Dear Dr. Brilliant Cliché,
Our 7 year old daughter had a huge blow out tantrum today: “I don’t want to go skating!” Only she had to go, being too young to be left by herself. Her brother, who is very good about going to her activities, made the rare request to do something he liked, skating. My wife and I disagree on how to manage these, luckily for all of us, rare episodes. My wife believes in giving our daughter choices and helping her to work through crises. I am of the mind that at these moments our daughter is an emotional mess and her intellectual brain is entirely off line. Negotiating, working through, or helping her to help herself, just does not work. I believe at these times demonstrating authority is what is important. We did take her skating and by the time we got there she had calmed down a bit and did eventually go with the flow and had a great time. She didn’t want to leave. My wife feels I bullied her and is angry at the way I handled it. I am at a loss.
Raising children is probably the toughest job we will ever do. There are zillions of parenting and self help manuals on how to do it and they offer diverse and often non-converging methods.
Your question is relevant to the two very different but most current models for addressing parenting. Not too far back the #1 discipline technique used in day care and early learning centers was “1,2,3 MAGIC.” This technique offered no negotiation, no explaining, no arguing. It established the rules, and clearly and consistently halted abhorrent behavior using a simple technique- “That’s one… That’s two…That’s three…” then there is a consequence. It is a very effective technique. When started at a young age these rules are internalized. Studies show that adults who, as children, were raised with firm expectations and consistent rules (even if authoritarian) are more successful and have a more stable life. They make better and healthier choices than kids who were raised in loose and inconsistent environments.
That being said, “1,2,3 Magic” has now fallen out of favor and has been replaced with a more democratic, mutual problem solving parenting approach. One version is called Co-Parenting, another is the Democratic Method. All are similar in that they encourage and utilize the child’s natural problem solving skills to work through problems. There are numerous studies showing this approach also leads to happy and successful adults.
Which is correct? In application, they both are. There is no one right way. Some kids do better in one over the other. Often we need a mix of both.
In my opinion, sometimes a tantrum cannot be negotiated because what’s really fueling it might be fatigue, hunger or insecurity; it has nothing actually to do with what the child might be screaming about. In these cases, a good tact might be establishing authority then letting the child chill (let the tantrum run its course in a safe setting), then addressing directly the underlying issue. I believe tantrums happen when a child feels out of control. If a parent takes control, this allows the child space to calm down, freak out, whatever they need do. I believe that re-establishing pecking order is important.
By the time a child is 15 and being offered a beer and marijuana I hope the internalized dad says NO! There is no negotiation, rationalization, or excuse to bypass the rules. I fear that those good at negotiation might be good at bending the rules as well, thus, rationalizing or undoing authority. In this case, they might not just say no. They might be able to come up with a dozen good arguments as to why in this case it would be fine to ignore the rules. “Hakuna Matata”!
At other times, when the brain is not entirely bypassed by overriding emotion, I feel that negotiation and mutual problem solving is fine; in fact, it’s perfect. It establishes trust and affirms you are listening and present. However, being capable of discerning the difference between tantrum vs. manipulation vs. need for a hug… that is very difficult.
But remember there are also studies to show it is your wife that is correct and that maybe we are just bullies????? But don’t let the issue become you and your wife. Too often a child is unconsciously reacting to the tension between mom and dad. When the kid acts up they become the focus of blame. It takes heat off of mom and dad. Mom and dad unite against a common enemy, the kid. This really exaggerates all symptomology and is a real bad idea.
Granny Doctor: I have raised kids, taught kids and arm wrestled with kids for going on 40 years now and here is something I can say with absolute certainty: ALL children want someone who can stop them. They may beat and rail at the adults around them, giving authority figures crap and trying to get away with whatever they can; but inside, it’s a different story. They want to know that there is someone in their world who is an unmovable force that can be trusted, and who understands right from wrong and will lead them to the light. They will bitch at you and tell you they hate you, but secretly, it makes them feel secure. You are not a bully if you stand firm with your kids when they are whiney and selfish. Bullies do not act out of love. They act out of a desire to control and debase. When a parent is firm and there is love behind it, this is not bullying. Even a 7 year old child can feel the difference in intent.
There have been numerous parenting theories since the dawn of time, and there will be many more. But here’s what the Granny Doctor thinks: if a child is prodded to be an adult at too early an age and never allowed to be a child, they will probably spend the rest of their life trying to figure out how to let go and just live. Give your kids a break. Be the parent, and let them be the child. They will never get another chance.