A Bright Son Making Bad Choices

Q: My very bright 10-year-old son simply refuses to obey. He is child #2 out of 4 kids. He seems to take up all of our parenting energy. He spent a lot of time in the office for the first half of grade 5, often aligns himself with the trouble makers in social situations, and doesn’t seem to care about consequences. It seems that the problems occur everywhere—within our own family, at school, at church and with grandparents. I have never been a parent who pays my children a lot of attention, but he seems to crave attention (even if it’s negative) and he definitely thinks he is a “big fish.”

We had one big incident at school last year, after which he was in his room for a month, with nothing to occupy him. His behavior improved marginally for a short time. I have told him he has this year to improve his behavior or he will not be going to junior high next year as I cannot trust him to make good decisions with the freedom he’ll have there. I fully intend to follow through. Any suggestions?

A: Ah, the child who won’t obey is a familiar figure to us all! I know how frustrating this must be for you, especially because you can see the pattern of bad behavior and the looming teen years with all the potential for disaster.

A couple of things come to mind about this situation, but before that, I should remind you that a parent does her job not because she expects the child to straighten up (although that’s her hope), but because it’s the right thing to do. Thinking that you’re going to find a silver bullet that will make your child behave is an exercise in futility, so just don’t go there. You apply pressure (consequences) to negative behavior in the hopes that the pressure will reach a child’s heart and enact change for the better. But sometimes, we apply the correct amount of pressure, and the child refuses to bend. That’s because a child is the only one who can change his behavior—you can’t. Accepting that and still continuing on with your role as one who applies pressure when necessary is what makes parenting a challenge.

Now, let’s talk about consequences. You’ve yet to give this child an offer he can’t refuse. A big incident at school and he’s only in his room for a month? You saw “marginal” improvement in his behavior after that, but nothing long term. You needed to make a big impression (a la The Godfather Principle), and instead you made a medium impression. Think about what your son loves to do.

Here’s a real-life example. A few years ago, my oldest daughter needed a wakeup call (she was around your son’s age at the time), and I had noticed how much she loved to read. So to reorient her behavior, I banned books from her life until she went 30 days in a row without doing the thing she had been doing. Was she upset? You betcha. Did she miss one of the 30 days? Nope. Have I had to do something that drastic again? No, but it’s always hanging out there as a possibility. The beauty is that she won’t know what I’ll assign as a consequence (aka pressure), but she knows she won’t like it one bit. So figure out what that number one and number two things are for your son and proceed accordingly.

Also, threatening something so far in advance as not going to junior high is worthless as motivation for his behavior improvement. He has no reference for such a thing and therefore can’t care about it! So just stop with that threat, even though you’re prepared to follow through. If it’s not something he can visualize and want, then it’s not something he’s going to care about.

Finally, it sounds like overall you’ve lost a connection with your son. If you don’t already, start taking all of the kids out one at a time on a regular basis. My husband and I take turns taking one child at a time out for breakfast. The schedule is posted on the fridge and they all enjoy spending special time with mom or dad. Also, make time each day to connect with your son. If he likes jokes, find one and tell him after school. If he enjoys throwing a football, grab it up after dinner and play catch for 10 minutes. Make sure you greet him in the morning, and when he comes home after school, not to tell him stuff to do, but to let him know you care about him—even when he doesn’t want to talk much.

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