Q: My 26-month-old son has started biting me. It happens when he gets upset, frustrated, or impatient. His dad is currently away on a military assignment, although even when he’s home, his schedule isn’t regular.
So far he only bites me and gets very upset and cries if anyone else scolds him or tells him not to do it. However, if I tell him to stop, he generally just laughs as if it’s funny or pinches/hits me instead. Some advice I’ve read said to put him in his crib for an hour when he bites or create a “biting necklace” for him to bite when frustrated. Should I try either of these or both? What about when we are out in public like a store or water park? Should I head home for his punishment or do something like take him to the car for X amount of time?
—Bruised and Sore
A: At 2, your son doesn’t equate cause and effect–i.e., I bite Mommy, I get punished. That kind of memory and association doesn’t start to solidify until age 3, so delaying punishment isn’t an option (such as when he does it in the store). What you need is a solution that would help him break this habit.
At home, you could put him in his crib immediately after he bites for a few minutes. That would give both you and him time to cool down. But I would recommend using a biting necklace because it gives him an outlet for his frustration other than you.
Redirection at this age is what helps to break the habit. Try a biting necklace (really just a sturdy string through something that’s biteable, like a wooden bracelet. Best of all, remember that will steady redirection and calmness on your part, he will stop biting!
Q: For a few months now, my 9-year-old daughter has been fixated on talking about underwear, potty stuff and kissing. She started it after a weekend visit from her best friend and their family. They are believers but let their kids have almost free reign on TV viewing. We are the opposite, so my assumption is that her friend is mimicking what she’s seen or heard on TV.
However, my daughter’s behavior is starting to rub off on my 4-year-old son as well. As a Christian family, we stress living by the Bible, do daily devotionals with the kids, are active in our church and pray a lot.
That said, I have tried not to make a big deal of her talk and, well, obsession. I thought maybe it would just go away and she would eventually forget about it if I did not stress about it. But now it has gotten out of hand. Every time she plays with her brother, I hear talk about underpants, potty and kissing. I talked with her about it yesterday, I calmly showed her why God says that our bodies are a temple for the Lord, and that kind of talk is not appropriate.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped her (her younger brother gave her away). Today I took away two of her stuffed animals which she loves and told her every time I hear that kind of talk, more toys will be taken away and she won’t get them back. I have no idea if this is an appropriate consequence. I have no idea why she is so fixated on this kind of stuff nor how to help her get un-fixated on it. I am also wondering if I should allow her to hang around this little girl anymore? I really appreciate your help!
A: It sounds like you have two issues at hand. The first is that you want your daughter to stop talking about underwear, potty and kissing. The second is that you are concerned about the influence of this friend on your daughter.
Let’s tackle the first concern. Kids say the darnedest things—and sometimes, they get fixated on one subject, especially if someone (usually a parent) tells them it’s in some way forbidden. Your daughter likely has no idea why kissing, underwear and potty talk is so disturbing to you and why you want her to stop. She also likely doesn’t fully understand the whole kissing thing anyway, even if she’s seen some teens or adults kissing on TV.
It’s good that you recognize that you might be trending toward making a big deal out of this. But as you’ve seen, sometimes even ignoring a behavior or speech pattern will not make it simply disappear. Here’s my solution, one that worked like a charm when my two boys went through a potty talk stage themselves: Tell your daughter she can talk about underwear, potty and kissing all she wants to…in the bathroom with the door closed. That’s the only appropriate place for such discussions, since much of what she’s talking about concerns things best kept in the bathroom. Gently redirect her to the bathroom when you hear her start to talk about those subjects—and sure, let her brother come with her. The bloom will fade soon enough when she has to leave her playing to go to the bathroom to talk like she wants to at that moment.
Now for your second concern that this friend might be a corrupting influence. If this is the first incident, then I would probably adopt a wait and see approach. If you find more inappropriate talk, I would consider talking to the other mom or the girl herself. When my sons used very inappropriate language one day that had been picked up from a neighborhood boy, the next time the boy came to ask my sons to play, I very gently told him that my boys would not be able to play with him if he continued using language that wasn’t appropriate. He knew exactly what I was talking about and it hasn’t been an issue since.
