Concerning major behavior problems, parents often tell me they’ve “tried everything.” In more than forty years of doing this “parenting expert” gig, I’ve never run across a parent who was telling the truth about that. Since the 1960s, we’ve drifted so far away from a commonsense understanding of the fundamentals of child discipline that most parents have no concept of what “everything” can and in many cases should involve.
A recent conversation with a single mom illustrates the point. She told me she’d tried “everything” with her disobedient, disrespectful, rebellious thirteen-year-old daughter. Turns out that “everything” has consisted of sending her to her room (which is full of entertainment) until she apologizes (which the girl does when it serves her purposes), berating her (which often causes the child to laugh), and taking away her phone for the remainder of the day (one whole day!). In short, as in most cases, “everything” consists of virtually nothing. I call it “trying to stop a charging elephant with a fly swatter.”
The further problem is that when I suggest pulling out all the stops and actually approximating “everything,” the reaction is often palpable reluctance. I can relate to salespeople when they hear, “Well, I’m going to go home and think about it,” knowing they’ll never see the customer again.
Example: I told the above mom that if she didn’t stop fooling around with her daughter’s misbehavior, it was only going to get worse. I recommended “kicking her out of the Garden of Eden” – that is, shutting her life down to a bare minimum: no phone, no privileges, no sleepovers, no new clothes (unless of necessity and in that event only what will suffice), no visitors, no nothing. How long? For a month, and if an incident (defined in advance) occurs before the month is over, the month begins anew the next day.
“That’s fairly, um, well, extreme, isn’t it?” Mom stammered.
“Not as extreme, by a long shot, as calling you a vile name because you’ve refused one of her typically outrageous requests, or smoking pot before school, or using her phone to send pictures of her body to her juvenile delinquent boyfriend.”
“What if she runs away?”
“Where’s she going to go? You’ll be able to find out where she is within twenty-four hours. Go get her and take a policeman along with you. That’ll be the end of that.”
“Won’t that pretty much require that I shut my own life down?”
“You’re going to have to restrict your own activities, for sure, but there’s no such thing as an effective consequence that doesn’t inconvenience the person who must enforce it.”
At that point, I became the above salesperson. She needed to think about it and get back to me, which, needless to say, she never did.
The problem is that unlike my parents, who grounded me (and rightly so) for the entire summer between high school graduation and going off to college, and parents of that generation, today’s parents want to be liked by their kids; therefore, they’re afraid of their kids. In fifty years, the parent-child relationship has turned upside-down and kids know it and take advantage of it.
To paraphrase one of the inimitable James Brown’s more famous numbers, “It’s a Child’s, Child’s, Child’s World.”
But the children have no idea how much they are losing in the bargain.