Columns for February 2013
Q: Our 18 month old is a table terror! While I’m preparing dinner, she walks around acting like she’s starving, but as soon as we sit her in her highchair she takes a few bites and then wants down, screams, cries, and will sometimes throw food. Through all this, our 5- and 3-year-old try to talk to us but can’t get a word in for all the chaos. We absolutely dread eating in a restaurant. How should we address her behavior?
A: I’ve said it before, but it bears saying again: Until they are at least 3, maybe 4, and in some cases even 5, children should be fed before everyone else in the family sits down to eat, even if the everyone else in question consists of husband and wife only. Including a child this age in the family meal is an open invitation to trouble. As you describe, they can be relied upon to disrupt in all manner of creative ways.
After your daughter has eaten her fill, let her get down, and then, but only after she’s occupied with something, serve those who qualify as civilized. If she wants to get back up to the table while everyone else is eating, which is going to be the case for a while, just pull out a regular chair for her, put a plate in front of her, give her some finger food, and pay her as little attention as possible. If she begins to disrupt, pick her up, take her to her crib, and let her scream her lungs out until everyone’s finished. A little background noise shouldn’t result in indigestion.
In general, I’m convinced this problem is largely due to giving the infant/toddler entirely too much attention during the family meal. Under the circumstances, the child gets used to being the center of attention and becomes increasingly disruptive as a consequence. If you insist upon having a young one at the table, give finger food, then ignore as much as possible. Carry on conversation “over her head.” But always stand, or sit, ready to remove them and put them where the only person they disrupt is themselves.
Stop enabling Adult children!
Q: My husband and I have a 21-year-old daughter from his first marriage. She was suspended from college for bad grades and is waiting out her time until she can go back. Meanwhile, she works for my husband to earn a little spending money, but rent and food are free. The problem is that her work performance is consistently poor and she is consistently disrespectful. She won’t listen to instructions and takes forever to do anything. Meanwhile, her dad is going slowly insane. She’s disrespectful at home as well. I think he should fire her; then we should kick her out of the house and let her fend for herself. What do you think?
A: Whenever someone asks me if I intend to ever write a book on how to deal with irresponsible, disrespectful young adult children, I answer, “Well, no publisher will accept a book that consists of only two words: Stop Enabling!” As long as this child (her chronological age may be 21, but I estimate her emotional age at 14) can do as she pleases and still enjoy all the comforts of home, she will continue to do as she pleases.
Yes, give her her walking papers, and the sooner the better for all concerned. That is, believe me, the only solution. To grow up, this child needs to experience the slings and arrows of the real world and learn to deal with them without protections. That applies to a lot of young adults these days, by the way.
Spoiled, too late?
Q: Our 17-year-old is a highly spoiled underachiever. As a junior in high school, he’s failing two classes and borderline in the rest. We know that his problems are largely due to our parenting style. We read your book on teens and have made some progress, but we’re feeling a sense of urgency. We’re ready to do some drastic things. Where do you think we should start?
A: As you now realize, your son is in dire need of a major wake-up call. Start by stripping his room down to bare essentials, taking away any and all electronic devices, and suspending all of his privileges, including driving. Inform him that his normal life will be restored when he has improved his grades to no less than what he’s capable of and sustained the improvement for eight weeks. Anything less will invite cursory improvement, then backsliding. You could get stuck in that sort of manipulative back-and-forth forever.
Unfortunately, this is an eleventh-hour action. Obviously, the earlier parents intervene in a problem, the better the prognosis. On the other hand, it’s better to do something late than to never do anything at all. At this point, there’s a lot of history (and momentum) behind your son’s motivation issues. Getting him to turn himself around is going to require a unified front and calm, purposeful resolve. Don’t expect to see consistent progress for at least six weeks. Keep the faith, stay the course, and be fully prepared for things to get worse before they begin getting better.
“Why is that, John?”
Because when parents finally pull the rug of over-indulgence out from under an underachieving child, the typical reaction is full collapse along with complaints from the child to the effect that since he has no privilege, he now has nothing to care about; therefore, he is not going to do anything to bring up his grades until certain privileges are restored. Believe me, this is nothing more than manipulative self-drama, soap opera, with a heavy dose of attempted hostage-taking thrown in. It’s an attempt to get the parents to question their judgment and begin negotiating.
“Will you give me my cell phone back if I bring my grades up for a week?” or “If you give me my cell phone and driving privileges back, I’ll bring my grades up, I promise.”
Don’t do it! If your son begins making promises of that sort, don’t believe a word he says. Simply smile and tell him that if he can bring his grades up for a week, he can surely bring them up for two weeks, then three, then eight. Keep reminding him that you’re not asking him to do any more than he is capable of. If you give him even the proverbial inch, he will think he can make you give up the proverbial mile. In no time, you’ll be right back where you started from, but he will know that he can beat you at your own game.
So, don’t play games. Go into this fully prepared for backlash of one sort or another. His reaction is likely to include anger, self-pity, and threats of running away or other equally silly things. This is your golden opportunity to get control of your relationship with your son. Given that he’s 17, it may be your last opportunity. Don’t blow it.
