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Columns: June 2016

John Rosemond June 2016 Columns

Copyright 2016, John K. Rosemond

Parents Should Sweat the Small Stuff

Q: While exploring your website, I ran across a column you wrote a while back about a 13-year-old who wanted a Mohawk haircut. You told the parents not to allow it, pointing out that if you give most teenagers an inch, they’re eventually going to push for a mile. I think it’s generally wise for parents to say yes to small things so that it really means something when they say no. Doesn’t choosing one’s battles carefully reduce the likelihood of rebellion?

A: You’ve made a good point, which is that parental micromanagement can lead to rebellion (but the operative word is can, as opposed to will). I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve used this column to rail against that now-ubiquitous parenting style. But micromanagement is not simply saying no three times, say, more than yes; it is an ongoing pattern of (a) protecting a child from experiencing the consequences of his own decisions or potential decisions, (b) preventing a child from making non-life-or-health-threatening mistakes, and (c) making discretionary (e.g. recreational) decisions for a child. Micromanagement is not insisting that a child properly reflect his parents’ values in his behavior, appearance, and social choices. That is part and parcel of the proper discipline of a child.

A Mohawk may, in certain family circumstances, reflect parental values. So be it. However, concerning the question to which you refer, it clearly did not. It would have reflected a contrary, even rebellious, attitude toward those values. That is precisely why the parents were seeking my advice.

Parents should not say yes to rebellious things, even if the child in question is not and never has been rebellious. I have heard too many parents say, with great regret, that shortly after giving a non-rebellious child permission to acquire some rebellious symbol (t-shirt emblazoned with a disrespectful message, sexually provocative clothing, peculiar haircut, abnormal hair coloring, punk or goth clothing, tattoo, body piercing, earlobe thingamajig) things began going rapidly downhill. Right. The rebellious symbol attracts the attention of rebellious kids who encourage other rebellious behavior on the part of the previously non-rebellious kid who begins to want the approval of the rebellious kids which he can only obtain by beginning to act in increasingly rebellious ways and pretty soon everyone is shaking their heads and asking what in the world happened.

Today’s parents often cite two nouveau adages—“choose your battles carefully” and “don’t sweat the small stuff”—as rationale for not saying no to certain requests. What they do not seem to realize is that almost all of the big stuff begins as small stuff. A relatively small act of defiance, overlooked, blossoms into full-blown rebellion within three months, for example.

That is precisely why I tell parents that when it comes to teenagers, the three most applicable adages are “give ‘em an inch and they will take a mile,” “nip it in the bud,” and “better safe than sorry.”

Those are very old-fashioned, which prompts a fourth adage: There is nothing new under the sun.

Recipe for a 'Happy Child' a Simple One

I recently enjoyed the privilege of seeing and hearing radio talk-show host Dennis Prager speak on the topic of happiness. He only spoke for twenty minutes, but said more in that short span than most talk-show people are able to say in two hours.

He was talking to an audience about how to be a happy person and have a happy marriage. His message, in a nutshell, was that no one makes you happy. You make yourself happy and if you don’t accept full responsibility for that, you’re going to be miserable a lot.

Nearly everything Prager said was relevant to proper parenting. For example, as I have said for years, the attempt by parents to make a child happy robs the child of the fundamental right to learn to pursue happiness on his or her own. Once upon a time, it was called, simply, “standing on your own two feet.”

Almost invariably, people who don’t understand that happiness is a decision, the act of taking full responsibility for one’s own emotional condition, end up characterizing themselves as victims of social, cultural, financial, familial, and biological forces beyond their control. They tend to view life as a drama, a soap opera in which they are casualties (or always on the edge of casualty). In that regard, it is relevant to note that many of today’s youth seem to embrace that worldview. (Can you say “micro-aggressions”?) It is also relevant to note that most parents, when I ask them what their parenting goals are, say, “I want my child to be happy” as either goal one or goal two, which is proof that good intentions do not proper parenting make.

Prager also talked about feelings, which have been a mainstay of our cultural conversation since psychology became our dominant philosophy in the 1960s. He had the strength of conviction to say that when all is said and done, it does not matter how someone feels; what matters is how that individual treats other people.

That’s a bingo, and dovetails with what I tell parents as often as the opportunity presents itself: Proper parenting is an act of love for one’s neighbor. It is the act of training a child such that the child will treat other people properly and make America a better place. Phooey on an accumulation of athletic trophies, high self-esteem, academic accolades, getting accepted by the “right” college, going to medical school, becoming a mover-and-shaker within the Beltway and other equally materialistic parenting purposes. In the final analysis, the only thing that matters is that a child grows up to be a good citizen, which is comprised of one-third self-responsibility, one-third compassion, and one-third the willingness to serve others.

The formula for raising said child is rather simple: Give to the child conservatively (gratefulness and unselfishness are inversely proportional to material acquisition). Assign the child household responsibilities, insist that they be done properly, and do not pay for said contributions (it’s called being a responsible family member as opposed to being an entitled family member). Love the child unconditionally and model love for others (the former without the latter turns the child into an idol). Discipline the child unequivocally (so that he learns self-discipline and can eventually appreciate the inestimable value of personal liberty).

