Columns for January 2013
Fun or Fighting?
Q: Our son is in Kindergarten at a small private school. Most of the children in his class are boys. From the beginning, he’s been somewhat of a behavior problem. Each time we get a notice from his teacher, we punish him. Last week, he and a boy in his class were goofing around. The boy twisted my son’s arm and my son hit him to get away. Both of them were laughing the entire time. Nonetheless, the school said they were fighting and expected us to discipline at home. Several days later, he punched another boy, again in the course of goofing around. The teacher agrees he’s not being mean, just playing around, but any physical contact that can be interpreted as aggressive is unacceptable. Can you suggest anything?
A: I have two suggestions: First, figure out how to get your son to stop the goofing around before he’s expelled. Second, find another school for him before he’s expelled from this one or they make his continued enrollment contingent upon him seeing a mental health professional of one sort or another.
You’re not describing a boy who has an aggression problem. You’re describing a boy. This situation is representative of the tendency on the part of schools to over-react to aggressive behavior of any kind. Because boys are generally more aggressive than girls, boys are the usual targets of these over-reactions. Schools—public and private—seem to be having great difficulty differentiating between what is simply normal boy behavior and what is truly pre-sociopathic behavior. They end up punishing boys for simply being boys.
The more immediate problem, however, is the practical one: to wit, most private schools—especially those with waiting lists—have no reservations about expelling problem students. As one student goes out the door, another student comes in. I don’t need to tell you that if your son is expelled, it will be difficult to find another private school to take him.
There’s another possible dimension to this as well. I’ll just bet your son is not only having fun goofing around physically with other boys; he’s also having fun out of getting such a disproportionate reaction from so many adults. Unfortunately, all of this is likely to lead straight to a one-way ticket through the school’s front door.
Level with your son. Sit down and tell him you understand he’s having fun as opposed to being bad, but that if he doesn’t stop, the school is going to kick him out. Furthermore, tell him that as much as you don’t want to, you’re going to have to punish him when he goofs around. That’s the nature of your agreement with the school. In that regard, whatever punishment you use is going to have to more than cancel the fun he’s having. When the next incident occurs, take away all privileges and put him to bed early for two weeks. Whatever you do, it’s going to have to make a permanent impression.
Q: How can we help our 7-year-old twin girls stop fighting? They constantly provoke and antagonize each other. We thought this was just normal sibling conflict, but it seems to be developing into actual resentment. One of them is now saying we love the other one more, and the other one bullies and intimidates her when we’re not looking. We seem to be doing nothing but mediating their fights. Help!
A: As long as you referee their squabbles, this is only going to get worse. Even the most well-intentioned referee (who’s only trying to level the playing field) ends up identifying one child as the villain and the other child as the victim. In effect, the victim wins. The supposed villain must apologize, give the toy back, or do whatever the parent-referee thinks is necessary to make matters right again.
No matter what the particulars of any given conflict situation are, the villain always ends up feeling unjustly convicted. She begins, therefore, to plot and look for ways of evening the score. The victim, meanwhile, begins looking for opportunities to set up the other child to look like the villain again. And around and around they, and you, go.
Parents need to understand that the “book” of sibling conflict cannot be judged by its cover. It may seem as if the child who most often occupies the role of victim is suffering abuse, but she is actually willing to endure insult and even pain in order to obtain the perverse satisfaction of seeing her sibling humiliated and punished. In the long run the role of victim becomes increasingly incorporated into her social behavior and she begins playing it with other children.
The only way to solve this problem is to put both children in the same boat; to hold them, in other words, equally responsible for the problem. That requires that you stop refereeing, that you stop assigning the roles of villain and victim, no matter what the situation looks like on the surface.
Tell them that from now on, they are responsible for solving their problems. If they get you involved by complaining, tattling, or creating a loud ruckus that attracts your attention, both of them will sit in separate chairs, in separate areas of the house, for one hour. That’s the “warning shot” across the bow. The second such offense on any given day results in both of them being confined to separate areas of the home for the rest of the day and early bedtime. In that event, make sure that the separate areas are equally boring. Must be fair, you know.
Done consistently and dispassionately, that will motivate them to solve their problems without involving you. This plan may also greatly improve their relationship (not right away, mind you, but eventually) because it requires them to cooperate and collaborate. In effect, you become the villain, and their job is to keep you off their backs.
A more peaceful home is just around the corner!
An Offer a Child Can’t Refuse
Q: What should I do when my 9-year-old daughter loses all of her privileges because of her misbehavior but refuses to go to her room? I tried to physically force her, but she put up too much of a fight. I feel like she’s in complete control of our family. I’d have never disobeyed or disrespected my parents. What have I done wrong?
