Columns for August 2012
In the late 1960s, as psychologist B. F. Skinner’s behavior modification theory made the jump from academia into popular culture, the focus in child rearing shifted from molding character to “shaping” behavior. Books such as Gerald Patterson’s Living with Children promised perfectly well-behaved children through the proper manipulation of rewards and punishments such as time-out and systematic removal of privilege.
Prior to this revolution, proper parenting was a matter of providing unconditional love and unequivocal leadership. Discipline was the process by which parents transformed the anti-social toddler into a pro-social human being who was respectful of legitimate authority as well as the rights of others, willing to accept responsibilities, and determined to overcome obstacles. These were character issues. Now, child rearing became “parenting,” discipline became the process of shaping proper behavior, and parents became compliance officers.
Please don’t misunderstand me on this point. In most cases, a child’s purposeful misbehavior requires a firm adult response, one that communicates the clear message that the misbehavior in question won’t be tolerated. Punishment is one way of accomplishing that, but not the only way. In some cases, a stern one-sided “conversation” will suffice. But some misbehavior merits no response at all. Children are, after all, mischievous, and a good amount of their mischief is harmless. An example is a 3-year-old who discovers that the word “poopy” is bound to elicit some form of interesting reaction from adults, whether laughter or shock. That sort of inconsequential thing can be starved out of existence by simply ignoring it.
It’s obvious that a good number of today’s parents fail to respond adequately to misbehavior. They ignore what is clearly more than mere mischief, they deny that their children are brats, they make excuses for them, and so on. These parents are a principal’s and teacher’s worst nightmare.
But on the other side of the discipline coin one finds a good number of parents who over-discipline. These parents are obsessive-compulsive when it comes to their children’s behavior. Producing the perfect child appears to be their raison d’etre. As such, no infraction is too small to escape their detection, and punishment is their passion. They end up micro-managing their children’s behavior, creating more problems in the long run than they solve. No matter the context, micro-management always breeds resentment, deceit, and eventual rebellion. At the very least, that sort of parenting style fails to teach a child the inestimable benefits of self-control. These parents often complain that when their kids reached their teen years, it was like a switch was flipped to “Kick Out the Jams!” Or their kids get to college, can’t deal with the independence, and collapse emotionally or academically or both.
The path back to parenting sanity lies in re-embracing the past, the most important aspect of which is re-establishing the training of character as the top priority. That will require (among other things) eschewing the post-1960s emphasis on self-esteem and rebooting the traditional emphasis on the rights of others, balancing after-school activities with unpaid household chores, and restoring the teaching of manners, beginning with table manners (starting with eating what is put in front of you without complaint).
Ultimately, this will require that parents abandon the pursuit of success and happiness for their kids and pursue instead the goal of making America a better place.
Q: My oldest child starts kindergarten soon. I know there will be the class and/or bus bully who will cause her some distress, whether directly or indirectly. I want to know how to handle it before it happens so I’m prepared. I feel she will have to learn to handle situations like this as time goes on, but at this age she will need my guidance and intervention. What should I say to her now, to prepare her, and how I should handle incidents when and if they occur?
A: I most definitely and unequivocally do not advise you to begin her “anti-bully” education now. That will only sensitize her to potential problems at school and stands the chance of turning what should be eager anticipation into anxiety, even dread. You’re jumping the gun by several years anyway. As a general rule, bullying isn’t a problem until third or fourth grade.
As for what to do about bullying when it actually happens, all parents should know several things: First, it is a school’s responsibility to provide a safe and positive learning environment for all children. Second, if a school is lax in responding to a bully, parents can and should (in my estimation) explore legal means of forcing the school to act. Third, if bullying is physical, then the bully has broken the law (which applies to children as well as adults), and parents have a taxpayer right to file a complaint with the police, and the police have an obligation to investigate and determine whether or not to charge the perpetrator with a crime.
The problem is that for all the hoopla schools make of their anti-bullying programs, many administrators, when push comes to shove, respond to bullies and their parents in decidedly less-than-effective ways. The reason may be that there are no parents more difficult to deal with, no parents who defend their children with greater ferocity, no parents more blind to reality, no parents more irrational, than the parents of bullies. They are world-class enablers and terrorists all rolled into one. The apples don’t fall far from the trees. As a result, many administrators handle them with kid gloves-unfortunate, inexcusable, but somewhat understandable at the same time.
I said as much on a Charlotte talk show recently, and then braced myself for a flood of complaint from outraged school administrators. It never came. In fact, I heard not a peep. That spoke volumes.