Bullying: the Definition
The principal of a middle school recently confided in me that “this bullying thing has gotten completely out of hand.” He wasn’t referring to bullying itself, although that’s certainly out of hand. Instead, he referred to the fact that many parents have become overly sensitized to the possibility that their kids might, at any moment, become bullied and overreact, therefore, to any indication that they have been.
“You wouldn’t believe what parents think is bullying,” he said, and went on to describe some examples. One involved a mother who complained that a boy had poured a small amount of dry snack mix down the back of her son’s shirt. The mother was incensed and wanted the perpetrator subjected to waterboarding, or something along those lines. Said principal then went on to describe other instances of “bullying” that were not bullying at all, but simply pranks.
It might be helpful if everyone were able to agree on a rational definition of exactly what separates actual bullying from just normal childhood mischief. That lack of consensus may be, in fact, a major share of the problem. For example, the definition at StopBullying.gov proposes that bullying is “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-age children that involves a power imbalance.” That’s the very sort of nebulous definition that fuels a mother’s outrage at snack mix being poured down her son’s shirt. I prefer something along the lines of the definition found on Wikipedia: “repeated, aggressive behavior intended to hurt another person physically or mentally.” That captures it nicely, I think. Note that the aggressive behavior in question is not incidental, but repeated. And it is done with the malicious intent to do harm, both physically and mentally, to another person. I would only add that an additional purpose is to keep the victim in a state of near-constant fear. And by the way, I was the target of at least three bullies during my school years. I wish all they’d done was pour snack mix down my shirt on a daily basis.
Over the past few years, a good number of school officials have told me that the problem of parental overreaction has become bigger than the problem of actual bullying. Occasional teasing doesn’t fit the definition proposed by Wikipedia and myself. Nor do one-time pranks like snack mix down the shirt, tripping, name-calling, or any other form of mischief that might cause embarrassment but is not done with the deliberate intention of keeping another child in a near-constant state of fear.
I was reminded of my conversation with the principal by an email recently received from the mother of a 21-month-old boy who, she claimed, had been bullied by a girl at his nursery school. The girl had pushed her son and grabbed a toy he had been playing with. Mom wanted me to recommend a book on bullies she could read her little one. First, that’s not bullying. That’s what toddlers occasionally do when they’re put in groups. Second, the mother’s overreaction, repeated over time, is likely to cause her son to become overly sensitive to any perceived slight, whether physical or verbal. Under the circumstances, he could quickly develop a victim mentality and do himself more mental harm than a bully would ever be capable of doing.
Sometimes—just sometimes mind you—adults would do well to say something along these lines to a complaining child: “If that’s all you’ve got to complain about, then you live a very good life.” Unfortunately, a principal or teacher can’t say anything along those lines these days without getting into hot water. A child’s parents can say it, though and sometimes—just sometimes, mind you—they should.
A Mind of Their Own?
Someone recently told me she wanted her children to “think for themselves.” Not me, I said. If I was still in my active parenting years, I would most definitely want my children to think like I do. That would be, in fact, my primary purpose. I would want them to accept that my values are the right values to hold and I’d want them to eventually make every effort to pass those values on to their children. But then, I don’t subscribe to the postmodern notion that all values are equal. I’m not a relativist.
But even in the case of a person who doesn’t think like I do and (therefore) doesn’t hold the values I hold, wouldn’t that person still want their children to think like they do? Wouldn’t a person who believes all values are equal, that right and wrong are relative concepts, want their kids to believe likewise? It’s called a worldview, and there’s really little point in investing eighteen or more years of time, effort, and money in raising a child if one is not trying to produce someone who will subscribe to a certain, defined worldview and (therefore) champion certain values.
How do you pass your values onto your children? From the earliest possible time in their lives, you talk about your values and you explain how they comprise your code for living. Why do you donate the one hundred dollar bill you found blowing in the wind to the local homeless shelter? Why don’t you allow your children to watch certain movies and television shows? You explain to your children that your definitions of right and wrong, your decisions, and your opinions about various matters are based on certain core principles. Your ability to articulate those principles clearly enough that a 5-year-old can understand them reflects that you are clear on them yourself. And you not only talk about your values, but you walk your talk. There’s no room for “Do as I say, not as I do” in an ethical worldview.
This is the process by which you shape your child’s character, by which you produce a good citizen, someone who will make the community a better place. Everything else—grades, athletic accomplishments, artistic talents, and so on—is secondary. Raising a mathematically and musically gifted and talented child who wins a scholarship to Harvard is fine, but when all is said and done, good parenting is simply an act of love for your neighbor.
But make no mistake, no matter how well you communicate your worldview to your children, they will think for themselves, and from a very early age. They will even make decisions that will cause you to scratch your head in wonder or weep with sorrow. Parenting is an influence; it does not determine the outcome. Even the most well-parented (by whatever standard) child is capable, on any given day, of acting in ways that are completely inconsistent with his or her upbringing. That fact, if not fully accepted, can generate lots of parental frustration, lots of parental guilt, or lots of both.
As your great-grandmother put it, “Every child has a mind of his own.”