The subject of today’s lesson is so-called experts who don’t know what they’re talking about.
As the reader might have guessed, the so-called experts in question are known as parenting experts. Most people of this ilk have credentials in various fields of mental health. So do I. In my case the field is psychology, which I happen to believe has caused more problems for American parents than psychologists even know how to solve.
In this column, my books and my public presentations — especially the latter — I often address the specifics of that charge. The dirty laundry list is too long to cover in one newspaper column. My focus today will be on the widely held belief that when a child misbehaves, a consequence must be immediately forthcoming.
According to many experts, if a consequence/punishment is not delivered within a few minutes the child will not be able to make the mental connection between the misbehavior and the consequence. Rubbish. Actually, there’s a smidgeon of truth to that idea — but no more than a smidgeon.
Indeed because of their short attention spans, the interval between misbehavior and consequence must be fairly short with toddlers. But permanent memories begin to form around the third birthday, at which point parents can delay the delivery of consequences.
With a 3-year-old, the misbehavior-to-consequence interval can be several hours but does not extend to the following day. With children ages 4, 5 and 6, the interval can be as much as several days. By age 7 or 8, the interval can be extended to a week. And so on.
When the consequence is deployed, all parents need say is, “Because of what you did (specific past day and time), this is now happening,” and the connection is made!
For example, if a 6-year-old engages in an act of defiance on Wednesday, he will make the connection if told on Saturday that because of his previous insubordination, he is not going to a classmate’s birthday party. A teenager can be informed in June that because of a February experiment with juvenile delinquency, he is not going on vacation with his best friend’s family.
And yes, I am also saying that parents are under no obligation whatsoever to inform a child of the specifics of a consequence before it is delivered. Simply delay then dispense. The element of surprise inherent to this approach greatly increases the deterrent effect.
During a fit of pique, my 16-year-old daughter Amy threatened to leave the house without permission. I simply told her, “You make your decisions, Amy, and then I will make mine.” She stormed outside nonetheless.
At that point her best friend, knowing the score, reminded Amy that if she left, she (a) would not know what I was going to do and (b) would not know when I was going to do it. Amy promptly stormed back in and voluntarily confined herself to her room for the rest of the day.