Overall, the softer approach can often be the one that works the best, and giving our kids the responsibility to control their tongues—whether it be telling them where they can talk a certain way or that playtime would end if such language continued—is the best solution.
Q: I am trying to discipline my 8-year-old and 9-year-old girls using the 8-day Strike method as outlined in John Rosemond’s The Well Behaved Child book. Basically, that means the first four strikes are warnings, and there are no consequences. The last four strikes have consequences, with the final strike being confinement to their room.
It’s been working but my issue is my girls seem to only do what they are supposed to do when there is a consequences or if I’m around to make sure they do it. I’m discouraged. I want them to obey because it’s right—not because someone is making them. I’m afraid when they go off to college, they’ll just do whatever they feel like. You know the saying, “While the cat’s away, the mice will play.”
Am I expecting too much of them? Am I being too hard?
—A Discouraged Mama
A: Ah, you’ve expressed one of the biggest concerns parents have today—that their children won’t learn to be obedient simply because it’s the right thing to do. So we get discouraged and feel our discipline efforts are not working, and then we switch to something else because we want to reach down into their hearts and make them want to choose right for its own sake.
But we can’t. In this situation, the only person who can make the choice to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do is the child. We as parents cannot change a child’s heart, no matter how much we want to or how much we can see the path they’ve chosen isn’t a good one.
However, that doesn’t mean we simply throw up our hands in despair and leave off leveling consequences altogether. No, it means we come to grips with why we’re disciplining in the first place—and with the limitations of discipline.
We discipline because we want to guide our children onto the path of righteousness. We discipline to ensure our children know—even if they don’t want to admit it by word or deed—that there is right and wrong, that doing bad things is not okay. We discipline to awaken and strengthen the child’s own fledging conscience into becoming stronger and more robust for the future. We discipline because it’s the right thing for us as parents to do.
We also recognize that consequences, no matter how appropriate, have limitations. Consequences can’t stop a child from destructive behavior in all circumstances. Consequences don’t always deter a child from misbehavior. Consequences can’t change a child’s heart.
It’s that latter truth that has parents tied up in knots. The fact that there is no perfect consequence that will make a child have an obedient heart. The most we can hope for, pray for, is that the discipline will make a child think about his or her behavior, that they will become more thoughtful and less impulsive, that they will behave better overall and not worse.
Consequences show the child that there is a price to be paid for wrongful behavior, and that’s a very important lesson. Some children learn it quickly; some children take the roundabout way and require more discipline along the road. Some children never learn it and are undisciplined even as adults.
So keep on keeping on with your discipline, and don’t worry overmuch about the future. You are laying a foundation upon which your daughters will build their lives. How they choose to use that foundation is up to them, but it’s part of our job to provide for them the firmness possible one.
Q: My 18-year-old daughter has finished her freshman year of college. While it’s been a good year, she’s become rather distant in her relationship with us. We have good conversations sometimes, but most of the time she appears disrespectful toward her mother and myself.
I don’t want the summer to be a stressful time, but I’m afraid it will be, given that she seems to not want to adhere to our standards or house rules. For example, she wants to dress how she’d like. I know those are rather minor things in some ways, but we feel dishonored by her jettisoning our values in this way.
Should we discuss these issues with her now or wait and address situations as they arise? Should we ignore her disregard for our standards? Should we worry about what message that sends to the younger siblings?
A: The transition from the freedom of college to your childhood home can be a rocky one at times. But it doesn’t have to be! She’s still young in many ways, and so it falls on you and your wife to be the adults in this situation. Here are the main points to keep in mind when dealing with your daughter:
She’s an adult now. That doesn’t mean she can do whatever she wants in your home, but it does mean that you give her more leeway in decisions that are not crucial. So I would not say anything about her clothing (as long as she’s buying) and other minor issues. On the flip side, that doesn’t mean you give her a free pass to drink or break the law.
