This is the second in a series of three columns on the Biggest Mistakes Parents Make (and How to Stop Making Them!). Last week, I identified giving children explanations for parental instructions, giving children lots of choices, putting a wonderful relationship with one’s kids at the top of one’s parenting priorities, and thinking the “experts” know what they’re talking about. (For last week’s column, go to my website at johnrosemond.com.)
Let’s begin with what is probably the single most absurd bit of advice mental health and child development specialists have ever snatched out of thin air: to wit, when an adult addresses a young child, the adult should “get down to the child’s level.” Supposedly, talking to a child from a fully upright position is intimidating and sure to bring on a psychological apocalypse of one sort or another. Where do these people come up with this ridiculous stuff, anyway?
The position in question — I call it the “sycophant squat” — is clearly subservient and communicates to a child that you are pleading. In fact, since vocal quality tends to match body language, there is a great likelihood that you will indeed sound as if you’re begging, as in, “It would really help Mommy out, Little Bubba, if you would pick up these toys and put them away. Will you do that for Mommy, okay?”
As I often say, the key to getting a child to do as you tell him to do is not proper consequences (albeit consequences can play an important role at times), but rather a proper presentation. Children obey people who look and act confident in their authority; they do not obey sycophants. And by the way, the research is as clear as can be that the more obedient a child, the happier the child. Parents have a responsibility to ensure obedience on the part of their kids and the sycophant squat is not consistent with that responsibility.
While I’m on the subject of communicating authority properly, I must mention the currently ubiquitous habit of parents ending instructions with “okay?” When that is the case, the instruction is no longer an instruction; rather, it is a suggestion and a suggestion that sounds whining to boot. Today’s parents are not having more problems with child obedience that their great-grandparents even thought possible because the oppositional-defiant mutation entered the gene pool forty years ago. They are having said problems because they are – not all of them, of course, but entirely too many — acting like wimps in front of their kids. In many parent-child situations, there is no adult in the room!
Yet another common contemporary parenting mistake is using consequences (when they are needed) that mean nothing. A mother recently told me her five-year-old daughter hauled off and hit her in a fit of pique. What did mom do? She put the little narcissist in time-out for five minutes! Wow!
“Are you ready?” I asked.
“For her to hit you again. You’ve taught her that if she hits you, you will do essentially nothing.”
She asked what I recommended if it happens again. I told her to confine her daughter to her very nice and comfortable room for a month during which she can enjoy parole to eat with the family, do chores, go to church and school, and accompany the family outside the home. She also goes to bed immediately after supper, seven days a week. No birthday parties, sleepovers, or sports. The operative principle: If a consequence does not establish a permanent memory, it’s been a waste of time and effort.
“A month! You’ve got to be kidding, John! She’s only five!” protests a reader or ten.
Right. And she has a very nice room. In fact, confined to her room, said five-year-old will have a better month than at least half of the world’s children. One thing is certain: At age seventy, she will remember being in her room for a month when she was five. She will also remember that she never hit her mother again.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com.