Q: Our twin girls will be three in a few months. Our pediatrician recommended that we start toilet training at 32 months, which we did. After several months and lots of gnashing of teeth, one of the girls finally got it. The other one, however, seems completely oblivious to our efforts. This has become very frustrating for us and I’m afraid we’re showing some anger at this point. The pediatrician says we should put her back in diapers until she’s three and then start over. What do you think?
A: Courtesy of one individual’s highly faulted research and neo-Freudian theories, the very wrong-headed notion that toilet training should not begin until 32 – 36 months became conventional wisdom in the pediatric community in the 1970s. As a result, toilet training has become the single most difficult parenting hurdle of the preschool years. Contrast the problems today’s parents are experiencing in this area with the fact that in the mid-1950s, Harvard researchers determined that nearly 90 percent of children were not only trained, but accident-free before 24 months of age.
Delayed toilet training—which the individual in question termed child-centered—is associated with resistance, constipation, and intestinal problems, not to mention a high level of parent frustration. For this reason, it borders on scandalous that a significant number of pediatricians continue to recommend this very problematic approach.
Your great-grandmother was able to toilet train an 18-month-old in less than a week because (a) she did not think that toilet training was potentially apocalyptic, that one wrong move on her part would scar her child’s psyche forever, and (b) she made her expectations perfectly clear. Today’s parents tend to approach the process with great trepidation and anxiety, which results in micromanagement, which results in push-back of various sorts on the part of the children in question. In addition (and largely because of their anxieties), today’s parents employ a passive, rather than authoritative, approach. They ask questions like “Do you have to use the potty?” as opposed to making statements like “It’s time for you to use the potty.”
Under no circumstances should you take your pediatrician’s advice and back off. I virtually guarantee that if you do, you will only make more problems for yourself and your daughter down the road. First, put the potty where your daughter spends most of her day. Second, allow her to be naked from the waist down while she’s at home. Third, confine her to one or two rooms of the home (in one of which sits the potty). Fourth, feed her a diet that is high in fiber (e.g. oatmeal) and lots of water (as opposed to sugar-sweetened junk juice). Fifth, set your stove or oven timer to go off every hour or so at which time you tell her that the buzzer means it’s time to sit on the potty. Direct her! Do not ask questions or coax with offers of goodies! Sixth, and perhaps most important, do not hover. Let her “own” the process. Lastly, sue your pediatrician for causing you unnecessary emotional trauma. Just kidding…or not.
When she’s toilet trained at home, which shouldn’t take more than a few weeks, then begin introducing her to public toilets. All of this is spelled out in considerably more detail in Toilet Training Without Tantrums by yours truly. Your local library has it or can obtain it for you.
Parents Should Not Allow Smartphones
When I was a child, a popular comic strip was "There Oughta Be a Law." It ran in the paper that came to our doorstep every morning and was one of the first things I went to when it was my turn to get ink all over my fingers. I later realized that at one level the cartoonist was satirizing people who hold to great faith in the ability of government to solve all manner of social problems.
I thought of TOBL when I read in General Surgery News (online) that a group of well-intentioned folks in Colorado—Parents Against Underage Smartphones (PAUS)—are lobbying state lawmakers to draft a law that would prevent smartphone sales to children under 13. Their rationale is certainly unimpeachable: they maintain that smartphone use in pre- and young teens quickly becomes an obsession that can harm ongoing brain development, hinder social skills, and even create addiction. The best research confirms all of that.
The Colorado law would create a bureaucracy that would be charged with enforcing said law, which, needless to say, cannot be done with any reliability. The proposed law would require smartphone retailers to ask the age of the primary user before making a sale. The question then becomes: What prevents the purchaser (presumably a parent) from telling a lie? Does Colorado then create another law that imposes fines on parents who break the law and/or requires them to attend technology education programs? No, I’m not kidding. Those who govern us cannot, it seems, resist any opportunity to expand the powers of the state.
This legislation, should it pass, will be paid for with taxes which means that nearly everyone in Colorado will be punished because many of those who have children (a) want their children to like them, (b) cannot manage to articulate the word “no,” (c) prefer, when it comes to childrearing issues, to take the easy way out, (d) all of the above. The answer, of course, is (d).
