I’ll borrow scenes from a TV show to illustrate each.
2.1. Clear, consistent rules and rewards
A little boy at the dinner table punches his brother, demanding, “I want your ice, now!”
Mom and Dad look horrified. A plump, elegant stranger with a British
accent also sits at the table. She doesn’t seem horrified at all. She
is, however, taking notes, something like a product tester. “What are
you going to do? she asks the parents calmly. The boy punches his
brother again. “I will take away your dessert if you do that again”, Mom
says sternly to the child. He does it again. Mom looks down at her
plate. Dad looks away, angry. The parents, it seems, have no idea how to
answer the British woman’s question.
Welcome to the invasive world of the TV nanny.
You’ve probably seen these reality shows, all of which follow a familiar
formula: Families clearly out of control allow a camera crew access to
their lives, all in the company of a professional nanny. Invariably
blessed with an authoritative accent from the British Isles, she
proceeds to act like a Nottingham sheriff come to clean house. The nanny
has a week to perform her domestic miracle, transforming the harried
parents into loving disciplinarians and their little hellions into
angels. Among the scenes:
Toddler Aiden refuses to go to bed, wailing at the
top of his lungs. He knows that when his parents say, “Lights out—I
mean it”, they don’t really mean it at all. If there is a curfew, it is
unannounced or unenforced, and its absence makes Nanny’s brow wrinkle.
It takes Aiden hours to go to bed.
A little boy named Mike accidently trips on the
stairs, dropping a bunch of books he was carrying. The little guy
cringes and tries to hide, expecting a yelling from his moody father. He
gets one, gale force. Nanny intervenes: She goes over to the boy, helps
him pick up the books, and says with a sad kindness, “You look really
afraid, Mike. Did your dad frighten you?” Little Mike nods, then bolts
up the stairs. Later that night, like a British bulldog, Nanny gives the
dad a biting lecture about the child’s need to feel safe.
Amanda makes an effort to go to bed on time all by
herself, which she had resisted before. This effort goes unnoticed,
however, because the parents are busy chasing her younger twin brothers,
trying to get them to brush their teeth. Once finished, the parents
flop down in front of the television. Nanny tucks neglected Amanda into
bed and says, “Good job. You did that all by yourself, and no fuss!
The TV nannies solutions are sometimes irritating,
sometimes spot on. But in these cases they follow the behavioral
science of our first leg of discipline: consistent rules that are
rewarded on a regular basis. Watch what they do, paying attention to
Your rules are reasonable and clear
In the example of Aiden above, the toddler either
does not have a set bedtime or ignores the one that’s supposed to be in
place. His only guidance is his parent’s behavior, which is waffling and
ambiguous. Aiden has no direction and, at the end of a busy, tiring
day, very little social reserve. No wonder he shrieks.
Nanny’s solution? Next day, she brings in a
physical chart with rules and expectations written right on it—including
a reasonably formulated time for bed—then mounts it where the entire
family can see. The chart produces an objective authority where the rule
is a) realistic, b) clearly stated, and c) visible to all.
You are warm and accepting when administering rules
Mike, the boy who wants to hide because of dropped
books, clearly has been yelled at before. Cringing with fear is an
obvious sign that the kid does not feel safe at that moment and may not
feel safe generally. (Getting yelled at for something as innocent as
accidently dropping books is consistent with the latter.) This is a
warning bell for Nanny. She tries to communicate safety to the little
guy—note her immediate empathy—and she later upbraids Mike’s dad,
telling him he needs to choose a calmer, more measured response if he
wants Mike’s behavior to change. Remarkably, the dad listens.
You know by now that the brain’s chief interest is
safety. When rules are not administered in safety, the brain jettisons
any behavioral notion except one: escaping the threat. When rules are
administered by warm, accepting parents, moral seeds are much more
likely to take root.
So, you have crystal-clear rules, and you
administer them in a certain manner. The next two steps involve what you
do when the rules are followed.
Every time your child follows the rules, you offer praise
Suppose you want your increasingly sedentary
3-year-old, who happily still craves your attention, to get some
exercise outside and play on the swings more often. Problem is, he
rarely even goes outside. What are you going to do?
Scientists (and good parents) discovered long ago
that you can increase the frequency of a desired behavior if you
reinforce the behavior. Children respond to punishment, certainly, but
they also respond to praise—and in a way that risks less damage and
usually produces better results. Behaviorists call this positive
reinforcement. You can even use it to encourage behavior that hasn’t
Instead of waiting for your 3-year-old to get on
the swings, you can reinforce his behavior every time he gets near the
door. After a while, he will spend more time at the door. Then you
reinforce his behavior only when he opens the door. Then only when he
goes outside. Then when he spends time near the swing set. Eventually,
he’ll get on the swings and you two can play together.
This process, called shaping, can take much
patience, but it usually doesn’t take much time. Famed behaviorist B.F.
Skinner got a chicken to turn the pages of a book as if it were reading
in less than 20 minutes using a shaping protocol. Humans are much easier
to shape than chickens.
You also praise the absence of bad behavior
Remember Amanda, the little girl who put herself
to bed while her parents watched TV? The parents did not praise her
obvious lack of fussy behavior, but the nanny did. Praising the absence of a bad behavior is just as important as praising the presence of a good one.
Researchers have measured the effects of these
four parenting strategies on moral behavior. When warm, accepting
parents set clear and reasonable standards for their kids, then offer
them praise for behaving well, children present strong evidence of an
internalized moral construct, usually by age 4 or 5. These are hallmark
behaviors of Baumrind’s gold-medal authoritative parenting style.
They’re not everything you need in your moral tool kit, but from a
statistical point of view, you won’t get a good kid without them.
Do you do these things, or do you think you do?
One of the obstacles to getting parents to change their behavior is
making them understand how they are actually coming across to their
kids. Nanny helps parents see what she sees by videotaping the families,
looking for each person’s cues, and pointing them out. Researchers use
the technique, too. Marian Bakermans-Kranenburg at Leiden University,
for one, carried a video camera into the homes of 120 families with kids
ages 1 to 3. Bakermans-Kranenburg was examining some of the hardest
kids on earth to treat: pathologically resistant children who