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.
Should You Ask Your Baby's Permission Before Changing Their Diaper?
Competition amongst the membership of the International Association of the Weird and Even Weirder for the Most Bizarre Idea of All Time has finally, after more than five decades of weird-mongering, come to an end – the rest of us can only hope, anyway. The winner is Deanne Carson of Australia who proposes that to advance a “culture of consent” in the home, parents should ask their babies’ permission before changing their diapers, as in, “I’m going to change your nappy [diaper] now, my precious. Is that okay?”
Carson contends that infants will not comprehend the question but, she says, “If you leave a space and wait for body language, then you’re letting them know that their response matters.” Back to that in a moment.
It should be noted that Carson – a self-appointed “sexuality expert” – is CEO of Body Safety Australia which promotes itself as “Victoria’s leading provider of positive relationship education in childhood, primary, and secondary schools.” It might also be relevant that Carson dyes her hair purple, a color symbolic of mystery and, by extension, the mystery meat baloney.
Once upon a time, and not all that long ago, a person who proposed that parents should ask infants for consent to change their diapers would be regarded by everyone except herself as deranged. Not so today. Today, there are not only people like Carson who come up with this stuff but also people who believe it and immediately begin doing it. (It should be noted that Carson is only the latest spokesperson for this, um, movement.)
To be fair, Carson believes that asking infants permission to change their diapers is going to help them, later in life, recognize individuals who harbor inappropriate intentions toward them and head them off at the pass. (Did you get that? It was truly quite clever.) But back to the topic at hand: In other words, Carson’s intentions are worthy. She simply wants to protect children from sexual predators. No rational person would dispute the value of that.
But as Bernard of Clairvaux so astutely pointed out some 870 years ago, good intentions often lead to highly problematic outcomes – the invention of weather predicting being a prime example. Carson assures parents that their infants do not understand the question, but how can she be certain of this? After all, it did not take long for my dog, Mazie, as a puppy, to figure out what was I was saying to her. Mazie is smart, but, and somewhat needless to say, human infants are smarter. They understand mega-more than they can express.
Ergo, the very real possibility exists that most infants will readily decipher the meaning of “Can I change your diaper now?” It is equally possible that some may then try to communicate with body language, squealing, flailing and such that no, they do NOT give the permission. What if their parents, thinking the squirming, squealing and flailing is simply cute, charge ahead and change the diapers? Take it from a child and family psychologist, no amount of therapy can reverse a trauma of that sort induced so early in a child’s life.
In this paradoxical fashion, Carson’s “culture of consent” becomes instead a family culture of confusion, mistrust, denial, and all-around dysfunction.
Where is Bernard when we so desperately need him?
Disciplining Children With ASD
Q: I am a grandmother with custody of my two grandsons, six-year-old twins. Because of behavior problems at home and school and difficulties relating to other children (they play and communicate with one another just fine), they have been diagnosed with autism. What is your opinion of the diagnosis and what can I do to help them? Their therapist has told me that usual means of discipline won’t work but has yet to give me something that does.
A: As opposed to a verifiable physical disease such as cancer, all psychiatric (mental health) diagnoses, including autism – or, more accurately, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – are based not on "hard" data but on third party description. As such, a diagnosis of ASD is a construct and subject, therefore, to unreliability. One psychologist may render a diagnosis of autism while another may render, for the same child, a diagnosis of, say, childhood bipolar disorder or oppositional defiant disorder.
There are several theories concerning autism that attribute its origin to genetics and other biological factors, but none of them have been proven conclusively. The dispute, mind you, is not over what people are reporting – behavior – but speculative notions regarding etiology, or cause.
For the above reasons, I don't pay much attention to diagnosis. In the first place, in today’s health care environment, insurance providers require that mental health professionals assign one or more diagnostic labels to anyone they see. A psychologist won’t get reimbursed if he tells an insurance company that he is counseling so-and-so because of “problems in relationships.” Reimbursement depends the psychologist diagnosing so-and-so with a recognized mental illness like depression.
It is not uncommon for twins during early childhood to develop a “secret language” which they only use to communicate with one another. The phenomenon, estimated to occur with nearly half of all twins (including fraternal), is called cryptophasia. With or without cryptophasia, however, idiosyncratic, twin-to-twin behaviors can also develop that may ultimately interfere with normal peer relationships during early and middle childhood. In most cases, these difficulties are eventually “outgrown,” but this phenomenon should be taken into account when evaluating young twins who are having difficulty socializing with other children.
If my hunch is correct, then what people are seeing may not be autism (suspending for the moment any question concerning the validity and reliability of the diagnosis). Regardless, the notion that “normal means of discipline don’t work with autistic children” is pure balderdash. That says more about the person making that claim than it does your boys. I’ve worked with a good number of parents of children diagnosed with ASD. These kids are not a different species; they are human. As such, the same principles that govern the successful discipline of any human child, applied properly, will work.
What does NOT work with ASD kids is acting like the diagnosis requires that they be handled with kid gloves. The proper discipline of a child, diagnosis or not, requires adults who are ready to step up to the plate and deliver unequivocal authority.
Kid gloves just won’t do.