It is not even clear that the folks at PAUS understand that the solution to the smartphone problem is for parents to take FULL responsibility for it and not allow them, period. When parents ask what I think about simply restricting their use, I ask, “Why would you want the hassle?” No smartphone, no need to police it. Much easier on all concerned—even the child in question—to simply confiscate and make sure it permanently disappears. And yes, some parents prefer to stick their heads and even most of their bodies in the ground. No law is going to change that, not one that a rational judge would find constitutional anyway.
I’ll repeat the recommendation I’ve given in prior episodes of this column: Until your child is both (a) no longer living in your home and (b) can afford the purchase of a smartphone and the monthly bill, refuse to fund anything more than a standard, garden-variety cell phone that will only make and receive calls (most of them will also text, but only laboriously). I personally know more than a few adults who own nothing more and manage to live full and satisfying lives.
“But smartphones are how today’s kids all communicate, John!”
That’s not true either. I know of teens who have nothing more than old-fashioned cell phones. If their parents are to be believed, most of them don’t like it, but they get over it, and end up acting a whole lot more like authentic human beings than their glassy-eyed peers.
Teen Using Pot Should Lose Car, Phone
Q: A few months after he got his driver’s license, we found a bag of marijuana in our 16-year-old son’s car. He swore it wasn’t his and that he didn’t know whose it was and that he’s never used pot, but then he failed to pass a drug test. Now he admits that he’s smoked pot, but he says he only tried it once and didn’t like it. He still maintains that the pot we found in the glove box of his car belonged to someone else, but he still maintains that he doesn’t know who. We think he’s lying to us, but we don’t know what to do. Pot is legal in our state now, which only contributes to our dilemma. Can you help us out?
A: In my experienced estimation, the likelihood that your son is lying to you is somewhere in the general vicinity of 99.9999 percent. Someone riding in the front passenger seat of his car put a bag of marijuana in the glove box and he doesn’t know who the person was? C’mon! And he’s only smoked once and didn’t like it and he hasn’t smoked since but failed a drug test? Double c’mon!
You’re in a dilemma in part because marijuana is now legal in your state? Excuse me, but marijuana is not legal for 16-year-olds, and marijuana obtained illicitly is not legal for anyone of any age, one reason being that illicit sellers often adulterate the pot they sell with various drugs, including methamphetamine.
In my public presentations, I often say that proper parenting is an act of love for one’s neighbor. In other words, one’s responsibilities as a parent do not begin and end with one’s child. In this case, you have a responsibility to the citizens of your community—your neighbors, in the broad sense of the term—to make sure that your son is not a danger to others while he’s behind the wheel of a car.
How do you discharge that responsibility? By lying to you, your son has given you no rational choice other than to confiscate his car for anything other than driving to and from work (if he has a job). What about school? Can you say “the bus”? You certainly should not be inconvenienced because of his irresponsibility. Besides, suffering the humiliation of riding the bus will serve as a daily reminder of his delinquency.
You want to do something here that will, in the parenting vernacular of the 1950s, get through his thick skull. In that regard, I recommend nothing less than a one-year impoundment during which time he is drug-tested randomly but no less than once every four weeks. If he fails a test, sell the car. You might—and I stress “might”—consider letting him reduce his sentence to nine months by getting straight A’s in school, no pun intended.
As for the “friend” who oh-so accidentally left pot in your son’s car, I’d tell him that since he doesn’t know who did it, you will simply have to let all his friend’s parents know that one of their kids is a pot smoker and perhaps even a dealer. Having once been a teenage boy myself, I virtually guarantee that when you inform your son of that decision, he will instantly admit to being the culprit, thus tying up all the loose ends.
Micromanaging Weakens Child's Success in School
Q: Our son attends first grade at the local public school. At the beginning of the school year, all the parents were basically told that we are expected to go to the school’s parent website every day to keep up with our kids’ homework assignments. In addition, the “Parent Portal,” as it’s called, also lets us know what we are expected to help with at home. In effect, we are being made responsible for what, in our estimation, is a teacher’s responsibility. We are expected to know the material, monitor homework, and see to it that every assignment is not only done, but done properly. I’ve talked to several other parents who are not inclined to cooperate, but we all feel like we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. Advice?