Ditch the lecturing. She’s trying to figure things out for herself, and that’s a good thing, so try to resist lecturing her and try instead to engage in honest conversation. Find ways to simply talk to her, ask her about how she’s changed over the past year, what she found interesting in her classes, in a way that encourages back-and-forth with her. And listen. Mostly just listen to her without interjecting your opinions as much as you’ll want to.
Draw up a simple contract. Outline the basics of what you’d like her to do when she’s home, such as what chores she’ll be responsible for and what things you will provide for her. This should be a one-page, very simple, very basic document. Let her go over it and then discuss it with you and be open to her suggestions. Be willing to compromise yet hold to your convictions.
Love her. She’s probably being rather difficult right now and in your wisdom, you see where she might be going astray. Of course, you don’t want her to be hurt in any way, but you must let her figure out things on her own–and that might mean she will get hurt sometimes. Cook her favorite foods. Suggest her favorite activities as a family. Find little ways to show her how much you love her.
Finally, don’t worry about the message her behavior might send to younger sibs. They are watching how you handle the situation much more than what the situation is. The more you love her and show her that love in your interactions, the more they will feel safe and secure in knowing that as they test their own wings, you will be there for them.
Q: Our nine-year-old won’t stay in his room. He’ll be in and out, to use the bathroom, get a drink, and other excuses. He also has been reading after lights-out, hiding his reading by using a smuggled flashlight or putting a pair of pants across the base of his door to block the light. When we catch him with a book, he becomes a drama king, claiming “It’s very hard to quit” and then promises to not do it again…only to be caught a half hour later.
We’re tired of him coming out of his room a lot and policing his reading. We’re also tired of having him cranky in the mornings because he stays up too late reading. How do we put a stop to this behavior?
A: I think nearly every parent has experienced the jack-in-the-box of bedtime. A child who continually bounces out of the room no matter what you say. When your words have no effect on a child’s behavior, that generally means it’s time to stop talking and take action.
Because you know how much he loves to read, you have the perfect opportunity to motivate him to stay in his room, lights out, when it’s bedtime.
First, while he’s at school or out of the house, remove all books from his room and place them temporarily in another part of the house.
Second, hang a necklace or other object that can loop over the door handle of his room. Put this on the inside door knob.
Third, allow him to take only the current book he’s reading to bed—check his room beforehand to make sure no contraband books have been brought in when you weren’t looking.
Fourth, put him to bed 15 minutes early but allow him to stay up reading for those 15 minutes. He’s allowed out of his room until his normal bedtime.
Fifth, at lights out, remove the book from his room. At this point, tell him that he may come out of his room only once for any reason, but he must bring you the object hanging on the back of his door. No object, no exit.
He will test you by coming out more than once. Simply send him back to bed with a firm, “Stay in your room.”
Put up a chart for 30 days on the fridge (blocks numbered 1 to 30). This is preparation for the consequences the next day.
The next day, when he reaches for a book, say (the more sorrowful the voice the better), “Dear, I’m very sorry but reading is off limits until you can stay in your room after lights out for 30 days. You’ll have one time per evening to come out.”
He will probably throw a fit, but just shake his head. If you find him reading a book, magazine, newspaper, etc., then simply take down the existing chart and put up a brand new one even if he’s on day 29.
Some might label this overkill and worry that it will make your son not like reading. However, when something is as dear to a child’s heart as reading is to your son, then removal of that object/pastime in the short run will make such an impression upon him, that you will likely not have to do such a thing in the future. He will remember this for a long time, and probably choose obedience in other areas as well to avoid a similar action in the future.
I’m often asked by parents whether the punishment should fit the crime. In other words, should a child’s punishment for a misbehavior have some sort of correlation, some connection, with that misbehavior?
The simple answer is No. The punishment does not have to fit the crime. In fact, it probably should have nothing to do with the crime.
But shouldn’t the child be able to relate the consequences with his actions? Isn’t that part of what we should teach our children?
