Monday, February 17th, 2020
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The Biggest Mistakes Parents Make (and How to Stop Making Them!) - Part 2

This is the second in a series of three columns on the Biggest Mistakes Parents Make (and How to Stop Making Them!). Last week, I identified giving children explanations for parental instructions, giving children lots of choices, putting a wonderful relationship with one’s kids at the top of one’s parenting priorities, and thinking the “experts” know what they’re talking about. (For last week’s column, go to my website at johnrosemond.com.)

Let’s begin with what is probably the single most absurd bit of advice mental health and child development specialists have ever snatched out of thin air: to wit, when an adult addresses a young child, the adult should “get down to the child’s level.” Supposedly, talking to a child from a fully upright position is intimidating and sure to bring on a psychological apocalypse of one sort or another. Where do these people come up with this ridiculous stuff, anyway?

The position in question – I call it the “sycophant squat” – is clearly subservient and communicates to a child that you are pleading. In fact, since vocal quality tends to match body language, there is a great likelihood that you will indeed sound as if you’re begging, as in, “It would really help Mommy out, Little Bubba, if you would pick up these toys and put them away. Will you do that for Mommy, okay?”

As I often say, the key to getting a child to do as you tell him to do is not proper consequences (albeit consequences can play an important role at times), but rather a proper presentation. Children obey people who look and act confident in their authority; they do not obey sycophants. And by the way, the research is as clear as can be that the more obedient a child, the happier the child. Parents have a responsibility to ensure obedience on the part of their kids and the sycophant squat is not consistent with that responsibility.

While I’m on the subject of communicating authority properly, I must mention the currently ubiquitous habit of parents ending instructions with “okay?” When that is the case, the instruction is no longer an instruction; rather, it is a suggestion and a suggestion that sounds whining to boot. Today’s parents are not having more problems with child obedience that their great-grandparents even thought possible because the oppositional-defiant mutation entered the gene pool forty years ago. They are having said problems because they are – not all of them, of course, but entirely too many – acting like wimps in front of their kids. In many parent-child situations, there is no adult in the room!

Yet another common contemporary parenting mistake is using consequences (when they are needed) that mean nothing. A mother recently told me her five-year-old daughter hauled off and hit her in a fit of pique. What did mom do? She put the little narcissist in time-out for five minutes! Wow!

“Are you ready?” I asked.

“For what?”

“For her to hit you again. You’ve taught her that if she hits you, you will do essentially nothing.”

She asked what I recommended if it happens again. I told her to confine her daughter to her very nice and comfortable room for a month during which she can enjoy parole to eat with the family, do chores, go to church and school, and accompany the family outside the home. She also goes to bed immediately after supper, seven days a week. No birthday parties, sleepovers, or sports. The operative principle: If a consequence does not establish a permanent memory, it’s been a waste of time and effort.

“A month! You’ve got to be kidding, John! She’s only five!” protests a reader or ten.

Right. And she has a very nice room. In fact, confined to her room, said five-year-old will have a better month than at least half of the world’s children. One thing is certain: At age seventy, she will remember being in her room for a month when she was five. She will also remember that she never hit her mother again.

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Postmodern Psychological Parenting’s Biggest Boo-Boos

One of the “secrets” to a happy, healthy emotional life is to identify one’s bad, nonproductive habits and replace them with habits – slowly built – that are functional. That same principle is of the essence when it comes to a parenting life that is satisfying.

Most parents who want to do a good job but feel frustrated in the attempt are making a finite number of mistakes – ten, to be exact. If a parent who is making these common mistakes eliminates and replaces them with behavior that works.

Arguably the Number One Biggest Parenting Mistake is explaining oneself to one’s kids, giving them reasons and explanations for parental decisions as if a parental decision isn’t valid and can’t be put into practice unless the child in question approves. Explanations also assume that parent and child are peers and that the parent’s authority in any given situation is open to negotiation. Of course, it goes without saying that the “negotiations” in question aren’t constructive dialogues; they’re debates that often devolve into yelling, threatening, and guilt. Can you say, “Because I said so”? Those much-maligned four words simply affirm that the parent’s authority is authentic, and let me assure the reader that a parent who would give up his seat in a lifeboat to save his child possesses unassailable authority over said child.

