Friday, September 18th, 2020
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John Rosemond Recent Columns

Copyright 2020, John K. Rosemond

Handle Split Custody Parenting Issues With Grace

Q: My 13-year-old son’s grades and overall respect for me and other adults – teachers, in particular – began going downhill last year (eighth grade), even before the shutdown. He began school this year with the same attitude, if not worse. In response, I have taken away most of his privileges, including his phone and video game. When we divorced four years ago, the judge ruled for split custody, so he spends three or four nights a week with his dad. That, unfortunately, is the problem. His father strives to be what you refer to as a “buddy-dad” and will enforce no rules. When he’s with his dad, he enjoys a smartphone, video games, and wears clothing that I associate with sociopaths. I feel like I am constantly taking one step forward and then one step back. Do you have any suggestions?

A: My first suggestion will fall on deaf ears, but they are not yours.

With a minority of exceptions, my second-hand experience has been that split custody arrangements are not in the best interests of children. All too frequently, they lead to exactly the sort of problems you describe. One parent ends up being a disciplinarian while the other, seeking to be viewed by the child or children as a “good guy,” undoes what his or her ex- is attempting to accomplish at every turn.

Split custody, meaning a 50/50 arrangement (or a close approximation thereof), is intended to be “fair” to both parents involved in a divorce. In so ruling, however, family court judges seem to have lost sight of their mission, which is to rule in the best interests of the children, not the parents. Compounding the problem, split custody also creates the impression that neither lawyer has lost. By issuing rulings that preserve the self-esteem (or, in the case of attorneys, their reputation), judges often, but unwittingly, rule against the interests of the kids.

There’s no viable solution to this sort of problem, in which case I invoke the rule of muddling: Sorry, but you’re just going to have to muddle through this.

Let’s face it, if you and your ex- were able to parent cooperatively, there’s some likelihood you would still be married. The first thing you need to do is accept that there is no solution to this problem. Dad is getting reinforced for being a buddy. Furthermore, his incorrigible undermining of your discipline is likely a form of retaliation, in which case we can double his reinforcement. In effect, he’s a coward, but such is the nature of the divorced buddy-dad.

Accept the realities of your situation, but don’t give up the good fight. Continue to enforce rules when your son is in your care but do so knowing that you’re going to be in a one step forward, one step back state of affairs for some time to come.

There is always the possibility that your son will someday realize that you are the more responsible parent, but don’t count on it. In any event, stay your present course with grace.

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Don't Ask Them, Tell Them

A grandmother in Arkansas says her adult children have great difficulty telling their children what to do. They turn instructions – more accurately, what they think are instructions – into questions and then wonder why their kids don’t seem to appreciate their timidity.

Grandma’s email made me think of a habit I have noticed among people a generation or more younger than myself. To wit, when they order food in a restaurant, they ask if they are allowed to have whatever they want. For example, when ordering a hamburger, instead of saying, “I’ll have a hamburger” or “I’d like a hamburger, please,” they ask, “Can I have a hamburger?”

What’s with that? You’re in a hamburger joint. The word hamburger is printed clearly on the menu. The owner of said joint is obviously in the business of making money selling hamburgers. Setting aside, for the moment, that “may I have” is grammatically correct, why are you asking if you can have a hamburger? Has some hamburger salesperson ever denied you, as in “No hamburger for you. Try again”?

It occurred to me that there may be some generational connection between asking a person behind a fast-food counter if you are allowed to order an item that is clearly printed on the menu and asking children “how about” questions that end in “okay?”

Example: “How about helping Mommy pick up these toys now, okay?”

Is the person who orders food passively also or someday going to be a parent who gives passive instructions to his or her kids? That’s where the analogy breaks down because whereas the hamburger worker isn’t going to deny the hamburger, a child can be counted on to defy the passive non-instruction. He doesn’t want to, it’s not fair, he didn’t put them all there, or just downright “no.”

I suppose I shouldn’t be pointing this sort of thing out to parents because it’s why I have a job. It’s why, when I counsel with parents, I spend lots of time telling them how to talk to children, teaching them how to sound like authority figures.

