Book Review: Kazdin's The Everyday Parenting Toolkit

by Gunnar_Zarncke 6 min read31st Mar 201422 comments


This is a review of The Everyday Parenting Toolkit: The Kazdin Method for Easy, Step-by-step, Lasting Change for You and Your Child by Alan E, Kazdin (all phrases in quotes below are from this book if not otherwise indicated). I was pointed to this book by tadamsmars comment on Ignorance in Parenting

This is a post in the sequence about parenting. I also see some cross relations to learning and cognitive sciences in general. Kazdins advice also is not only applicable to children but to adults as well if you read the book with a mind open to the backing research (Kazdin actually gives some such examples to illustrate the methods).

Summary TD;DR

Define the positive behavior you do want. Communicate this clearly and provide events that make it likely to occur. Praise any occurrence of the positive behavior effusively. Think about and communicate consequences beforehand. Use mild and short punishments (if at all). Provide a healthy environment.


Antecedents are ways to set up the behavior you want. "They come before the behavior in question." These are mainly prompts, e.g. "Please come over here". Also helpful are setting events, e.g. sitting together (quietly) improves chances of requests to stay calm (this is related to priming). Challenges - "I bet you can't do X" - increase the likelihood of the behavior (though no reason why this works is given).

Key points:

  • Prompts should be "calm, without harshness, with 'please' and [a] choice."
  • Be clear and specific.
  • Be near the child, speak softly and calm.
  • Prompts work best immediately before the behavior.
  • Combine multiple (but different) antecedents.
  • High probability requests before a low probability request.
  • Be positive, don't appeal to authority or threaten consequences.


Think about the behavior you do want. Specify it (actually write it down), but use only positives. Make it precise (smart). Start with a single behavior.

In case of problematic behaviors you want to reduce specify the positive opposite (this is a word you will read very often in the book) of the behavior. Do not address the negative behavior (that will just reinforce that; more below). Instead divert attention of the child toward positively reinforced opposite behaviors.

Break this down into doable steps (same as for procrastination advice) and reward each one.

Kazdin proposes three methods to get the behavior you want: Shaping of existing behavior, simulating for new behavior and jump starting for difficult cases.

Shaping means starting from an initially small behavior like cleaning up just one piece and rewarding that and as this behavior increases slowly increasing required behavior and/or reducing reward.

Simulation really means simulation, i.e. trying out the wanted behavior in a game-like situation where formally nothing is at stake for the child but it can nonetheless earn a reward. This allows for learning behavior which otherwise doesn't occur. Beside changing frequent behavior to new behavior this can also be use for to learn e.g. to stay away from danger by using simulated danger (example: medicine in reach of small children).

Jump starting means "finding early behaviors that can lead to this end behavior" e.g. assume you want to have someone at your LW meetup but he refuses, instead of plain inviting him you could invite him to your place and have some LessWronger present, or propose to have a walk with have on the way to the meetup where you part. Both can lead to him getting in touch with the group but he always has clear exit options.

Don't move too fast. Only reduce reward or increase load when the changed behavior occurs reliably. Provide reward for progress not for end results. "The most important concept: Practice the behavior".


Consequences are what comes after a behavior. Kazin stresses that positive reinforcement is scientifically proven to work much better then negative reinforcement (aka punishment).

He focusses on two types of positive consequences:

Praise and Attention

He describes how and when praise and attention should be given as a reward. "Turn to notice something a child did, smile, touch approvingly". He details to praise smaller children effusively, add physical contact and to give quieter more intimate praise for teens.

Points system

Also known as "token economy" is a well known method but Kazdin hones this to work reliably.

First you need to

  • specify target behavior
  • assign numbers of points that can be earned for certain behaviors
  • define the rewards and how many points they cost

The difference to normal points systems (one example he rigorously deconstructs) is mainly in the timing and splitting of the rewards and the integration into the larger method.

When to apply consequences:

  • positive rewards - make a plan which rewards when and for which progress
  • rewarding other behavior (this can be everything but the problematic behavior in case that happens continuously; there is a very extreme story where this is necessary and successful)
  • rewarding negative behavior when it occurs less frequent than usual (shaping it away)

Apply "ommediately after the behavior." "Convey exactly what [the reward] is given for." "Give high-quality reinforcer." And give praise often at least initially. "Don't improvise consequences." Don't reduce normal parenting attention to the child. Kazdin stresses that repeated immediate feedback to positive behavior works better than grand rewards.


In short: Punishment works. Immediately but not for long. The child doesn't change its behavior it just stops it for the duration of the punishment (which initially may be just a frown) but it adapts.

Insightful: The immediate albeit short-lived effect of punishment is actually reinforcing the punishing behavior in the parent because of the immediate positive effect!

Disadvantages of punishment

  • "Does not teach positive behaviors."
  • Not effective in changing the behavior as research clearly shows.
  • Alternatives (rewarding positive opposite) work much better.
  • Undesirable side effects such as emotional reactions and avoidance (of situations or parents).
  • Crosstalk to the overall situation in which the punishment occurs e.g. school or parents.
  • Punishment is totally ineffective if the behavior gets rewarded (e.g. by attention from other persons or any other kind of success) before the punishment sets in.


