Most parents describe discipline problems as if they are “coming out” of their kids, that the problems in question reveal facets of their kids’ personalities—things like “strong-willed.” The fact is that in nearly every instance, discipline problems with a child tell more about the parents than they do the child.
Take “my child is argumentative,” for example. Arguments between parent and child occur because the parent gives explanations for decisions he makes.
“My friend is coming over and I’d like to serve coffee and talk with her in this room, so I’d like you to pick up your toys and move to another room” is likely to evoke “I was here first!” or “Why can’t you talk with your friend in the kitchen?” And the argument is on.
The form of the instruction is the problem. The parent should have simply said, “I want you to pick these toys up and move them to another room. Why? Because I said so.” Yes, I know that’s horribly old-fashioned, but the use of authoritative, non-explanatory instructions along with those very “incorrect” four words prevented many an argument in those old-fashioned days. And allow me to point out that parent-child arguments benefit no one, no matter who “wins.”
“My child won’t do what he’s told” is another example of how parents fail to realize their role in a discipline problem. Children will do what they are told—most of the time, that is, but that’s at least 80 percent. The reality is that most of today’s parents don’t tell. Instead, they plead, bargain, bribe, cajole, reason, explain, encourage, suggest, and promise. When none of that works, they threaten. And when that doesn’t work, they scream. Then they feel bad and go right back to trying to be “nice,” meaning pleading, bargaining, bribing, and so on.
A “tell” is an instruction that uses the fewest words possible and, again, is devoid of explanation. A “tell” is not “I think you’ve been up long enough, and it’s obvious to me that you’re getting overtired, and I think it’s important that you be alert for tomorrow’s test, so how about let’s go to bed, okay?” The proper form is “It’s time for you to go upstairs and get ready for bed.” Why? Because you said so.
Then there’s “my child won’t leave me alone.” That simply means the parent in question has failed to define and enforce a boundary in the parent-child relationship. The parent complains that the child interrupts constantly and asks for one thing after another, but the reality is that the parent has never said to the child “You’ve got your nerve coming to me for something as trivial as that. I am not your servant. I am your mother, but the fact is you don’t need a mother right now, and I’m not going to be one.”
I heard those very words from my mother on several occasions. Several was all it took. And by the way, that sort of reprimand did not “traumatize” me, nor do I need to speak to a counselor to “resolve” conflicted feelings concerning my mom. I have no conflicted feelings about her. Today’s mothers — not all, of course, but way too many—don’t set clear limits on their children’s access to them, then complain that their children won’t leave them alone. Under the circumstances, it’s understandable that their children treat them as if they were vending machines.
The long and short of it is, your child is a mirror. Look carefully at the image reflected therein.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents questions at johnrosemond.com.