“If you want Billy to pick up his toys, simply say, “Billy, I want you to pick up your toys.” And then, I tell said parents, “Don’t stand there, waiting. That invites push-back. Just walk away.”

Believe it or not, I occasionally have a parent tell me, “Oh, I don’t think I can do that.”

“Why not?” I ask.

“Well, I mean, it sounds, well, harsh.”

Immediately, I know I’m working with someone who asks waitpersons if she is allowed to order a hamburger. Harsh is a word occasionally used to describe my approach to helping children eventually become functioning adults, when in fact, harsh is what’s likely to happen if one doesn’t use “my” approach (it’s not actually “mine” in any sense). As in, screaming and other lunacies.

Respect is not an entitlement. It isn’t deserved; it’s earned. People in positions of authority earn respect by acting like they know what they want. That begins with making oneself perfectly clear, as in, “I’d like a hamburger.”

And then, of course, “Thank you.”

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No Perfectly Reliable Form of Discipline With a Toddler

As just about everyone who has lived with a child for more than two years knows, the most potentially dangerous thing one can say to a toddler is “no.” That single syllable strikes deep into the core of the reptilian portion of the toddler brain, arousing a reaction that dwarfs Godzilla’s most destructive rampage.

“Should I simply ignore my two-year-old’s tantrums?” a young mother asks.

“Can you?”

She ponders that for a moment or two. “Not really.”

Ignoring is about as over-rated as it gets, especially when it comes to toddler tantrums. Nothing brings out a toddler’s inner Godzilla like being ignored. That same mother, for example, reported that when she ignored a tantrum, it quickly escalated into hitting, biting, and head-banging. If she began walking away, her live-in maniac would wrap himself around her leg, shrieking like a banshee.

“What do I do then?” she asked.

“Either stand there until he lets go or drag him around with you.”

“I tried that once and sprained my leg.”

A perfect illustration of the fact that there is no perfectly reliable form of discipline with a toddler. Most important, regardless, is that he fails to get what he wants. Not even one teensy-weensy smidgeon of it. If he thinks he can wear you down in increments, the tantrums will escalate in intensity and increase in frequency.

When my daughter began her toddlerhood, albeit belatedly, I came up with a solution for her tantrums that has provided many a parent with significant relief. It begins with buying a 4’ x 6’ (or thereabouts) rug from your local box store. Spread it out in a relatively out of the way place in that part of the house that most of said tantrums occur (we put our daughter’s tantrum rug in the downstairs bathroom). Tell your toddler something along these lines: “The doctor says you need a special place for your tantrums because they are so many and so big! So, this is your new special tantrum place! When you want to throw a tantrum, just come here, lie down and begin screaming and rolling around until you feel better. If you need help getting here, Mommy will help you.”

Needless to say, your little one will need “help” getting to his new tantrum place, at least initially. When the next screaming episode begins, simply say, “Oh my! That’s a big tantrum! You need to be in your new tantrum place, so let’s go!” Carry or drag as necessary.

If after you deposit him he gets right up and runs after you, just put him back. The important thing is that you keep your cool in the process. At first, said process may last up to thirty minutes. In the meantime, be calm, be purposeful, and be happy.

This, too, will pass.

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Where We All Went Wrong

My profession, psychology, began demonizing traditional childrearing in the late 1960s. I was in graduate school at the time and on fire for the promise that the proper use of psychological principles could perfect the raising of children and thereby usher in the social utopia we (young boomers whose heads were enveloped in clouds of youthful idealism) thought possible, even imminent.

Children could be reasoned with. Punishment damaged self-esteem (the supposed brass ring of a good life). In the ideal family, parents and children “ruled” equally. Time-out – which takes the all-time Parenting Boondoggle Award – would correct all misbehavior. Children should be given lots of choices and allowed to express their feelings freely. Those are but a sample of the new psychological parenting narratives. Unfortunately, American parents fell en masse for this revisionism and child mental health has been in a tailspin ever since.

The propaganda boiled down to “if your parents and grandparents did it, don’t do it.” One of the upshots of this was what I call “yada-yada discipline” – the attempt to discipline by dialogue, through persuasive appeal to a child’s inherent irrationality and self-centeredness.

