Wednesday, November 13th, 2019
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John Rosemond Recent Columns

Copyright 2019, John K. Rosemond

Children Need Love and Discipline to Thrive

The myth of the first three years has it that whatever habits, traits, dysfunctions and so on that a child develops during this admittedly formative period are going to stay with him for life. That is not necessarily so. For example, Romanian orphans that had suffered severe emotional and physical neglect during infancy and toddlerhood recovered fully after being placed with American families. When put in play groups with American-born kids who were living with biological parents, they could not be identified reliably. The adoption-babblers have a difficult time explaining that, by the way.

Nonetheless, the third birthday is a parenting “hump” of sorts. Pre-1960s parents understood that the so-called “terrible twos” were just that: to wit, an eighteen-month developmental period (roughly between eighteen and thirty-six months) marked by tantrums, defiance, violent outbursts and other anti-social behaviors. During this same period, it is essential that effective disciplinary precedents be set such that the terrible twos do not become the terrifying threes, frightful fours, fearsome fives, shocking sixes and so on (the nauseating nineteens?).

Behavior problems not resolved by the third birthday (or thereabouts) are going to be increasingly challenging for both parents and child. The parents are now behind the curve concerning the discipline of the child, and the further behind the curve they fall, the more difficult it will be for them to establish their authority. For the child, the further and faster the proverbial snowball of his misbehavior rolls downhill, the more havoc it plays with his emotional health. Good research confirms what common sense verifies: Disobedient kids are not happy campers.

Parents who come to me for help saying, “My kid is driving me crazy” want me to fix the problem for their benefit, to prevent them further emotional toll. But the emotional toll of the problem is being visited primarily upon the child. He’s being denied the right to a happy childhood by parents who love him deeply but don’t understand that – to employ a paraphrase – children do not thrive on love alone. Children need authority. They benefit greatly from having to accept that what their parents tell them to do, they must do, not because of reward or punishment, but simply because the Big People say so.

“Does that mean, John,” a mother recently asked, “that I shouldn’t give my teenager reasons for my decisions and instructions?”

A child’s age does not determine when it’s time for parents to begin explaining themselves. The prerequisite to explanation is obedience. You cannot explain a child into obedience, but once obedience has taken root and is flourishing, you can venture the occasional explanation. I say occasional because obedient children do not generally ask for explanations. They are content without them; besides, they’re usually able to figure them out on their own.

A parent’s love should be BIG and unconditional, but if it isn’t balanced with equally BIG, unambiguous authority, it’s most accurately termed enabling codependence. Likewise, if authority is BIG but love is weak and small, authority isn’t authority at all; it’s abuse of one form or another.

The “trick” of this is letting the monster-in-the-making know, early on, when the monster first makes its appearance, that he will not be allowed to let his dark side rule either himself or the people he lives with. The formula can be expressed this simply: The child NEVER gets anything even close to what he wants when he misbehaves; rather, when he lets his monster off the leash, he loses things he doesn’t want to lose for memorable stretches of time. A child’s covetous nature can be used to everyone’s advantage.

Some children get it quickly. Others, not so much. Which is why a sense of humor always helps.

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Children Are Impulsive

Q: Our 7-year-old son recently stole two small model cars from a playmate while he was at the playmate’s house. Apparently, he wanted to trade one of his toys for the two cars, but the playmate refused, so he stole them. When we found them, he claimed his friend had given them to him. We absolutely know that’s not true, but it’s been over a week and our son refuses to admit to the theft. He’s changed his story, then changed it back, so we know he’s lying, but still he refuses to budge. Nothing like this has ever happened before and we’re at a loss. We called an acquaintance of ours who’s also a therapist. She said that children who steal are often compensating for some insecurity and that punishing him could make matters worse. We have no idea what insecurity our son is dealing with or what to do about the theft and his lies.

A: With all due respect for the therapist you consulted, I know of no research that connects childhood stealing with insecurity. Her suggestion is purely speculative, as are almost all psychological theories of human behavior. It amounts to what I call a “psychological boogeyman” – an unprovable hypothesis that does nothing but cause parents to think their child’s misbehavior is the result of some ongoing parenting sin.

The fact is, children are notorious for doing odd, inexplicable things. A random misbehavior is generally the result of a sudden impulse as opposed to some psycho-emotional deficiency. The most brilliantly insightful explanation I’ve ever come up with for these occasional anti-social impulses is “children are impulsive.” Kidding aside, asking a child to explain a lie, theft, or any other sneaky behavior is almost always unproductive. The most likely answer is “I don’t know,” which is usually the truth.

This episode is probably nothing more than a “one-off.” The problem is that a drama has now developed around the incident. Such dramas increase the possibility that the misbehavior in question will happen again.

