Current Issue

Q: Our middle child, age five, is aggressive, loud, and disrespectful when anyone dares to deny her or make her do something she doesn’t want to do. The end result is tantrums that can last up to an hour. The bathroom is her “tantrum place” (we’ve read your books), but she opens the door and screams down the hall. In desperation, we emptied her room of toys, books, and all but essential clothes. It took her a month to earn her stuff back, at which point she went right back to square one. Last night, she screamed in church, the parking lot, and all the way home because we left early to get our youngest child to bed, and she didn’t get to have a cookie. We’re at the end of our rope. Help!

A: You’re doing fine. You aren’t giving in to her tantrums, you’ve created a safe but isolated place in which she can throw tantrums to her heart’s content, and you’ve followed through with a consequence that leaves a fairly indelible impression on most children her age. Last night, you didn’t turn around and retrieve the cookie. But your daughter isn’t a dog.

I point that out because many of today’s parents seem to think otherwise. A dog trainer once told me that “disciplining a child is no different than training a dog.”

I concluded that said trainer didn’t have children. If a dog does the wrong thing and its trainer does the right thing, the dog will stop doing the wrong thing. However, if a child does the wrong thing and his or her parents do the right thing, there’s no guarantee the child will stop doing the wrong thing.

Correct consequences will compel a dog to change its behavior, but correct consequences will simply cause a child to stop and think. Some children will decide that it is in their best interests to change their behavior, but others will fight that much harder.

Some children come into the world determined to prove that they are above all law. Current pseudoscientific mythology claims that such children are carriers of a mysterious chemical imbalance that is triggered by the word no.

The more traditional (some would say benighted) view, of which I am a proponent, is that whereas the average child is bad to the epidermis, these children are bad to the bone. They need a lot of love and a lot of consistent discipline, but they also need parents with a sense of humor. Actually, their parents need the sense of humor most of all, because lacking that quality, they can easily go bonkers.

Love and a sense of humor are up to you, as is the consistent discipline. For your daughter to begin mending her ways, the consequences of her behavior must bother her more than her behavior bothers you. Strip her room again, but this time tell her that she must go a month without throwing a tantrum in order to get her stuff back, and any tantrum, however small during that time, starts the month over. It may take her a long time to get her stuff back—ten years maybe? I’m just kidding. And if you laughed, then you are on the way to solving this problem.

Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, call Elizabeth Stevens at (919) 403-403-8712.

Living with Children

by John Rosemond
From the November 2007 Signs