Two grandparents recently shared the story of their four-year-old male grandchild who was expressing his feelings freely by wetting his pants whenever the urge arose.

“He didn’t see the point of stopping whatever he was doing to use the toilet,” they said.

Indeed, he didn’t see the point because the point was a dull attempt on his parents’ part to talk him out of it. Yes, they occasionally became frustrated enough to send him to his room, which bothered him none because his room was an entertainment complex, a perfectly suitable place in which to spend a few minutes, even hours. To further demonstrate his disregard, he would often wet his pants on the way to his room, leaving tiny puddles of urine in his wake.

After several attempts, a pediatrician was unable to come up with a remedial drug. A therapist also came up empty-handed. Just prior to reaching the end of their wits, said parents read, in their local newspaper, a column written by a certain renegade psychologist that set forth a cure to spontaneous lazy boy bladder leakage disorder (SLBBLD).

From that point on, the lazy boy’s parents did three simple things: first, when he wet his clothes, he washed them in a bucket of soapy water; second, if he left a puddle on the floor, he wiped up the puddle and then washed the entire floor; third, when his labors were done (to his parents’ satisfaction) he spent the remainder of the day in the bathroom and was in bed immediately after supper.

What drugs and therapy had not moved was cured in one day. As I write, he is no longer a lazy boy. Far from it, in fact. He is a fully functioning adult who is neither beset with bathroom phobia nor haunted by nightmares of bucket monsters chasing him down labyrinthine corridors.

The moral to the story is the moral to many a parenting story these days: If your parents and grandparents did it, then (with the obvious exceptions) you should follow their example.

Some things never change, among which is common sense.

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Helping a Child Worried About Death

Q: We have a five-year-old who obsesses about dying. This has been going on for six months, ever since a child in the neighborhood died of a congenital genetic condition. Our son knew the boy and has been fearful of dying ever since. This is causing him lots of anxiety during the day and he is unable to go to sleep at night unless one of us is with him. We took him to a therapist but after four sessions we saw no improvement so we stopped that. We have explained, over and over again, the difference between himself – very healthy – and the child who passed away, but nothing we say makes a difference. We’re hoping you have some good advice for us.

A: It may seem counterintuitive, but the more parents talk to children about irrational fears, the worse the fears become. Another way of saying the same thing: Logic is lost on a child who is thinking illogically.

You have no doubt said all there is to say about your son’s fear of dying. At this point, you are merely repeating yourselves. Plus, YOU’RE anxious. Parents cannot hide anxiety from an intuitively brilliant child, and “intuitively brilliant” describes nearly all children. As your respective anxieties ping-pong back and forth, they increase. As his anxieties worsen, so do yours, and vice versa.

You are the adults. You are the only party who can end this deteriorating feedback loop. To do so, stop talking. Sit down with your son and tell him that you’ve said all you can say about the reason the boy in question died and why his death is in no way relevant to your son.

Say something along these lines: “We’ve said all we can think of to say. Obviously, the things we’ve said haven’t helped you, so we’re not saying anything more. Even if you want to talk about dying, we’re not going to talk. We’re simply going to say, ‘Remember? We’re not saying anything more about that.’ If that makes you cry, so be it. You can go to your room and cry all you want, but crying is not going to change our minds. You’re going to have to figure out some way to stop thinking these thoughts. Play with your favorite toy or something. You’re a smart kid and we know you can do this.”

If you stick to your guns – and believe me, it’s going to be tough – then his fears should begin to subside within a couple of weeks. In the meantime, continue to sit with him until he goes to sleep, but do not get into bed with him.

When you feel comfortable doing so – this, too, will be intuitive – tell your son that you’ve spoken with a doctor who has told you that he needs to go to sleep on his own. The doctor has told you it’s okay to read him a bedtime story, but after the story and a kiss goodnight, you have to leave his room. If he feels like he needs to cry for a while to get to sleep, it’s perfectly okay. The important thing is that you leave and do not go back in there, no matter what. Keep in mind that there is no way your son is going to get over this and move on without some distress.

Why the doctor? Because invoking a third party whose authority your son already recognizes is going to hasten his “recovery.” The full explanation is complicated, so please, just take my word for it. The “doctor” told me to tell you that.

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