mike did not have a smiling and responsive parent’s face beaming down at him, his behavior changed from rambunctious to calmer (that is, removing the advantages of his less appropriate behavior reduced the behavior), and
When I smiled and talked quietly to him while he was calm, he tended to remain calm (that is, reinforcing of appropriate behavior increased that behavior), allowing me to complete the diapering process much easier.
Q: Okay, that seems clear enough. Since you described this as a major step toward developing the approach you write about in the book, what were the lessons learned?
R: With enough time to think it all through, my wife and I were able to conclude from this experience that:
Even a baby a few months old is responsive to – and learns from – external reinforcement,
That fact is true, whether the behavior is one we don’t like or one we do,
This brief interchange demonstrated a very young baby’s capacity to internalize change so as to make it permanent.
As parents, we could directly and systematically apply that knowledge to support appropriate behavior in our child, and
Knowing that we had such influence on our baby made it clear that we had enormous responsibility to assure we focused our influence appropriately.
Q: Those do seem like important lessons. But was that all it took for you to move from “talking” therapy to the approach of How to Raise Disciplined and Happy Children?
R: Well, first of all, I didn’t abandon psychotherapy, but I was more and more selective about when to use it. And I did come to frequently rely on behavior therapies in my work. But at this early stage, I was yet to have several other equally important experiences that contributed to that transition.
Q: Please tell me more.
R: When Mike was 17 months old, we moved from the Midwest to California, where I started a new position in a large outpatient mental health clinic. There I was responsible for psychosocial assessment and treatment of children and families. My typical approach to my patients, in keeping with the training I described earlier, relied on “talking therapies.” Even in this familiar setting my approach was soon to be challenged.
Soon after I began work, I saw a family with several children. To protect the family’s privacy, I will change some of the identifying details, but it won’t change the important aspects. Three of the kids had come for psychotherapy, each for several of their very few years, and the parents described little if any benefit. They expressed hope, however, that more such service would improve things. I thought that doing more of what hadn’t worked might not be the best plan. What to do instead was less clear.
The parents and I, alike, assumed that underlying anxieties were responsible for the troubling things the children did. However, during our family meetings I noticed that the parents frequently reacted sharply to their children’s whining, complaining, or fussing – among the behaviors they deplored – with little impact. In fact, their pattern reminded me of what our jabbering while Mike flailed about Mike during diapering, a year or so earlier.
Q: I suppose there is some similarity. But how could that experience relate to this family’s needs?
R: Watching this family interact made me wonder how much of their struggle was due to attention the parents paid to the very behaviors they said they wished to stop. I wondered whether, if we could eliminate the impact of the parents’ attention to inappropriate behaviors, we could better understand both the extent and nature of the assumed underlying anxieties. Wishing to test this notion and uncertain about what else to do, during our first session together we set up a simple behavioral checklist and reward system aimed at increasing desirable behavior and reducing misbehavior. The checklist included such items as “picking up toys when done with them,” “going to bed when told to,” and “taking turns when playing with siblings.”
The family returned a couple weeks later with the results from the checklist. The parents happily told me that the kids were doing much of what was on their checklists. At the same time, the kids were clearly pleased with themselves and with the approval they were receiving from their parents.