"The RATIONAL Basis" is a registered trademark of Dr. Ellen Kenner
(Continued from Part 1: At the movies, your child is disruptive. You yell at her to "shut up!" She gets louder. What can you do instead?)
Your goal is to help her learn to use her mind well to make good choices. First, focus her on reality — give her the facts. Show her that she is disturbing others: "Honey, the woman in back of you can't hear or see the movie when you jump and yell. She's upset. It's fun to act silly like this at the playground. In the theater it's important to be quiet." That may be all you need to do. You have not tried to force her mind (i.e., "shut up"). Since she is not being attacked, her mind is not getting ready to counterattack. She is more fully focused on the situation. You have not branded her energetic playfulness as "bad." Playfulness is fun – at the playground (not in the theater).
If she chooses to ignore that fact and she persists in being disruptive, then tell her the conditions of staying: "Honey, we can stay here so long as you remain quiet." Focus her attention on the behavior you want (e.g., remaining quiet), not on her misbehavior (e.g., stop jumping!). You may need to give a few gentle reminders. If she chooses to ignore the facts then it's up to you to teach her that reality doesn't reward pushing facts away, i.e., evasion. Say: "I see you're choosing to jump and yell. We need to go now." Gently follow through. Don't worry about the price of the ticket. Teaching her the logical consequence of her poor choice in a firm and civil manner is well worth the trade-off of missing the movie.
Later in the week get a sitter and take yourself to the movies. When your child begs to come along, avoid lectures. Instead, try "Honey, I love your company. Last time you chose to jump and yell. I want to enjoy the movie quietly." You are highlighting her choice. If she insists "But mom, I'll be quiet," a simple "Maybe next time" will suffice. Once more, you have not cast her in the role of the "bad child" yet you are holding her accountable for her choice and you are offering her the opportunity to act differently in the future. She may tell herself "Next time I better not disturb the person in back of me." She is learning how to integrate relevant facts. She is also learning that she can't force your mind , i.e. that you stand by your reasonable principles.
Here's a short summary:
By treating her with respect (not attempting to force her mind) you are helping her learn that rationality, not coercion, is important and the to-be-expected in life. In contrast, demanding obedience (e.g., "shut up or I'll take your toy away!") teaches her that force is proper in relationships. Using force robs her of the opportunity to see her own mind voluntarily choosing to be civil. It shifts her focus away from the facts (the annoyed woman sitting in back of her). It focuses her attention on resentment of you (How dare you take my toy away! You're mean!). It is true that you might get her to obey you out of fear – but that's not success if your goal is to help her learn to make her own independent decisions by focusing on the relevant facts. Your child's resentment, fear and even hatred of you will likely grow as your demands for obedience grow.
Is the alternative to forcing your child's mind (e.g., by lectures, threats and commands) letting her walk all over you? No. The alternative is helping her develop her mind, not teaching her that anything goes. The goal is to help her see for herself that the choices she makes have logical, understandable, predictable, consequences.
How does the expert mentioned in Part I, who advises the return to swift and firm punishment, justify his put-your-foot-down "grandma approach"? He says that all children come into the world with a congenital defect…with free will in their minds and with a narcissistic spark in their hearts. He adds, selfishness and narcissism are behind every single antisocial act in the world; we should make children aware of their flaws and forget about self-esteem.
I think this is horrific. Think of your own child. Think of the pleasure you get when you watch him enjoy himself on the swings or when he learns how to write his name "in cursive mom…I did it!" That's a lovely "narcissistic" or selfish spark. Think of your child using his free will to rationally solve a conflict with a friend or to build a complicated Lego set… "all by myself dad." Think of your child coming home after his first day of work "Dad, look at the money I earned babysitting – all by myself!" Think of your child achieving the career of his dreams "Mom – I love being a journalist!" Your child, in such moments, is enjoying using his mind well and achieving his goals. Free will and a narcissistic spark aren't the enemies of your child – used properly, they are the means by which your child becomes a happy civilized individual.
Happy kids, kids who exercise independent, rational thinking and who feel worthy of achieving their healthy goals, have no motivation to perform antisocial acts. They have genuine self-esteem.
Genuine self-esteem is the emotional reward you earn from 1) using your mind well and from 2) the deserved conviction that you are worthy of setting, pursuing and achieving your rational dreams. Such self-valuing is not responsible for every antisocial act; it is the main weapon against uncivilized behavior.
Let's take this expert face value and decide that it's important to make our children aware of their flaws, strip them of selfishness and then demand obedience. Or better yet, imagine your parent doing this to you. Imagine coming home from school as a child. All night long your parent emphasizes your flaws – mistakes on your paper, your messy room – and fails to acknowledge your achievements. We all know this type of parent as the critical parent – the parent who seems to "value" flaws, who thinks flaw-finding is all-important. Such parents help train you to focus, not on accomplishments, but on flaws. Nothing you do is ever good enough; an A is not an A+. There is no healthy self to esteem, only a flawed self in chronic need of repair.
Add to this a strong-armed discipline, the attempt to force your mind: "You don't know what's good for you – you're choices are bad – you must obey me." This controlling and flaw-finding approach becomes the theme in your relations with your parent. You learn to obey him to avoid punishment — to "keep the peace." Do you like him? Does this method make for satisfying parent-child relations? What mental policies might you develop at a young age? Do you learn to think for yourself or do you train yourself to obey, or rebel? Do you feel worthy of achieving your dreams or do you feel humble, small, flawed…and guilty? Such parenting practices, unchallenged by the mind of the child, contribute to tragically low self-esteem. Often, such children experience anxiety and self-loathing; they fear and distrust others. Might this be a recipe for a depressed or an angry child? For an antisocial child? Strong-armed discipline (depriving him of learning to make his own good choices) in combination with attacking his narcissistic spark (his valuing ability) mangles his self-esteem.
Feeling chronically unworthy and inadequate, many such children cope by faking self-esteem. They might adopt a tough guy façade, not that they are capable and worthy of pursing healthy values, but that they are superior to others and entitled to whatever they want. Deep down they know this is not true. When others don't cower before them, they blow their stacks. If they perceive that their faked self-esteem is threatened, they lash out and demand obedience — they are now attempting to force others' minds.
Bushman and Baumeister (1998) raise the question in a recent study "Does Self-Love or Self-Hate Lead to Violence? Their findings correlate faked self-esteem with increased aggression. Individuals who scored higher on an inflated self-esteem scale were strongly motivated to hurt, punish or defeat anyone whom they perceived to be challenging their inflated view of themselves. However those individuals whose self-esteem was firmly grounded in objective fact, who accurately identified their own healthy traits, were not aggressive. Genuine self-esteem requires dealing with others civilly, not coercively.
Free will makes us unique; how we use our free will is up to each of us. You and your child will enjoy each other's company much more when you use your free will in a rational, understandable manner. You will be helping your child develop a sense of living in a reasonable, graspable, predictable world. Trying to force your child's mind gives him the opposite sense – a sense that he is "powerless in an irrational world." It's much more fun to smile and enjoy your child rather than to rage a decade-long war with him. Never attempt to force your child's mind; you will both win.