William Meyer, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University, objects to a recent column of mine in which I recommended that parents move a toddler out of their bed by telling him that “The Doctor” said he can’t sleep with them any longer (a second child is on the way). In a letter to the editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, Meyer says that this is a lie and “sets up the child to feel an unwarranted anger” toward health care professionals.
Would I, Meyer asks, encourage parents to tell a child that the police disapprove of something the child is doing? No, but that’s not a valid comparison. The Doctor does not frighten children into behaving properly. For the overwhelming majority of children, physicians as helpful authority figures with whom they feel comfortable. (It is also relevant to note that the pediatricians I’ve spoken to concerning The Doctor have no problem with him.)
As I said in the column in question, I invented The Doctor some years ago and have since frequently recommended that parents of young children invoke his authority to resolve various parenting issues. A few years ago, The Doctor cured a young girl of compulsive hair-pulling. More recently, he cured another youngster of constant complaints to the effect that certain of her clothes itched. He has cured young children of refusing to stay in bed, refusing to eat vegetables, picking sores on their skin, and being afraid to be in a room alone.
When parents have a less than satisfactory experience with something I recommend, they often let me know. No parent has ever reported a bad experience with The Doctor. Meyer’s claim that this approach might cause a child to develop “unwarranted anger toward health care professionals” amounts to unfounded speculation.
Parenting is not a science, but my recommendations are far from capricious. They are based on more than thirty years of personal and professional experience as well as the best research available concerning child development, behavior, and mental health. In that last regard, the idea for The Doctor came from the work of Milton Erickson, an unorthodox but highly successful psychiatrist. If you’re interested, his work is the subject of much discussion on the Internet.
Telling a child that The Doctor has rendered judgment on a behavior or an issue (as in, the child occupying his parents’ bed) simply gives the “last word” concerning the problem situation to a third party whose authority the child already recognizes, thus circumventing the possibility of a parent-child power struggle. More often than not, The Doctor also redefines the problem. For example, a 4-year-old’s frequent tantrums are indication that the child is not getting enough sleep (misbehavior becomes a medical issue). The Doctor therefore prescribes that when the child throws more than one tantrum a day, his parents must put him to bed immediately after dinner so that he can catch up on his sleep and be a happier camper. The almost invariable result is that the tantrums completely stop within a few weeks and the child is indeed much happier (and so are his parents).
Professor Meyer says I’m off the mark. I have to say, his reasoning is fairly logical, but where young children are concerned, logic does not always apply.