With that in mind, my first recommendation to you is that you stop talking to your son about this. Stop asking him to explain himself. Stop pressuring him to admit to what you already know is true. Stop holding mini-seminars on interpersonal ethics.

Simply tell your son that you know he stole the toys from his friend (at this point, completely ignore any denials) and that until he admits to the theft and apologizes to his friend, he is confined to his room, which you must strip beforehand of any “entertainment value.” He can come out of his room to attend school, church, family meals, do chores, and accompany one or both of you when you leave the home. During his confinement, put him to bed, lights out, immediately after dinner. The purpose is to establish a permanent memory, one that will cause him to think at least twice the next time he wants something that belongs to someone else.

If my experience serves me well, he will spill the beans within a week. If he’s more than typically stubborn, it might be two. Regardless, this experience will give him a new appreciation for the property rights of others. (And contrary to what a therapist might tell you, confining a child this age to a nice but boring room will not leave psychological scars. During the time your son is so confined, he will still lead a better life than at least fifty percent of the world’s children.)
When he admits and apologizes, put the matter to rest. Let him out of his room, restore it to its former glory, and move on.

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Children Do Best in School When Parents Do Not Monitor Progress

The Portal. It sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, the gateway to an alternative universe that lures, then traps the unwary in its nefarious web of illusion, where things are never what they seem.

If the previous sentence sounded to you like Rod Sterling intoning the intro to “The Twilight Zone,” then you too are old enough to thank your lucky stars that The Portal did not exist when you were in school.

The Portal, for the blissfully unaware, is a website the techno-hip Twenty-First Century parent visits at least once daily to get the very latest updates on her child’s grades, upcoming and incomplete assignments, test results, and anything else the child’s teachers deem important, like “Billy seemed distracted today.” If you’re a parent and you’ve never visited The Portal, I have one word of advice: DON’T!

One school’s Portal advertises itself as providing parents with “important, up-to-date information” concerning their children’s progress in school. No, the information in question is not important. First, in days gone by, when there were no Portals, kids achieved at much higher levels. Second, the best research into parent involvement finds that regardless of demographics or ability, children do best in school when their parents do NOT monitor and help with homework. But then, America’s education establishment pays no attention to research in education.

The Portal either turns parents into micromanagers or pushes already existing parental micromanagement over the edge. Micromanagement is driven by anxiety, always. Parents who visit The Portal on a regular basis are not simply curious. They are anxious control freaks. They are also their kids’ (and their own) worst enemies. Micromanagement NEVER improves the performance of the person being micromanaged. It ALWAYS produces stress, an unwillingness to communicate, and various manifestations of pushback. Sometimes, the pushback is subtle, sly, covert, and sometimes it is blatant, even belligerent, as in, “LEAVE ME ALONE! I’M SICK AND TIRED OF HAVING YOU LOOKING OVER MY SHOULDER! GET A LIFE WHY DON’T YOU!”

Yes indeed, the micromanaging parent needs desperately to get a life of her own. There is no emotional boundary, you see, between the Portal-obsessive parent and her child. To paraphrase The Beatles, she is him and he is her and they are all entangled. (And yes, I’m using the female pronoun purposefully because in probably nine of ten instances – and that may be a conservative estimate – the mother is the micromanaging, anxiety-driven, Portal-obsessive in question.) Over the past two generations, co-dependency in the mother-child relationship has become normative, and this is yet another manifestation.

Being in a co-dependent relationship has nothing to do with being a woman, however. My mother was not in a co-dependent relationship with me and my peers testify likewise concerning their moms. This is all about the post-1960s Good Mommy Club, which demands of its members that they be crazy about their kids (not crazy happy, mind you, but truly crazy) if they want to remain in good standing.

Without any evidence that The Portal is working to do anything but transport mothers to a Twilight Zone where they begin to believe their real name is “Mom,” public and private schools nationwide are pushing Portal participation like it’s the next best thing to tablets (which the research also says are counterproductive). It’s as if they say to themselves, “Let’s build The Portal and find out later if it’s working!”

Come to think of it, I did have a homework Portal when I was in school. It was called the “blackboard.”

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Playing War Games Not Unusual for Young Boys

Q: My normally happy 6-year-old son has recently started incorporating death and war-like games into his imaginative play. He isn't and has never been a mean-spirited child, but his dad and I just divorced (amicably), and I feel like he's having trouble dealing with it. For example, he has started telling me he feels stupid. Can you recommend something I can do, or should I have him talk to someone?

A: I would not recommend professional help at this point. First, incorporating war and death into imaginative play is not at all unusual for boys this age and older. In and of itself, this is not cause for concern. Today’s parents have become sensitized to this sort of thing because of highly publicized incidents of child and teen violence, but boys have been playing war games forever whereas boys becoming mass murderers is a recent phenomenon – and almost exclusively an American phenomenon.