  • Aversive consequences presented toward the child intended to push away from the behavior (negative reward). Examples: Shouting, reprimands, threats or worse.
  • Things to take away. Example: time out, point removal, no attention
  • Things you require the child to do like household chores or undoing its damage or apologize.

Key points

"Use sparingly." Give it calmly consistently immediately and brief to make it effective. "Done in isolation from others". Never punish with any activities you want you child to like.

"Don't waste your creativity on coming up with novel ways to punish misbehavior."

For me this all actually means: Hard to do right. Easier to avoid punishment altogether. I further reduced the punishments I used. I now almost only use mild aversive consequences (frown, mild reprimands), removal of attention and requirment of undoing damage done (but no forced apologies). 

Other aspects of punishments:

"Don't believe that knowing and doing are necessarily related." "Knowing and understanding a rule by itself will not lead to your child changing the behavior."

Separate out the behavior changing part from other intended purposes like serving justice, instilling remorse, teach a moral lesson or send a message. Separating means to immediately punish (if you must) for the behavior changing effect and to address the other purposes independently such as to avoid ruining the behavior changing effect (this separation is not clearly spelled out by Kazdin).

Withholding Reinforcements

Withhold attention (includes negative attention) aka ignorance is another form of negative consequence.

This works but it is slow. Initially the child may show the behavior even more (called "burst") and even later the extinguished behavior can come back spontaneously. Kazdin offers no explanation as to why but I think this is kind of Thompson sampling by the child to (subconsciously?) test whether the behavior might again work.

This method can be difficult if the reinforcement is not coming from the parent (but e.g. from class mates, siblings) or even worse from internal motivation like curiosity.

This can cause side effects like emotional responses and aversion like in the case of punishment. "Don't use in isolation."

With this the toolkit is complete. Kazdin goes on to provide practical usage examples of this toolkit in everyday situations for differently aged children (adding to to earlier examples used to illustrate the methods which I just summarized dryly above). These do not add no new concepts but may be helpful to translate the methods into real-life use.

Creating a Family Context of Success.

The last part of the book is devoted to the overall family parenting environment. This contributes to the overall parenting success but is no specific method you apply in a specific situation. Much of this is actually covered on LessWrong here or there already. Nonetheless I will shortly summarize the sections:


  1. Promote good communication with your child as early as possible. This is good long term strategy to ensure that you can have a positive influence on your child.
  2. Build positive family connections. 
  3. Promote positive prosocial behavior. It is know that to have at least one close friend during childhood prevents lots of risk factors.
  4. Foster flexibility in your household.
  5. Monitor the child and limit opportunities for behavioral problems. Provides advice regarding internet, phones and computers.
  6. Minimize negative social and psychological conditions for the child. Obviously.
  7. Minimize negative biological conditions. This contains essentially parts of The Biodeterminist's Guide to Parenting.
  8. Take care of yourself. See also Boring Advice Repository.


These sections are all backed by research.


A very humane and down to earth approach based on solid research. Pragmatic even in allowing mild forms of punishment. Being mild and calm and ignoring behavior isn't showing weakness and using the complete set of methods is not exploitable as far as I can see. It appears that this is general advice that is just specialized for children. Kazdin sometimes gives real-life examples for older children and adults.

Actually Kazdin has enriched and sharpened my 'parenting toolkit' and changed my view on a few points. I have now mostly dropped again any punishment that had crept in over the years (disquieting how the immediate feedback of it manipulates you away from your ideals).

And I have changed my position on ignoranceI'd now write my reply differently. First I'd refer to this post :-) Second I'd accept that ignorance is OK - as long as you provide sufficient reinforcements of the positive opposites of the behavior. Third a frown to indicate that you disapprove is a kind of mild punishment that would be appropriate (albeit not in isolation).

Questions that remain after the book

1) How to deal with behavior that results from inner motivation. If you have two competing children who are inherently and strongly motivated to out-do the other, then I don't see the positive opposite. I don't want to reinforce separating them. And I haven't found a way to limit their conflict. They cooperate a lot, so reinforcement that doesn't help either. And their sudden violent outbreaks provide little leverage to reward.

2) What about natural or logical consequences that are part of many other (esp. newer) parenting methods? Kazdin says little about this and I wished for some advice here.

3) And at last a theoretical question:

Isn't punishment negative reward? Shouldn't punishment have the same effect as reward but just the opposite sign? Is this an asymmetry that applies to all reinforced learning algorithms or is this something special to biological learning? And if yes why?

Could be because negative reward just pushes away but in no specific direction whereas the 'positive opposite' also moves away but into a specific direction.

Does anything follow from this for AI learning? Should we instead of providing negative reward for areas to be avoided use positive reward for areas to be steered to?

EDIT: Removed redundant "rational" from title. Fixed breaks.

ADDED: See also