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Book review: Your Defiant Child

Eight Steps to Better Behavior
by Russell A. Barkley

You don't read a book with a title like this -- much less shell out the money -- if you don't think you have a problem. So if you are tempted to buy this book (or get it from the library if yours has it), you probably should. If you've read other modern parenting books, you're going to be familiar with a lot of what he says here. He starts by giving you tools to identify whether your child is non-compliant enough to warrant this approach. Then he puts you through what may be a familiar series of steps. First, reconnect with your child. Show your child love and individual attention. Then start to introduce the idea of rewards for compliance using a token method. Once that is established, start to take away tokens for non-compliance.

The people who really, really need this book probably didn't read any parenting books, and are going to read this from a completely different point of view. His system is very clearly explained, and addresses the questions that novice readers of parenting books will have: Why should I change my behavior when it's my kid who has the problem? Why does this program take so much time out of my day? Why did it seem like the program started working, but then it stopped working?

Barkley does a great job of creating a manual for that second group, the people who have really let things get out of hand. He gently walks them through a recovery process, assuming that, for example, they don't actually spend any one-on-one time with their defiant child, and that they don't know how to issue one clear command at a time rather than confusing their children with wishy-washy and complex sets of commands. For this group of parents, I would wholeheartedly recommend following his program, and recommend the book without reservations. If you've let your strong-willed child rule the roost long enough that you know you have a problem, Barkley has a well laid-out solution for you. It is definitely a lot of work, but for parents who need the hand-holding guidance he offers, it's extremely detailed and well laid out.

Then there's the rest of us. I read this book on the advice of someone who doesn't know our family well. As a happy digester of parenting books, I had no problem shelling out the money. I'm always hoping someone will solve my parenting problems! But from a personal point of view, I found the book way too focused on a type of parent-child interaction that is not terribly comfortable for me. Barkley uses the word "compliance" a lot, and always uses it as a positive term. But those of us who are trying to balance raising obedient children with raising thoughtful children have to take a step back and consider how compliant we want our children to be.

Another issue is the token system itself. I agree with Barkley that token systems are a part of our culture -- he points out that workplaces often use token systems to encourage good work. But in our household, we tried a token system and it failed miserably. Not because I couldn't stand to reward my kids for their good behavior, but because we all kept forgetting about the monetary aspect of it. They just didn't care that much about it, and when we were remodeling the kitchen and I had to put their token jars somewhere else, they never even missed them. The tokens never became as powerful a tool as our clearly expressed pleasure when things had gone smoothly in our household.

The other part of his program that is not in my comfort zone is his reliance on a formal relationship between the parent and child. I had the pleasure of interviewing Jane Nelson of Positive Discipline fame, and her approach rings more true to my style of parenting. She emphasizes trust and love rather than unquestioning obedience and a reliance on a token system. My hope is that when I send my kids off into the world, my one clear success is that they will understand how to have a healthy, respectful relationship with another human adult. This is a rather messier way of raising children, to be sure. If your children are allowed to question rules and your decisions, then you have to be prepared to debate with them. And yes, they will be, in general, less compliant than children who have never been given a choice.

The book, however, was very helpful to me in thinking about my parenting and what I want the end result to be. So although it was not a waste of my money, I won't be instituting his program in my house anytime soon. I want to reiterate, however, my strong recommendation for parents who have let things get out of hand in their households. The book has a clear, detailed system for parents who somehow have forgotten to parent and have ended up with the inevitable result.

Age Range:
Adult, covers behavioral issues in children preschool through pre-teen


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Suki Wessling