On the other hand, if a 6-year-old suddenly becomes truly obsessed with violence (e.g., begins threatening violence toward peers or family or becomes cruel toward pets) I would immediately suspect regular exposure to video games with violent themes. In that case, the obvious solution is to remove the video games from the child’s life. Evidence is mounting that video games with violent themes are contributing to both depression and outbursts of anger in young children.

It’s to be expected that your son will have some degree of difficulty adjusting to a major change of this magnitude in his day-to-day life, but the fact that a youngster is not exactly overjoyed over his parents’ divorce does not mean he’s having a psychological crisis. As for saying he’s stupid, I would tend to take a wait-and-see attitude. There is good likelihood that when he adjusts to the new family circumstances, self-deprecating comments of that sort will fade away.

On the other hand, if you and his father act toward him as if you think he’s a victim, he will begin acting more and more like a victim. Children are intuitively brilliant, and they take advantage of whatever opportunities are handed to them, however unwittingly. Your son may be repeating the “I’m stupid” mantra because you are acting as if it’s to be taken very, very seriously. You respond by talking to him, trying to convince him that he isn’t stupid. So, the next time he’s feeling a little blue and wants attention, he says he’s stupid.

The next time he says this, simply say, “We’ve talked about that enough. If you still think you’re stupid, I’m truly sorry, but we’re not going to talk about it any more. Furthermore, saying that you’re stupid means your brain is over-tired and needs a rest. So from now on, when you say that you’re stupid I’m going to send you to your room to lie down and rest for an hour so you can think straight again.”

Your confidence in your authority is the key to your son’s sense of well-being. If you are convinced that the divorce was in everyone’s best interest, then I strongly advise you to act accordingly.

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"The Doctor" Is the Tool Every Parent Needs

I have good news for parents: You do not need more than a few tools in your disciplinary tool-bag. One especially valuable tool, one that belongs in every modern home, is the “Doctor.” The Doctor is akin to a genie – an invisible parenting sprite, so to speak – whom you invite to take up residence in your home. But it’s not like inviting your cousin to come live with you because the Doctor takes up no room, consumes nothing, makes no mess, and moves on within a few weeks.

You can invoke the Doctor’s paranormal powers concerning a broad range of parenting problems including tantrums, disobedience, compulsive nose-picking, even refusing to eat. So, for example, you can tell a, say, five-year-old who is throwing frequent tantrums because you will not customize her life precisely to her liking, “I spoke to the Doctor today about your tantrums; you know, your screaming fits. He tells me that children your age who throw lots of screaming fits aren’t getting enough sleep and told me that if you throw a screaming or even a yelling or crying fit, you have to go to bed immediately after we eat supper so you can catch up on your sleep. He also said that if you have a fit after supper, you have to go to bed right away.”

The five-year-old female child in question is a real person. She lives with her parents in a small midwestern town where she was, until recently, developing quite the reputation for explosive tantrums that were even occurring in restaurants, stores, and other public places. She went to bed right after supper every night for six nights. Then she went to bed early five nights out of the next ten. Then she stopped throwing tantrums. Several weeks later, she told her mother that she felt a lot better now that she wasn’t having screaming fits all the time.


Or, take the case of the six-year-old boy whose parents had spent tens of thousands of dollars on various forms of “feeding therapy” – which consists, as best I can tell, of cajoling, bribing, and exclaiming “Good job!” whenever said child touches his lips with a new food morsel – including a stint in-residence at a well-known feeding therapy institute in the Midwest. Yes, the parents picked up and moved 1500 miles so their food-averse child could have nothing but the best. After eight weeks of intensive midwestern feeding therapy, the child’s food repertoire had gone from three to five.

After a 90-minute discussion with me, the parents told their son about the Doctor – a new Doctor, mind you, one they’d never seen before – and his revolutionary finding that children who refuse to eat what is put in front of them (from that point on, said defiant boy’s plate featured the same foods everyone else in the family had on their plates)…yes, you guessed it…aren’t getting enough sleep! Within a week, the child was eating what his parents and siblings were eating. He continued to complain about not liking what his parents fixed, but when he did, they simply said, “You must be feeling tired” and he ate.

The Doctor’s ground-breaking therapy cured a nine-year-old who enjoyed calling his single mother names and completely ignored her when she gave an instruction. The Doctor was able to determine that – all together now: THE BOY WASN’T GETTING ENOUGH SLEEP! Only two weeks of treatment was required to cure what a psychologist had said was a case of oppositional-defiant and attention-deficit disorders.

Turns out, the boy was just a sleepy little brat.

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