The Apathy Method.

September 18, 2009


Subversive Cross Stitch, FTW!

Kat saw this post on kottke (about this article on Slate) and asked me about my thoughts. Well! We all know I have thoughts! Clearly, being as I have thoughts and a blog, I am practically an expert! Honestly though, I do know about about children and their behavior and how to manipulate it for good (or at least, not evil).

They direct the parents to temporarily back off almost entirely: to stop asking their child to do the desired behavior and say it’s OK not to do it at all, stop offering praise or other rewards for doing it, and mask their attitude of engaged enthusiasm or frustrated rage with an appearance of bland disinterest in whether the child does it or not. What happens next, frequently, is that within a day or two the child starts doing the behavior with no prompting from parents or anyone else.

The general idea here is that instead of getting hepped up about what parents what they want their children to do, a more relaxed, shall we say… “whatever” attitude will help cut back on defiance and parents will find that the kids will just do stuff for the sake of doing it, if we as adults would just shut up. Of course, the idea is that this is a temporary strategy for when the tried and true “adult modeling of desired behavior followed by positive reinforcement of child’s behavior” method fails. I’ve seen apathy parenting in action folks, and it’s not pretty.

I agree with the rationale given by Slate (though I do kind of wonder why it had to bring the health care debate into this – I mean, yeah, we all know that various factions are acting like children, but srsly wtf?) that heightened parental attention does invite defiance for the sake of defiance. “Oh yeah? You’ll give me three stickers if I eat my beans? EFF YOU AND THE BEANS YOU RODE IN ON!”

Reactance refers to a reaction that is directly opposite to some rule or request. It occurs when someone feels he is being pressured and there is some added limit being placed on his freedom or choice. This kind of opposition is not unique to children; in fact, most of the research on it has been done with adults. Reactance explains why people are eager to reject what they think is forced on them and seek out something they cannot or should not have. When you crank up the pressure on a child, you’re more likely to see the cognitive component of reactance (“No! I won’t do it!”) intensified by its emotional component (folded arms, raised voice, increased stubbornness: “Leave me alone!”). The pressure on the child does not have to be as direct as “Do it, or else”; it can take the form of a cloud of eager expectation in the household.

The thing is here that this must be used carefully. Pick your battles. You can only resort to the apathy method if you are truly willing to accept the possibility that the beans will not get eaten in this lifetime. You absolutely can NOT, CAN NOT, bluff. If you set it up that you don’t care what goes down with regards to those beans, they may or may not get eaten. If they don’t, that’s it, end of story. If they do – you can then choose whether or not you want to go the positive reinforcement route or just leave it be.

I find that a modified version of this technique works really well – “Yeah, well, I don’t care whether or not you eat your beans, and I don’t care whether or not you get dessert either.” There’s no negative re-inforcement for not following the adult-set guidelines, but rather, the adult-directed behavior is a precondition for something that the child wants. Brush your teeth or not, no skin off my nose, but you gotta floss if you want to watch Mr. Bouncety-Bounce. (Bonus! Spot that literary reference!)

The first step, when you’ve hit the kind of wall we’re describing here, is to try to eliminate the cloud of desperation hovering around the behavior. At the clinic, the therapists encourage parents to tell the child it is OK if she does not do the desired behavior, or, if it’s essential (bathing, for instance), if she does it superficially and minimally. Parents also practice nonchalance in talking about the behavior—a shoulder-shrugging, laissez-faire attitude of staged indifference. In addition, the therapists ask the parents to find opportunities to explicitly tell their child something like, “Don’t worry about this now; you will be able to do this when you get older,” a pressure-reducing antecedent that can actually speed up compliance.

(Or yeah, what they said.)

It’s good to see that stuff I do anyway being advocated by the Yale clinic. Makes me feel like a professional professional. So, yeah, in general I totally agree that the apathy method can work, but only in measured doses. Leave everything up to the kid and pretty soon you end up with a kid who doesn’t sleep at night or wear underpants and barfs at the dinner table because he ate too many pixi stix fifteen minutes earlier. Not that I know anyone like that… So, yeah. A little bit of apathy can go a long way.


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