Q: We are having no success getting our 3-year-old (her third birthday is in a couple of weeks) to do what we tell her to do. She defies us at every opportunity, whether it’s just ignoring us or telling us “no” or even physically fighting us. We’ve tried time-out, but she won’t sit, and if one of us tries to hold her in her “happy chair,” she screams and kicks and arches her back and we’re afraid we’ll hurt her if we don’t let her go. We’ve tried taking away privileges, but there really aren’t that many to take away and she doesn’t seem to care anyway. Are there consequences we haven’t thought of that might turn her around?
A: There are probably consequences you haven’t thought of, but I’m sorry to inform you that consequences are not the key to the effective discipline of a child. Rewards and punishments work very reliably and predictably with dogs and other animals. They do not work such with human beings. When it comes to the discipline of children, behavior modification has been a complete bust (along with every other psychological parenting theory).
The key to effective discipline is a proper parental attitude. Breaking it down, it’s one-third proper body language (as opposed to what the parent-babblers advise, stand up straight and tall when addressing a child), one-third proper speech (when giving instructions, use the fewest words possible and preface them with authoritative phrases such as “It’s now time for you to….” and “You need to….”), and one-third refusing to engage in non-productive back-and-forth (arguments).
To be more specific with regards to the latter, do not explain your reason for giving a child an instruction. The lack of explanation provokes the universal invitation to battle: “Why?” There is one proper response to that invitation: “Because I said so.” That very time-honored phrase is nothing more than an affirmation of the legitimacy of the parent’s authority. After delivering that affirmation, walk away. Do not hover over a child, waiting for her to begin complying. That is sure to draw resistance. If one is in a situation where walking away is impossible, then turn away and pay attention to something else.
My finding is that the proper parental attitude described above, which identifies the parent as the Alpha in the relationship, minimizes discipline problems. They quickly become small potatoes. Consequences may sometimes be necessary, but two facts are pertinent to this discussion:
1. Without an authoritative attitude on the part of the parent in question, no consequence will work for long.
2. With that authoritative attitude, consequences are rarely necessary.
In the life of nearly every child who is a major behavior problem in the home there is at least one adult who has no problems with the child at all. That is proof that the problem is not located “inside” the child in the form of biochemical imbalances and other equally spurious fictions. It also proves that the child is not the problem.
So, to parents like yourselves, I advise: find that person and watch him or her. You’ll save yourself a lot of money that you might eventually spend on therapy.
Don't Take Daughter's Dramatic Outbursts Seriously
Q: My 4-year-old daughter, when I do something that upsets her, like reprimand her for something, begins to cry and tell me that I don’t love her anymore. (She’s actually very obedient and well-behaved, so the incidents in question are quite small.) When I’m finally able to calm her down, I reassure her of my love and explain that Mommy getting stern about something she has done doesn’t mean I don’t love her. This began about six months ago, shortly after she turned four, and despite my reassurances, it’s getting steadily worse. Are some children just more naturally insecure than others? Is there something else I need to be doing?
A: It may be that some children are naturally at the high end of the “sensitive” scale and therefore more thin-skinned than most when it comes to being reprimanded. I’m not aware of any research on this issue, but enough parents like yourself have testified to having emotionally-delicate children to convince me that there’s some innate quality at work here. Then there’s the bell-shaped curve, which predicts that relative to a “sensitivity norm,” a minority of children will be hyper-sensitive and a somewhat equal minority will be hypo-sensitive.
Regardless, children – all of them – if given the opportunity, will produce great drama, and it would appear to me that you are certainly giving your daughter the opportunity. In the first place, you obviously take your daughter’s operatic outbursts seriously enough to think they warrant equally serious reassurances. In my experienced estimation, these comforting conversations you have with her are why her “sensitivity” to your discipline has become more and more of an issue over time. In short, she has an audience for her drama, so she puts on bigger and bigger productions.
Not that it is her conscious intention, but her drama also serves to distract attention away from her misbehavior and focus it on the rather silly issue of whether or not you truly love her. Granted, it’s not silly to her, but little does she know you would give up your seat in a lifeboat for her.
It is axiomatic that if one wants to raise up a child into emotionally-sturdy adulthood, one must treat said child as if he or she is, in fact, already emotionally sturdy. Children rise (or sink) to expectations. Therefore, my advice to you is to stop allowing yourself to become sidetracked by your daughter’s drama. The next time you discipline and she begins to cry and claim emotional orphan-hood, simply say, “We’re not having that conversation again…ever. You misbehaved, I reprimanded you, end of story. Now, if you need to cry, you may go to your room until you can get control of yourself.”
Children need equal amounts of love and leadership. Love is not your problem. You obviously need to begin working on strengthening your leadership muscles.
Children's Hearts Rule Their Heads
When I was in college and grad school, other students – mostly the “jock” and fraternity crowds – called me all sorts of names because, being the lead singer in a popular campus rock band, I sported long hair and wore flamboyant outfits. This being BPC (before political correctness), the reader can imagine the epithets in question. Sometimes I felt threatened, but mostly I just shrugged them off and called my mockers equally incorrect names under my breath.
On today’s college campus, incidents of that sort are called “acts of bias” and students are encouraged to report them to the presiding Bias Response Team – constituted of administrators, campus law enforcement, faculty, and perhaps even students – which will then investigate. If the investigation supports the contention of the offended party, the supposed offender will be hauled up before the BRT and might suffer even expulsion. This, mind you, because one student hurts another student’s feelings by, say, looking at him the wrong way, whatever the “wrong way” might be.
At the University of Michigan, for example, students are advised that “the most important indication of bias is your own feelings” and are encouraged to report – anonymously if they prefer – any “bias incidents.” Apparently, at UM and many other institutes of increasingly absurd mis-education, in loco parentis has been replaced by in loco Magnum Frater.
I often tell my audiences that I am a member of the last generation of American children whose feelings didn’t count for much. Occasionally, one’s feelings would count for something, but not for long. When I had an outburst of self-drama, for example, my parents usually told me to rein it in, and if that appeared beyond my immediate ability, to go to my room. The overwhelming number of people my age and thereabouts report that they do not remember their parents ever talking to them about their feelings. It should be mentioned that the mental health of 1950s kids was bigly better than the mental health of today’s kids.
Children are soap-opera factories by nature. They are inclined to over-dramatize, over-emote, and generally take themselves far too seriously. Their hearts rule their heads. Once upon a time, parents understood that in the raising of children, they were responsible to their neighbors, broadly defined, and that one of said responsibilities was to teach their children to bring emotion under the dominion of intelligent thought. At times, the teaching in question required blunt insistence.
Then, in the 1960s, mental health professionals began advocating for letting children express their feelings freely, lest their emotions become “bottled up” inside and possess them like demons. Said professionals told parents that children’s feelings contained deep meaning that needed to be properly interpreted and properly responded to. Thinking that people with impressive credentials must know what they are talking about, parents began giving relatively indiscriminate credence to their children’s emotions and thus began growing children whose hearts rule their heads in perpetuity.
These same kids eventually go off to college and can’t deal with the very sort of stuff I had to deal with (because no one would deal with it for me). University Bias Response Teams are fifty years too late for me, and I am clearly better off as a result.