A: Like you, lots of parents are beginning to realize that with rare exception, the advice dispensed by so-called parenting experts over the past fifty years has been useless, counterproductive, and even harmful. During that time, parenting has mutated from something people went about casually and confidently into a highly stressful endeavor (especially for women), and the mental health of America’s kids has plummeted. To top it off, today’s kids are misbehaving in ways that would have been unimaginable to a parent who raised children in the 1950s and before.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely at the behest of the mental health community, America took the parenting road never traveled. The results have been disastrous. It’s time we found our way back to the road well-traveled and realize that while times may change, fundamental principles should not.
Your daughter’s behavior is not an indication that you’re a bad parent. You’re describing problems that are the logical consequence of treating a child as if the world revolves around her. The good news is you’re asking for help, which is step one in the right direction. The further good news is that this problem actually presents you with an opportunity to begin putting your daughter in her proper place and keeping her there. She won’t like it at first, but restoring her childhood and teaching her that obedience is not an option will do her a world of good in the long run.
While she’s at school one day, confiscate all of her favorite things and put them somewhere she can’t get to them. I recommend a rented storage closet or someone else’s attic. Favorite things include not only electronics, favorite clothing, and favorite playthings, but also privileges such as sleepovers and birthday parties.
When her shock and outrage has calmed sufficiently, tell her that if she wants her things back, she has to do everything you tell her to do, without argument or any other form of push-back, for a month. And that includes going to her room if that’s what you instruct. If she disobeys, the month begins anew the next day.
A journalist recently told me that some folks think this sort of approach is “harsh.” First, you can’t stop a charging elephant with a fly-swatter. Second, the best research confirms the commonsensical: obedient children are the happiest children. This approach is compelling, for sure, but to call it harsh is nothing short of soap opera. It is in a child’s best interest that his or her parents do everything they can to bring about obedience. Sometimes that requires making a child an offer she can’t refuse.
The “Won’t Sleep Alone” Blues
Q: For the past several weeks, our just-turned 3-year-old has been waking up and coming into our room at all hours of the night with the usual excuses. He’s scared, hungry, thirsty, lonely, can’t sleep, has to use the bathroom, wants a kiss, and so on. He goes to bed at 7:30 if he takes an afternoon nap and 6:30 if he doesn’t. We are a marriage-centered household, so evenings are for Mom and Dad. Neither of our kids has ever even napped in our bed. When we take him back to his room, we usually lock the door. The next time he wakes up and discovers he can’t get out, he begins crying and kicking the door, waking our 4-year-old. Should we be patient, hoping this phase will pass quickly, or should we punish? We are zombies.
A: The living dead, eh? I remember those days well. Our first, Eric, did not sleep the night until he was nearly three years old. The problem was a combination of colic and two very inexperienced parents. I was in graduate school at the time and supporting us by playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band. One night, after trying unsuccessfully to put Eric back to sleep, my choices were to go stark raving mad or write a song. So, because it’s against the rules for a psychologist to go crazy, I wrote a song titled “Three O’Clock in the Morning Rockin’ My Baby Blues.” It was pretty good, actually—a heavy blues number. I started adding verses to it during those early morning rock-a-thons. When Eric finally began sleeping the night, the song was ten pages long, typed, single-spaced.
It is not at all unusual for a child’s sleep pattern to change around the third birthday. Some children outgrow the need to nap around this time. The fact that your son is on-again, off-again with his afternoon nap tells me he’s going through this transition. In that event, I encourage you to stop trying to fight city hall. Dispense with the afternoon nap altogether. Put him to bed at 7:00. Cut his bedroom door in half, just above the knob, then re-hang it and turn the knob around so you can control the lock.
After you put him to bed, close the half-door and lock it. Children don’t like being closed behind a full door because they can’t see out, but they accept the locked half-door fairly readily. Acceptance usually takes about a week.
A second, slightly more painful option is to dispense with his nap, put him to bed at 7:00, and just wait this out. As I said, it’s probably a transition that will resolve itself by the time he’s in high school. But seriously, can you put up with this for a month or so?
Option 3 is to put both boys to bed in the same bedroom, at the same time. Close their door and let them play themselves to sleep. Tell them that as long as they’re quiet and don’t come out, they can keep the light on. If they make noise or come out, the lights go out and they have to go to sleep. If you enforce that calmly, you should be over the hump in a week or so, and you can return from the living dead. I am living proof.