Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Teach Your Children Well

A woman I used to know a long time ago once called me to tell me about a day with her six year old that had gone wrong. It had started out with him coming to the breakfast table with a small water balloon in his hand. There was a glass of orange juice set at his place. His mother saw him eying the glass and said, "Don't you dare even think of putting that balloon in your orange juice." So of course, he did. To which she responded, "Just for that, you can't go swimming with your father after dinner." This was a weekly ritual that they both looked forward to doing together. He had a screaming tantrum, and she sent him to his room. He slammed his door shut and proceeded to trash everything within reach.

So instead of having a lovely evening alone reading romance novels and drinking red wine , she was stuck with a furious, resentful husband, an out of control six year old, and a big mess to clean up. She was proud of herself, however, that she had imposed consequences after he had behaved badly.
She made the mistake of calling me and telling me all about it, expecting me commiserate and to praise her for how she had handled things.

"There are so many things wrong here that I hardly know where to begin," I said. "What on earth were you thinking, letting him come to the table with a water balloon in the first place? And here's a news flash about six year old boys: 'Don't you dare' is the exact equivalent of 'I dare you'. You were telling him to go right ahead. What self respecting male can resist any kind of dare? That was a total set up. Then, without any warning, he got a huge consequence. He was denied an activity that was necessary to his physical and mental health, and rare quality time with his father. Plus, consequences have to be immediate to be effective. Ten hours to a child that age is forever. He won't remember that he did anything wrong such a long time later, and he'll just think you're mean and unreasonable to deny him his special date with his dad."

When I was in social situations with this woman, I could tell from how she spoke to him that she didn't really expect her son to listen to her, and so he never did. Consequently, his behavior became more and more problematic as he lost his respect for the adults who had no idea how to contain him, help him gain control of himself, or make him feel secure. He was so unmanageable at school that he had to attend a program for special needs children.

Eventually, I lost track of them, but not before an occupational therapy colleague who was treating her son lost his patience with both of them, because the little boy would hide under a table and refuse to come out when it was time to sit and work on academic tasks like handwriting. She wouldn't allow the therapist, who was very skilled and could have imposed some much needed authority, to discipline him or insist that the child follow his direction.

This woman had grown up with parents who had very little idea of how to relate to their children aside from yelling, hitting, shaming, and essentially squashing their spirits. She didn't want to repeat those mistakes with her own child, but in my view, what she was doing, which was basically allowing him to run the show, was just as bad. I recall being at her home when he was in kindergarten, and choosing to cut short our visit because he was throwing things at me, being aggressive to the point where I was beginning to fear for my safety, and she did nothing to stop it.

In order to feel safe, children need to know that the grown ups are in charge. This little boy knew that he was more powerful than his mother, because she gave in to him constantly, didn't expect him to obey her, and rarely reined him in.  Because she did not provide much external structure, he was not able form an internal structure, and could not control his behavior at home or at school.  I believe that she thought that he wouldn't love her if she disciplined him. He had to push the envelope harder and harder to find out where the limits were.

Children whose parents set the bar high, who lovingly expect and demand the best from them, are the ones who want to challenge and push themselves, and the ones who are best equipped to navigate the complicated world of school and playground.

1 comment:

Nixidwell said...

Sorry to comment about something not very related to your post but I was wondering if you could describe positional release from your own words as an OT. Maybe I could talk to you more about it? email? sidwello at yahoo dot com.

Nick