A number of years ago, I learned the value of letting law enforcement handle a lawbreaker, even when the lawbreaker is a child. When my son was 12, the neighborhood bully, around that same age, chased him into our house when we weren’t home and backed him up against a wall, threatening him with bodily harm. When my wife and I got home and the sitter informed us what had happened, I promptly called the police and filed a complaint. The boy, whose parents had consistently failed to recognize his budding criminality much less do anything about it, was served with a warrant. Two days later, a For Sale sign appeared on their front lawn and within a month, the family had vanished.
Enabling always comes with a price.
Q: Our 13-year-old daughter has been mature for her age from early on. She takes advanced classes and makes straight A’s. She’s also very talented musically. We think, however, that she has become a media addict. She spends entirely too much time in her room on her computer, mostly using social media. When she’s not on the computer, she’s using her phone to text her friends. We’ve asked her to limit her use, but our words are falling on deaf ears. What approach would you recommend short of cutting off the Internet and taking away her phone? She needs a computer to do her school work.
A: If she’s addicted to electronic media, which may be the case, then I don’t think there’s any approach that’s going to work short of restricting her use of the Internet and taking away her phone.
Move her computer to a family area so you’re able to monitor her use, which you can restrict to school purposes. No child her age should have a private password, by the way. That simply invites trouble, but you can’t do much about that as long as the computer is in her room.
At age 13, she doesn’t need her own cell phone, unless one defines need as “needing” to have what her friends have. You can give her a cell phone on select occasions, such as a camping trip where no other type of phone is available. It’s probably the case that she doesn’t go on lots of camping trips, which only goes to prove that she doesn’t need her own cell phone.
You’ve asked her to limit her use? Who, pray tell, is running your household? I suspect that like many of today’s parents, you’re reluctant to do anything about this problem that might cause your daughter any inconvenience, much less distress. In the 12-Step world, that’s known as enabling, and in the real world, that’s how problems go from bad to worse.
August 21, 2012 Start chores early
Q: I know you think children as young as 3 should be doing chores around the home. That seems awfully young, but can you recommend several age-appropriate chores I can try with my 3-and-one-half year old daughter?
A: Chores are an exercise in good citizenship, which your great grandmother said began in the home. They teach children teamwork, responsibility to others, and the service ethic. As such, household chores strengthen America.
By the time I was your daughter’s age, my mother-single at the time-had me washing floors. She began my education in domestic maintenance in a small area of the house. In no time, I was washing large areas like the kitchen. Oh, did I mention that chores also endow children with a feeling of competence and contribution?
One thing at a time, teach your daughter how to wash floors, dust furniture, and help you clean up after a meal. In no time, you’ll have a live-in maid! And a happy one at that!
Teenage daughters want clothes
Q: My two teenage daughters, 13 and 15, are constantly begging me to buy them clothes. It’s become highly annoying. To stop the constant whining, I’ve decided to stop buying them any clothing and give them each an $800 annual clothing allowance. Should I give them the whole amount at once or give it to them on a monthly basis?
A: This is a great idea! However, I don’t think an annual clothing allowance of $800 is a realistic amount for (a) girls who (b) are outgrowing their clothes every six months to a year. If their clothing allowance is insufficient, then the whining is only going to worsen, and your plan is likely to blow up in your face.
I suggest that you give each of your girls a monthly amount that is sufficient to purchase a certain amount of discretionary clothing. I generally recommend between $50 and $100. You would continue to purchase necessary clothes, but you would spend only a minimum amount in each case. For example, if one of them requires a new winter jacket, that is your responsibility. If she doesn’t like the jacket you’re willing to buy (from a discount store), then you would give her that same amount of money and she would use her allowance to make up the difference in price. If she simply wanted an article of clothing that is nice but unnecessary, that would be her responsibility entirely.
The “cleanest” way to do this is to set up a checking account for each child at your bank. As long as you have good credit, the account doesn’t have overdraft protection, and you are willing to back it, most banks are willing to do this. You deposit the child’s monthly allowance in her account at the beginning of the month and she manages the account from there. In the event of a bounced check, the bank and merchant fines as well as what the merchant is owed come off the top of the following month’s allowance.
This plan teaches teens how to budget money and manage a checking account, but it also teaches them to curtail their spending impulses, plan ahead, and save for the proverbial rainy day. It’s a great way to prepare a youngster for the larger fiscal responsibilities of adulthood.
If you divide $800 by 12 months, then each daughter would receive $67 per month. I like that figure, but remember, you would continue to buy necessary clothing items. If you give each of them the full $800 at one time, they’re likely to blow it in less time than you can say “budget.”