Number Two is striving for a blissful relationship with one’s child. A parent’s job is to provide leadership. When relationship is the priority, effective leadership is impossible. Why? Because leaders must be willing to make unpopular decisions. Can you say, “Well, Billy, I am sorry to have to tell you that I really don’t care what you think or how you feel about any decision I make, or me for that matter, and the sooner you accept that, the better for you.” Relationship is the result of proper leadership. Put it first and you will be forever gnashing your teeth over disciplinary matters.

Number Three is giving children lots of choices. Again, mental health professionals don’t know what they are doing as regards children. It’s quite simple: children do not know what they truly need; they only know what they want; therefore, their choices are generally bad. They don’t need practice making decisions; they need parents who make good decisions for them. Eventually, if said parents stay the course, their kids will figure it out and thank them for it.

Number Four, implied in Numbers One, Two, and Three, is believing that people with capital letters after their names know what they’re talking about. A fellow asked me, “Do you think psychologists and people in the mental health community, in general, have said anything worthwhile?” No, I don’t. That’s right, nothing, zero, nada, zilch. Their foundational premises concerning children and parental responsibilities are a mess. When one’s premises are faulty, one’s recommendations will be faulty as well. It’s certainly an ironic thing for me to say, but if parents – mothers, especially – would boycott all parenting books, children would be much better off. Well, not ALL parenting books.

Next week, three or four more of Postmodern Psychological Parenting’s Biggest Boo-Boos. Stay tuned!

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Common Sense Comes From Heart, Not Head

Q: I’m new to reading you, but it appears that you don’t have much in common with other psychologists. You don’t agree much with their approach to children and parenting. Correct?

A: Correct. I’ve been licensed to practice psychology since 1979. Since then, I’ve concluded that psychology is an ideology, an unscientific philosophy that’s way off the proverbial mark when it comes to understanding human beings.

I fail, for example, to be persuaded of the efficacy of any form of psychological therapy. One can find studies that say cognitive behavior modification, for example, works quite well across the board and one can find studies that say otherwise. Some studies say it works no better than placebo therapy. In other words, it may be that a certain form of psychological therapy works if the therapist succeeds at persuading the client it’s going to work.

That’s one of several reasons why I do not believe children (including teens) should be the objects of psychological therapy. Again, there’s no consistent body of evidence leading to the conclusion that therapy works reliably with people of any age, but conversations with many parents over many years convinces me that psychological therapy with a child or teen can and often does make matters worse.

I have heard that tale of woe in many forms from many, many parents over the past forty years. I concede that some of the parents in question may have misrepresented something, but the number of parents who report that the longer therapy with their child went on, the worse the problem with their child became is too large to be dismissed on that basis. In many cases, I get the impression that the therapist encouraged the child’s belief that life with his parents is a soap opera in which they are the villains and he is their misunderstood victim.

Then there’s the matter of therapists who rip off an insurance provider by playing board games (see, for example, last week’s column) and doing arts and crafts with said child or teen. What problem is being addressed? What research verifies the treatment efficacy of board games? None and none.

The further problem is that children cannot be counted on to represent adult behavior accurately. They have not been adults; therefore, they have no appreciation for the nuances of adult behavior. That’s why, when parents ask me if I’m going to talk to their child about a problem, I point out that their child is not in a position to report objectively. As such, talking with him would be an exercise in futility and taking their money. I have made exceptions, mind you, but nearly every exception has proven the rule.

When parents ask my help concerning a child, I talk with them. They run the home (or need to learn how to do so effectively). I don’t lead conversations about people’s feelings or childhood memories. As is the case with this column, I’m a problem-solver, pure and simple. Furthermore, I don’t think one needs to go to psychology school to give good advice on childrearing issues. One needs experience with children and common sense.

The problem – I experienced it firsthand – is that common sense comes primarily from the heart, not the head, and graduate school in psychology fills only the head. Furthermore, it fills the head with what I believe to be misinformation about human beings and the human condition.

Which is why the first question I frequently ask parents who are seeking my advice is “Have either of you asked your parents for advice concerning this problem and, if so, what did they say?”

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Punishment Driven by Emotion Accomplishes Nothing

Q: Your recent series on punishment was thought-provoking. I agree children should have consequences when they misbehave. Nonetheless, would you please clarify when punishment becomes excessive? What is the line between reasonable and too much? When I was young, I was spanked with a belt on numerous occasions. I always felt, and still do, that they were completely unnecessary and over the top. Do you agree?

A: Absolutely! Belts, paddles, switches, and other nefarious variations on that general theme are dangerous and unequivocally unnecessary.