Yes and no. Yes, a child should connect the fact that his disobedience triggered his punishment. But no, in the sense that the child should see a direct relationship between the punishment and his misbehavior.
Put another way, some parents believe that if a child pulls up all the flowers in your garden, then his punishment should be something related to replacing those flowers in the garden or cleaning up the mess, etc. Sometimes, the misbehavior does lend itself to a natural consequence punishment, as in our flower pulling example.
But other times, the misbehavior doesn’t have a clear tie to natural consequences—and thus the parent must come up with a punishment. At times, our immediate response to a misbehavior—especially if the misbehavior is quite breathtaking in scope—we overcompensate and throw everything and the kitchen sink at them, especially if their outward demeanor exhibits no discernable remorse. For example, we want to ground them until they turn 18…in 13 years. We want to take all of their toys to the local thrift store right now.
However, usually that kind of over-reaction happens in the heat of the moment, immediately following the discovery of the misbehavior, when we’re upset or angry or disappointed or frustrated with our offspring. That knee-jerk reaction, while understandable, isn’t the best way to levy consequences because usually, those are the types of punishments that can’t possibly be carried out. The child can’t be grounded for more than a decade. Throwing every single toy away isn’t practical in any sense of the word.
So how do you figure out what to do? Here are some general guidelines to help you when your child needs correction.
First, you don’t have to do something right away. With the exception of children under the age of 3, you can wait to levy consequences. For a preschooler age 3 and older, you can wait several hours before disciplining. For young elementary school age, you can wait a few days. For kids age 8 or so and older, you can wait several weeks. So when your own emotions are swirling like whirling dervish, take a moment to count to 10 or walk away to gather your thoughts before blurting out impossible-to-deliver consequences.
Second, don’t fiddle with penny-ante discipline. You know what I mean, the kind of punishment that’s designed to deter but not halt the misbehavior. Things that briefly get a child’s attention but don’t cause her to readjust her actions only prolong the problem. So don’t fool around with little consequences—such as taking away a kid’s bike or TV privileges for a single day.
Third, the consequences should never fit the crime. This basically means that you don’t worry about whether or not the punishment is “appropriate” for the misbehavior. Parents often fall into the trap of being concerned with fairness when it comes to discipline. The reality is, life isn’t fair and consequences shouldn’t be either.
Fourth, sometimes, you’ve got to make it memorable. This is reserved for really entrenched behaviors or for a time when you think the child in question needs a good wake-up call. So you lower the boom and pull the rug out from underneath him in order to recalibrate his course of action and to avoid repeats of the same behavior in the future.
One time, our oldest daughter kept “forgetting” to give the cats fresh water each day. Finally, after fooling around with penny-ante discipline, I wised up and pulled out the big guns. I took away something she absolutely loved—reading—until she could go for 30 days without “forgetting” to refill the water. Needless to say, it took only 30 days and we haven’t had a major problem with her “forgetting” her chores again (and her younger sister hasn’t “forgotten” either, it made that big an impression on them both!).
Fifth, you remember that you as the parent can do all the right things—and your child can still choose to do the wrong thing. One of my children used to “take the hit” in order to misbehave. I liken it to my in-laws late dog, Rocky, who was a huge Chesapeake Bay retriever. He wore an electric fence collar and knew the boundaries of the fence. Going through the fence enacted a rather painful jolt of electricity to his neck. But sometimes, he would become so determined to case a delivery van cruising down the street that he would pace and pace, then break through the barrier, yelping all the way, to run off after the truck. Rocky simply decided the joy of the chase was worth the pain of the electric jolt.
Our kids sometimes are much the same, choosing to take the punishment (whatever that might be) for the “joy” of misbehaving. That doesn’t mean we stop punishing them for misbehaviors; it does mean that we recognize they have the potential to keep misbehaving.
Remember, the key to discipline is consistency. Do something, but keeping what that something is doesn’t have to be the same each time.
Q: Our four-year-old son has started to be disrespectful to other adults in front of me. For example, he snatched something from my friend’s hand that he wanted. When I made him apologize, he first snarled, “I’m not sorry.”