A: A very good friend of mine with three school-age children says, “These parent portals bring a whole new level of crazy to parental over-involvement.” From the get-go, my friend let her children know that they were wholly responsible for their homework assignments and that their job was to make sure she and their father never had to get involved.
These parent homework portals take advantage of ubiquitous parent anxiety—borne largely by mothers who seem to think that their children’s grades reflect the quality of their parenting—regarding school achievement and successfully turn many parents/moms into micromanaging enablers. In so doing, teachers transfer a significant amount of responsibility for academic instruction to the home.
It is a fact without exceptions that enabling weakens. In this case, it weakens a child’s sense of personal responsibility and is, therefore, self-fulfilling. The more the parent enables, the more enabling the child in question seems to need. “I can’t!” becomes a frequent complaint.
This practice is supported neither by history, current research, or common sense. In the 1950s, when parent involvement in homework was generally very low to non-existent, student achievement at every grade level was significantly higher than it is today. Consistent with that statistic, recent research finds an inverse relationship between parent homework involvement and student achievement, a relationship that holds regardless of student ability or demographics. Finally, commonsense will confirm that the more personally responsible a person is, the better a job he or she will do, regardless of the task.
Why, in the face of this overwhelming evidence, do schools persist in pushing a policy that makes no sense? The answer has to do with the rigidity of bureaucracies as well as administrative obsession with achievement test scores. The sad fact is that this counterproductive policy is not going to change any time soon.
So, what’s a parent to do? Do what my friend has done. Simply do not cooperate with the policy, but do so in a way that does not draw attention. Let your children know that they are responsible for their homework and that there will be consequences should they require you to get involved. That is not to say that you should not provide the occasional example, check and give feedback on the occasional assignment, or answer the occasional question, but the operative word is and should always be “occasional.”
Authority Is Conveyed With a Proper Presentation
Q: I have taught my 4-year-old son that he is the boss. I have given him too many choices and too many explanations. I’ve allowed him to manipulate, disobey, and disrespect me. Ever since I began devouring your podcasts and newspaper columns, however, my eyes have been opened. It’s been a few weeks since I started putting your old-school principles into practice and I’ve made some progress, but I’m still getting into lots of power struggles. After four years of not being the boss, how do I now turn this ship around? I’m finding that he won’t obey unless I threaten him with something. How do I get him to obey simply because I’m the authority?
A: You turn this ship around by doing exactly what you have been doing – with some modifications that I will explain momentarily. The good news is that you realize you’ve set some very undesirable precedents. For most parents, that’s the biggest hurdle of all.
The second biggest hurdle is the understanding that proper consequences are not the key to the proper exercise of parent authority. Parents who rely on consequences almost always wind up doing what you are now doing: threatening. Authority is conveyed vis a’ vis a proper presentation. To help parents begin walking down this unfamiliar road, I’ve broken it down into six essentials:
- Do not stoop down when talking to a child. That is a submissive posture that undermines a child’s perception of a parent’s authority.
- When giving instructions or communicating decisions, use the fewest words possible. In many cases, the fewest words is simply one: No.
- Preface instructions with authoritative statements such as “I want you to…,” “It’s time for you to…,” “You need to…,” and “You’re going to….”
- Do NOT explain yourself or give reasons for your instructions and decisions. Let them stand on their own. Almost invariably, explanations lead right into arguments.
- When a parent does not give an explanation, the child is prompted by his natural inclination toward rebellion to ask “Why?” or “Why not?” Don’t be fooled. These are not questions. They are challenges to the parent’s authority. They are invitations to do battle. The proper answer, therefore, to “Why?” and “Why not?” is “Because I said so.” Contrary to mental health propaganda, there’s no evidence that hearing those four words is psychologically harmful. They are, after all, nothing more than an affirmation of the legitimacy of your authority.
- At that point, walk away. Do not stick around, issuing threats.
If the instruction is not carried out within a reasonable period, then pick up the toys (or whatever it is) yourself. Then, later, inform your son of the consequence. And make it BIG! The only consequences that are worth enforcing are those that instill permanent memories. For example, instead of not letting him watch television for an evening, don’t let him watch television for a week, during which time he goes to bed immediately after supper.
Last, stay the course. There will be times when you take two steps forward and then a step back. Don’t let minor set-backs demoralize you. Schenectady wasn’t built in a day, after all.