QUESTION: Some friends of ours who’ve read a couple of your books and attended one of your talks told us that they solved some major discipline problems with their 4-year-old just by using what they called alpha speech. They tried to explain it to us, but we’d like to get it straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Would you please help us better understand what they were talking about, and are there other parenting authors who say the same thing?
ANSWER: The concept of alpha speech is not original to me. In generations past, it was widely understood to be the essence of proper child discipline. I simply named it. I also refer to it as leadership speech. Regardless, it is the very traditional understanding that the successful discipline of a child is more a matter of properly conveying authority than properly using consequences (albeit the latter is also important).
As a rule, today’s parents believe in behavior modification. They believe in techniques, such as time out and star charts and approaches of that sort, approaches that involve the manipulation of reward and punishment. Somewhat derisively, I refer to them as “consequence delivery systems.”
The wrong-headed notion that correct consequences, used correctly, would solve just about any behavior problem became popularized in the 1970s. The mental health professional community claimed that rewards and praise — the operative meme was “catch ‘em being good” — would strengthen good behavior while punishment and ignoring would weaken bad behavior. It all sounded quite simple, utopian even, but we now know, or should, that what works quite reliably with rats and dogs does not work nearly as well with human beings.
In fact, researchers have found that reward and punishment, when used with children, can be and often are counterproductive, which goes a long way toward explaining why the behavior and discipline of children has become increasingly problematic since parents began relying on behavior modification.
Alpha speech rests on the simple and historically verified proposition that “a child’s natural response to the proper presentation of authority is obedience.” Before venturing any further, I need to stress that obedience on the part of a child is definitely in the child’s best interest. The more obedient the child, the more relaxed and happy the child, which is precisely the opposite of what mental health folks alleged.
Alpha speech in four parts: (1) When giving instruction to a child, speak from a fully upright position (as opposed to the silliness of “getting down to the child’s level.” (2) Use the fewest words possible. (3) Do not explain yourself, but simply tell the child what you want him to do in a matter-of-fact tone. (4) When a child wants to know “Why?” (which is what children ask in the absence of an explanation), your answer should be “Because I said so” or a variation thereof.
For example, if you want a child to put on his coat and wait by the front door, you say, “I want you to put on your coat and wait for me by the front door.” You don’t say, “I have to go down the street and give a casserole to Miss Gloria, and it would really help Mommy if you’d put on your coat because it’s chilly out and wait for me by the front door.” That approach is likely to draw resistance of one sort or another.
Alpha speech is nothing more than saying what you mean and meaning what you say. It is employed by effective leaders, thus the alternate label. It is neither threatening or promising. Oh, and when the child obeys, it is best to say simply “Thank you” without an exclamation point as opposed to “Good boy! Mommy’s going to take her little man to the ice cream store later today!”
In discipline, as in decorating, less is usually more.