As King Solomon wrote some 3000 years ago, train them up in the way they should go. How that is done proves something else Solomon wrote: There is nothing new under the sun.

Your Child Doesn't Need a Smart Phone

Q: Our 12-year-old has a smart phone. I know you don’t approve, but all—and I do mean all—of his friends have them and texting is how they communicate. I don’t think, under the circumstances, that making him be the “odd man out” socially is a good idea. So our question: Do we have a right to monitor his phone communications? Some of the parents do, while others don’t, feeling that doing so indicates a lack of trust. What do you think?

A: What I think is that parents who buy an expensive toy for a child primarily because all his friends have one have lost a firm grip on commonsense. Toy? Yes, toy. Your smart phone is not a toy. But being that your son uses his phone primarily for entertainment, his cell phone, by definition, is a toy.

So what if a child’s friends all have smart phones? Who, beyond the child in question, cares? Children, including those in high school, do not NEED smart phones. They have them because they WANT them and have parents who, when faced with the choice between doing the sensible thing and what a child wants them to do, choose the latter.

You want your child/teen to have a means of contacting you in certain situations? Fine. I’m all for that. Go to a big box store and buy him a flip phone, register it, and put some minutes on it. Give it to said child/teen selectively, only on those occasions when you want him to be able to get in touch with you at a moment’s notice and vice versa. Bada bing, bada boom! Have you ever tried texting on a flip phone?

As for the idea that a child without a smart phone will be, as you put it, the “odd man out,” that’s simply not true. Over the past five or so years, many parents have told me their kids don’t and will not have smart phones. All of the kids in question have friends and are socially active. They do not spend their weekends curled up in fetal positions sucking their thumbs. Social skills determine whether a child has friends, not a smart phone. And if you haven’t noticed, where children and teens are concerned, social skills and smart phones are seemingly incompatible.

In fact, these devices do kids very little good and a lot of bad. They become obsessions, addictions, impediments to proper socialization during the years that are critical to the formation of social skills. In addition, too many youngsters use their smart phones for inappropriate purposes. But you already know that; therefore, your question.

On that note: Yes, you have a right to monitor. You are the adults in this equation. You support him. In the final analysis, the phone in question is yours, not his. You are loaning it to him. He needs to be aware of that. But also allow me to point out that if a child knows his parents are going to check his texts and the numbers he’s been calling, he is going to erase them or find a way around their attempts to do so. Once one kid in a school figures out or learns how to neutralize parent monitoring, every kid in the school will have the information within a week.

For all of the above reasons, my question to you: What were/are you thinking?

Actually, I know what you were thinking. In effect, you were thinking that a 12-year-old knows what is in his best interest. Hello?

Have a Game Plan for Daughter's Anxiety

Q: My 8-year-old daughter is having anxiety issues that seem to border on obsessive-compulsive disorder. She wants me to repeat certain things back to her and has a set routine of things I must say when I’m tucking her into bed. She’s genuinely upset by all this and tells me she thinks there’s something wrong with her. I’d say it was something she can’t control, but she does not do this sort of thing when she’s alone with my husband. I’ve talked to her, tried ignoring her, refused to cooperate, and even yelled—all to no avail. Could she have OCD at this age? Does she need medication? What can we do to help her?

A: I can’t do a long-distance diagnosis; furthermore, I am of the heretical opinion that (a) a psychiatric diagnosis concerning a child this age is rarely helpful and can actually hinder a solution and (b) the risks of psychiatric medication with a child or teen often outweigh the benefits. Now, my opinions are not shared by a majority of my colleagues in the mental health professions, so if you feel the need for an in-person evaluation of your daughter’s issues, by all means pursue one.

Based on the scant amount of information you provided but more than 40 years of experience in child and family psychology, my initial impression is that your daughter does not have a mental “disorder” that can be objectively determined. That she is exhibiting the behaviors in question only with you suggests that your relationship may have developed co-dependent aspects (a lack of emotional boundary between parent and child). If, for example, you tend to be an anxious, worrisome mom (not atypical these days, unfortunately), that would elevate the likelihood that your daughter will develop an anxiety issue of some sort.

Keep in mind that children look to their parents to interpret the world for them. In that regard, a parent’s frequent concern and worry about a child or a child’s academic performance can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But even absent co-dependency or parental worries, children do odd, strange things at times. More often than not, and especially if parents handle these glitches calmly and confidently, they come and go. Sometimes, they may look “psychiatric,” but are nothing more than an example of the inevitable bumps in life’s road.

In any case, you need to experience parental competency with the behaviors at hand before they become habit and begin to spread to other people and situations. Parents I’ve counseled concerning similar problems have had great success simply telling obsessing children that a doctor they spoke with says such kids aren’t getting enough sleep. Consequently, the doctor recommends that your daughter go to bed at 7:00 pm, lights out, seven days a week until her obsessing has stopped for two weeks straight. During her rehabilitation you should take her out of activities that would prevent her from getting to bed at the appointed time, and she should not participate in sleepovers or evening birthday parties.

In the meantime, you must stop cooperating with your daughter’s requests/demands, no matter how distraught she becomes when you do. Blame it all on the doctor.

If my experience serves me well, I predict that this will be memory in a couple of months. If it isn’t, then you should definitely seek a professional evaluation.

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