It is all but inevitable that after rattling off a list of provocative, sociopathic stuff his or her child is doing and usually has been doing for quite some time, a parent will say, “But he’s a really good kid.” How’s that? How is it that a child who is belligerently defiant, denigrates the parent with various libelous descriptors, refuses to be the least bit responsible around the home, and creates nearly constant uproar in the family is “really a good kid”? I have a theory.
Today’s parents tend to believe in parenting determinism; that, in other words, parenting produces the person. The belief is understandable, given that the mental health community has been spreading it for over a century, ever since it was originally proposed by Sigmund Freud, the so-called Father of Modern Psychology. It’s why psychologists — no matter the nature of the presenting problem — ask, “Tell me about your childhood” as if the way a person was raised explains everything.
Given the ubiquity of that belief, for a parent to admit the obvious, that her child is a “really bad kid” is to admit, in effect, that she has been a correspondingly defective parent.
The parenting reality here is that an inability to confront the reality of a child’s misbehavior translates to an inability to respond effectively, with purposeful, unruffled authority. Under the circumstances, the child’s misbehavior gets worse over time, as does the parent’s confusion. And around and around they go. The likelihood of one or both parties eventually becoming diagnosed and being on psychiatric medication increases with every passing day.
Contrary to what even most psychologists believe, no one has ever conclusively proven that behavior modification works with any significant degree of reliability on human beings. Nonetheless, the notion that successful discipline is largely a matter of manipulating consequences (i.e., reward and punishment) properly is almost universally held. Thus, when parents describe a discipline problem to me, they want to know what I think they should do.
They expect me to describe a method, technique, or strategy that they haven’t already thought of. I call these methods, etc., “consequence delivery systems.” The parenting reality here is that more important than what one does in response to a child’s persistent misbehavior is the way in which it is done.
Said differently, no method, technique, strategy or consequence is going to work for long (if it works at all) unless it is delivered by a parent who is unequivocally convinced of the legitimacy of his/her authority over said child. A right attitude is more important than a right consequence. With a right attitude, a right presentation, nearly any consequence will work, and keep working.
Visit family psychologist John Rosemond’s website at www.johnrosemond.com; readers may send him email at email@example.com; due to the volume of mail, not every question will be answered.