I am appalled, but I’m not sure exactly how to handle the discipline—where, when and what should I do?
A: From one parent to another, thanks for noticing your child’s rudeness to other adults. So many times, we as parents offer excuses for our children’s bad behavior toward other grownups (“She didn’t have a nap today,” “He’s mad that he missed soccer practice to come here,” etc.). So it’s great that you not only notice his rudeness but want to correct it.
Now the best way to accomplish that is to make his rudeness his responsibility. In other words, he needs to want to change his behavior more than continue it.
The next time he’s rude to an adult, correct him in a firm yet gentle tone. You don’t have to yell at him to make an impression. Keep it short and sweet, such as: “No snatching items from adults. Tell Mrs. X you’re sorry for grabbing.” Then maintain eye contact until he does so. Prod him once to apologize, but if he still refuses, don’t cajole or wheedle with him to comply. You simply smile at the adult and apologize on his behalf.
Then take him immediately home if possible. Confine him to his room for the rest of the day with all his favorite toys or books or games removed. Move up his bedtime to immediately after an early supper. At this age, curtailing his freedom is a great way to compel him to own his rudeness.
If you can’t leave right away, curtail his movements right then if possible, such as requiring him to stay by your side and not play with the other children. If that isn’t possible because of the situation, then leave as soon as you can and do the confined outlined above when you get home, reminding him of his rudeness (“You were rude to Mrs. X when you snatched the toy from her hand.”).
Above all, avoid the temptation to lecture. Kids this age don’t need to know why it’s rude to snatch things from adults or to interrupt conversations. They just need to know it IS unacceptable behavior. The why won’t make them any more likely to obey, so save your breath.
Also work on role playing with him on how to relate to adults. Work through questions such as
If an adult has something he wants, how does he ask for it?
How should he address an adult who speaks to him?
What should he do if an adult does something he doesn’t like?
Incorporate that practice into your everyday interactions with him. Let him pretend to be the adult and you’re the child. Then reverse roles so he can practice. Reinforcing the proper behavior helps him to visualize how he should react the next time he’s confronted with a similar situation.
Q: My six-year-old son has started back-talking, mostly calling me a “meanie” when I tell him to do something he doesn’t like, such as chores, homework, no snack right now, etc. What’s frustrating is that his three-year-old sister now copies him when she’s upset with something I, my wife or her brothers do.
What can we do to get rid of this disrespect? I’ve repeatedly told him that it’s rude and he’s lost privileges for saying that. As for his sister, I tell her firmly no and that it’s not respectful. I do sometimes point out to her brother that he has taught her to be not respectful, which he, naturally, denies!
A: This is probably going to shock you, but I think you’re over-reacting about the “meanie” comments, thus making a mountain out of a molehill. Since you didn’t mention that your son disobeyed the instruction given, I’m going to assume that he’s obedient but grumbly about it.
Your beef is one that plagues many parents today but that didn’t phase your grandparents’ generation. Parents of the 1950s and earlier knew to expect a certain amount of grumbling from their children in the form of eye rolls, “you meanie” comments, and other such nonsense. As long as the child in question did as he was told, those parents rightly ignored such comments as part of the “junk” that comes from raising an immature person to adulthood.
What’s happened is that today’s parents are hyper-focused on managing all aspects of a child’s life, from his actions to his reactions. Sometimes that’s appropriate, in that a child needs correcting if he’s having a temper tantrum, for example. But most of the time, we can safely ignore the shrugs, sighs and expressions of disappointment that accompany obedience to the task at hand.
Why this frustrates us today can be boiled down to the simple fact that we want our children to understand the whys behind our edicts. In short, we want our kids to say something like this: “Gee, Dad, of course it’s time to do my homework. Thanks for reminding me” or “Now that you’ve explained why the bathroom needs cleaning, I’ll get right on that job, Mom.”
That’s not going to happen until the child is grown up and probably has kids of his own. Then, and only then, will he understand why you did and said the things you did and said when he was a child.