I don’t have a problem with spankings per se. The best research (that is, research done by people who are dispassionate on the subject) consistently finds that contrary to the ideological myth, when spankings are occasional, moderate (two to four swats on the child’s rear end), and administered by loving parents who spank with their hands only, they are not associated with psychological, behavioral, or social problems.

Then we have well-intentioned claims that the Bible instructs parents to spank with a “rod,” but the biblical term “the rod of discipline” is clearly metaphorical. It refers not to beatings with sturdy sticks, but to parental authority that is reliable, righteous, just, and unequivocal. For more on that subject, interested readers are referred to the statement on spanking found on my website at johnrosemond.com.

Before I answer your first question, allow me to address a misunderstanding. I do not believe that successful discipline is a matter of properly manipulating consequences and I don’t believe it’s always necessary to respond to misbehavior with consequences. Consequences are overrated and often overused. The key to effective discipline is an attitude, a certain presentation style, not consequences or punishment. When parents act like their authority is legitimate, that they know what they are doing and why, children do what they are told. When parents explain, threaten, yell, plead, and the like, children take every opportunity to misbehave.

My recent series on punishment was not an apologetic for a punishment-based approach to discipline. I merely said that punishment is an essential aspect of an effective disciplinary approach. Research – again, studies done by dispassionate individuals – confirms that assertion.

It’s important to note that the “size” of a punishment does not determine whether it is excessive or not. That is determined by the parent’s attitude. Punishment is likely to be excessive when the parent is angry and using punishment as a form of “payback.” The parent in question is being impulsive and vengeful as opposed to calmly corrective. Whatever message the parent intends to send is blurred by his or her emotional reaction to the child’s misbehavior.

Punishment that is driven by emotion accomplishes nothing and serves only to elicit emotion from the child. It accomplishes nothing of value; therefore, by definition, it is excessive.

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Father's Visitation With Child Should Be Allowed

Q: Our ten-year-old granddaughter lives with us. We have custody of her but her father, our son, is now asking us for visitation privileges. I probably don’t need to tell you that both he and his ex-wife were not up to parental responsibilities. He says he’s cleaned up his act and wants a relationship with his daughter. She says she wants to see him, too. We’re not completely opposed, but we’ve heard all this before and are, of course, skeptical. She came to us two years ago with major behavior problems – disobedience and lying, mostly – and has improved some but not a lot since then. She’s been seeing a therapist for more than a year, but my husband and I see no improvement. We recently found out that she and the therapist spend most of their sessions playing board games and doing crafts. My granddaughter wants to continue her therapy, but we don’t see how playing board games is going to bring about improvement in her behavior. Can you give us some direction here?

A: I’ll do my best. I can’t really comment on the therapist’s treatment plan; furthermore, I want to believe there’s more to it than simply board games, but I will tell you, I’ve heard of that sort of thing before. If I was working with you folks, I wouldn’t waste time or money seeing the child. In my estimation and experience, there’s very little if anything a child this age can contribute to a proper understanding of the sorts of problems you’re experiencing. You need a plan for dealing with your granddaughter’s behavior problems, and you need it fast. She’s at a critical stage of development as far as problems of this nature go. If they are not resolved soon, you may well be dealing with a full-blown sociopath in a few years.

As for the father’s desire to have visitation with his daughter, I think there’s a possibility that could be a good thing for her. The research is very clear that fathers become increasingly important to a young girl’s positive development beginning around your granddaughter’s age. Nonetheless, until you’re confident that everything is going well, I’d recommend limiting visits to daytime hours.

As for the behavior problems, the first thing I’d recommend is that you scrub her life clean of electronics, anything that she can use to text, get on the Internet, and so on. You need to have complete control of her communications. Second, she should have social contact with girls only and only girls you vet and approve. Next, if her father will cooperate, she should have visitation with him only if she has a “good week” at home and at school. If you determine that she doesn’t merit visitation, her father should have a serious conversation with her, emphasizing how much he wants to have time with her, but also confirming his support for the decisions you make in that regard.

Certainly, a newspaper-column length answer is not going to be sufficient. I hate to get self-promotional, but reading several of my books might help get all of you on the right track. Have the father read them as well, then get together and discuss how what you’ve read applies to your situation and how you can use it to, hopefully, begin turning things around.

It’s a start, but a good start is the most important part of any process.

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