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How to Increase Obedience with Positive Opposites

Is there too much negativity in your home? You can turn it around with the parenting technique developed by Dr. Alan Kazdin of Yale University. Here we explore how to use positive opposites as well as it’s pro’s and con’s.

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Dr. Alan Kazdin of the Yale University Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic has developed a program called Parent Management Training (PMT). I had the opportunity to attend an all day training for therapists who work with young families. While I don’t agree with some of his methods (as you will see later in this post), one simple but powerful skill that PMT teaches parents is worth mentioning. Dr. Kazdin calls the skill “positive opposites.” We’ll look at what it means, how to use it and some examples to get you on your way to increasing obedience and decreasing defiance.


Dr. Kazdin’s theory of parenting management is based on B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism model of psychology which, simply stated, means that any reinforced behavior will remain and any behavior that is ignored will become extinct. For parents, this means that you pay LOTS of attention to the behavior that you would like to see more of and completely ignore the behavior that you would like to see eliminated. This is not easy to do. Most of us have an ingrained predisposition for focusing on the negatives, rather than the positives. It’s the negatives, after all, that drive us crazy. Usually, our negative reactions to such negative behaviors can bring about temporary relief (for example, if we hysterically scream at a child who is hitting his brother, he may stop – likely out of fear or just plain old shock). But this intervention will do nothing to help the child replace that behavior with something more positive. Furthermore, a nasty side effect of reacting this way is that we are more likely to do it again because: a) the negative stimulus has been removed (ie. the hitting and chaos that ensued) and b) the child has just received a boat-load of attention for the misbehavior, pretty much guaranteeing that he is going to do it again at some point down the road.

What is a Positive Opposite and How Do I Use It?

According to Dr. Kazdin, positive opposites are instructions or directions given by a parent that avoid use of the words, “stop,” “no” or “don’t.” They must be short, specific and, of course, a positive replacement for the behavior that is so troublesome. Positive opposites can really be used any time you are giving an instruction or trying to modify behavior. Here are some examples:

  • Child is interrupting parents. The positive opposite is NOT, “Stop interrupting” but rather, “Please wait your turn.”
  • Child leaves backpack in the middle of the floor. A positive opposite would be, “Please put your backpack on the bench.”
  • Child is screaming. The positive opposite is, “Please make your voice quieter.”
Try to see if you can come up with the positive opposites to these: 1) child hits sibling 2) child is trying to annoy others with noises 3) child has not gotten ready for school.

How did you do?

As soon as your child gets up to follow the instruction or direction, you immediately praise with a specific observation or comment. For example, if you said, “Please put your socks in the hamper” and your child showed even the slightest sign of movement toward that goal, you would make eye contact, smile and say, “Great job getting going on what I asked right when I asked it.” You are spending all your time focusing on what he is doing right in order to increase those more appropriate, or as Dr. Kazdin says, “pro-social” behaviors.

The Positives of Positive Opposites

You may wonder how semantics can really make a difference in your child’s behavior. Essentially, you are asking the same thing with just different words. That is true. However, you will be surprised how your children will be much more likely to comply if they are 1) told rather than asked 2) given specifics rather than generalities and 3) are told what they should be doing more of, rather than less of. Positive opposites also have the nice side effect of changing the mood of your home from negative to more positive.

The Problems with Positive Opposites

  • It is hard. Try it for an afternoon. Or just try it for an hour. You will see what I mean. It takes practice, practice, practice. It won’t come naturally; you will have to re-train your brain to see what is going right around you rather than what is annoyingly wrong.
  • It leaves you wondering, “What happens when they don’t do what I asked?” Well Dr. Kazdin and his collegues have developed a very elaborate points chart that is aimed at improving behavior and addressing this very question. You give points any time the child completes the goal behavior but no points if they don’t. You start with behavioral goals they can reach easily to whet their appetite for the program. So, in this system if you say, “Please put your socks in the hamper” and your child does not, you do nothing. They simply don’t get a point. This is insufficient, in my opinion. A consequence is warranted, but in keeping with the psychology behind this whole program, the consequence would include very little attention from the parent. If you make the consequence a party of attention, you can bet your child will be back for more.
  • Where is the training and equipping that parents are to instill? I left the seminar with an uncomfortable feeling. PMT works from a research, outcome based perspective. Their clients do show significant improvement. But what are the parents doing for the heart of the child? If you stop by CfP often, you know that this is a real focus of my work. Maybe you can improve behavior on the outside, but if your child’s heart is still selfish, self-honoring and hard, you have not done right by them. Training and teaching in the ways of the Lord is the job, no mandate, of every Christian parent. We need to provide this essential foundation during times of peace and calm, when our children can hear it best.


Positive opposites are a great parenting tool to tuck in your tool box. If for nothing else, they will help you find and encourage what your child is doing right. You will experience a much more positive mood in your home as you will be saying, “no,” “stop” and “don’t” much less. However, as as whole system of parenting, I think I will pass on PMT.

What do you think?

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Cornerstones for Parents is not liable for any advice, tips, techniques, and recommendations the reader chooses to implement.

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About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed clinical social worker who offers individual therapy to women and moms in Connecticut. She is the author of More Than a Conqueror, A Christian Kid's Guide to Winning the War on Worry. Cornerstones for Parents is the place she combines some of the things she is most passionate about: God's word, parenting and mental health.


  • I use PMT with my Aspie son. For children who are defiant on the spectrum it is the only thing I have found that works. We combine it with Ross Greene’s Problem Solving and Michelle Winner Garcia’s Social Thinking and it has made our home a pleasant place.

  • I agree with your questions about where the heart is in Parent Management Training. I would encourage you to check out Nurtured Heart Approach, developed by Howard Glasser. The approach uses similar concepts but really works to improve a child’s sense of self. For example, in your picking clothes off the floor example, you would say something like:
    “You need to pick the clothes up.” If the child makes any motion to do so you say something like, “You are being so helpful by picking up a sock. That shows me that you are taking good care of your room and are responsible.” If they don’t do it, you give them a reset, which is like a time out. When time out is done you praise their compliance and then go back to “You need to pick up your clothes.”

  • I see in your bio that you have two “delightfully inspiring” kids. Ha! I do too; thank you for your article.

  • You would probably like “Incredible Years”. It includes Kazdin’s basic ideas (or similar) integrated with various other practices like active listening. It’s not as focused on conduct issues.

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