Many parents make this mistake in thinking that obedience has to be both inward and outward all of the time. Yes, we’re concerned about our children’s hearts, but we have to remember that we’re the same way about chores we don’t particularly like to do, only we’re adults, so we’ve learned to hide those grumbles inside. Kids haven’t–they let their grumbles show on their face (eye rolls, sighs, etc.) and words (calling a parent a “meanie” really isn’t disrespectful; calling a parent a four-letter word is).
As for your situation in particular, here’s what you can do. Tell your son that you are no longer going to punish him when he calls you a meanie (or other similar words). If he wishes to do so, he may shout it or sing it or whisper it as much as he likes in the downstairs powder room (or guest room). That’s his special “meanie” room. That gives the child the freedom to say those words, but also parameters in which to do so. You can send your daughter to that room as well if she wishes to have her own “meanie” session.
Then stop worrying about his expressions when told to do or not to do something–instead, correct him when he doesn’t do the thing requested or does the forbidden thing. You should certainly have conversations at other times (not in the midst of a “meanie” episode) about what’s going on in his heart when he gets upset about directives.
Above all, remember that we shouldn’t expect a perfect response from our kids all of the time. Wear that “meanie” label proudly—it generally means you’re doing a good job being a parent.
“Through it all, we hope our children will see the wrongness of their actions, but in the end, it’s not up to us to convict their hearts—that’s the province of God—so we tell them we love them, we levy appropriate consequences when necessary, and we make the way to repentance not steep or rocky, but paved with love and forgiveness.”
Q: My 3½-year-old gets resentful over attention to her 6-month-old brother, especially the attention I give the baby. She doesn’t like that he doesn’t “get into trouble” and that he can “get away” with things she can’t do, like yell, throw food, refuse to sleep, wet her pants, etc. She keeps repeating, “But brother can do it because he’s a baby.”
She’s also started scaring him by yelling “boo!” or sings/talks loudly to him. I’m not sure how to correct her behavior without encouraging sibling rivalry. When he first came home from the hospital, she loved on him so much. But now she’s been acting up, misbehaving and getting into more trouble. Honestly, she’s making it hard to act loving towards her! What can I do to ensure the two of them do not become rivals?
A: Take heart in that her behavior, while annoying, is perfectly normal. She’s been the queen bee in your home for three years, so naturally, she’s going to resent someone taking away your attention. But that doesn’t mean she gets a pass on bad behavior.
So what to do? First, make sure she has chores to do around the house, such as helping with trash, setting the table, wiping up spills, etc. The more things she can do to be a part of the family, the more she’ll feel a part of the family.
Second, guide her in interactions with her baby brother. For example, ask her to help you feed her brother (maybe only a bite or two at the beginning). Ask her to hand him toys or bring you diapers. Say to her frequently, “Oh, look at how Baby smiles at you when you make that silly face!” and “Would you read to Baby one of your favorite books?”
Third, remind her of all the things she can do that Baby cannot, such as stay up later, not take as many naps, walk, read, etc. Mention her favorite things and make it sound as if Baby’s the one missing out (all in your tone of voice!), such as “Isn’t it too bad that Baby can’t do X and you can?” That will help remind her that being 3 has its advantages over being a baby.
Fourth, try not to over-correct her when she’s interacting with Baby. Saying “Boo!” and singing very loudly isn’t going to hurt the Baby, really. Redirect her by asking her to sing to the baby. Make it a game by asking her to sing very loudly, then very softly, and ask her to see which tone she thinks Baby likes better. Teach her how to watch his facial expressions to figure it out.
Fifth, don’t use the baby as an excuse to do or not do things. For example, don’t say, “When Baby wakes up, we’ll go to the park.” Instead, say, “We’ll go to the park at X time.” That helps her not to view Baby as the one who’s spoiling her fun.
Finally, remember that she’s adjusting too. When he was smaller, he didn’t seem quite so threatening but now that he’s bigger and probably beginning to move around more, she’s not so sure how to interact or handle his crying and outbursts, etc.