Behavior Problems

Behavior Problems

Many parents and teachers think that encouraging responsibility in children and exercising adult authority are antithetical.

Thirteen-year-old Ashley sat at the head of the table with her six-year-old brother Jack to her right and her ten-year-old sister Ellen to her left. Their father, Matt, sat at the other end next to the children’s grandmother. As soon as Jack’s food arrived, Ashley took a French fry off his plate. Jack complained, but Ashley didn’t stop. He tried to protect his food with his body, but Ashley continued stealing fries.

“Stop taking Jack’s fries, please,” her father said at one point.

Ashley ate a couple of bites of her own salad, and then took a cherry tomato from Ellen’s plate. Ellen shrieked, but Ashley gave her a superior, arrogant look and immediately took another one. Matt said nothing.

Behavior Problems - Google SearchWhen Ashley took another fry from Jack, Matt said, “Ashley, stop it,” with some annoyance this time. Ashley stopped eating all together. She got out her cell phone and started texting.

When Ashley took another tomato, her grandmother said, “Stop it,” at which point Ashley got up from the table, took her cell phone to the ladies room, and didn’t come back until dinner was over.

This classic case of failure of adult authority seems to be not uncommon. Matt told me once that he just wants his children to be happy. “I don’t want to be an ogre. I want them to grow up to be leaders, and I don’t want to undermine their confidence by constant correcting. Too much control will crush her spirit.”

The common idea that being an authority to children requires controlling them is the culprit. Education is a paradoxical business. In a great school adult control is low because internal motivation and self-discipline are high. Student authority is more apparent than adult authority.

At the same time, children need to know that those in authority are not afraid to exercise it. They need adults to model what having authority looks like. A family where an adult has abdicated his authority produces a scary environment encouraging tyrants and bullies.

The idea that authority and freedom are antithetical can be pre-empted by focusing on the genius in every child. Acting as if children actually want to be responsible decision makers increases the incidence of responsible decision making among children.

Parenting expert Vicki Hoefle makes this clear in her book Duct Tape Parenting. (Bibliomotion 2012).

At the end of the book is a chapter of short memoirs by her five children. Her 23-year-old daughter writes: “Maybe the most important thing my parents ever taught me was to have confidence in myself and to trust myself in every aspect of my life. But you don’t build confidence and learn to trust yourself unless a parent has confidence and trust in you first.

“I can remember my school morning routine as if it were yesterday. As a five-year-old kindergartner, living in Edmonds, Washington, I would get up to my alarm clock at six in the morning everyday. My first stop was to my parents’ room to say good morning and give them kisses. Then, I would head to the kitchen and make myself a bowl of cereal (which I had set out the night before.) I would eat, pack my lunch, and brush my teeth and get dressed. How is it that a five-year-old can do so much on her own? It’s not so hard with practice and support from parents who are confident that, with a bit of training and encouragement any five-year-old can handle a morning routine.”

kids burn thingsThe increasing dependence and irresponsibility of young people is much talked about these days. Many people are asking me to write about discipline and to tell parents how to control their kids. If there is, indeed, an epidemic of irresponsible young people, my experience with children—my own and thousands of others—has taught me that there are two places to look for causes:

1) Adult failure to see children as they really are, whole people who want to be responsible members of their community as soon as they possibly can, and

2) Adult fear that exercising adult authority is the same as exercising adult control.

Raising responsible young people requires:

(A) Increasing the number of decisions that children are responsible for, and

(B) Increasing accurate feedback about what is socially acceptable and what is not.



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14 Responses to Behavior Problems

  1. Rebecca Ruid says:

    While I certainly agree that encouraging independence and self-efficacy are important I worry that reacting to helicopter parenting by suggesting the opposite is also not ideal for many children and many families. Hopefully parents will understand the importance of selecting appropriate moments in which to foster independence and teach through natural consequences and when this may not be appropriate.

  2. Rick says:

    Yes, Rebecca. The opposite of something bad is often even worse.

  3. Gary Gruber says:

    There seems to be a tendency among this current generation of parents of young children to do too much for their kids, and in the process, perhaps unconsciously, make them dependent rather than independent and responsible for their own choices. I wonder if it’s out of the parents’ own needs to be needed or what else might be at work here. Regardless, giving children lots of responsibilities, freedom and holding them accountable, lovingly, can produce some amazing results in terms of confidence, courage and self-discipline. I am still surprised by how much confidence my parents and grandparents placed in me as a fairly young child. I loved it!

  4. Leah says:

    Rick, great article! Parents need to discover what their child’s strengths are and express confidence in their child’s ability to be successful. In order to raise responsible children they must offer opportunities for their child to make their own decisions and to reinforce independence and responsible behaviors.

  5. Lisa Rappaport says:

    Rick, thank you for addressing these issues. I am particularly chewing on this idea of adult authority versus adult control. Clearly the line can be blurry and it can be hard to untangle the difference between the two. But sometimes it helps me to think about it in they way Wendy Mogel in Blessings of a Skinned Knee addressed it. Adults and kids are not equals, not peers. Adults should be afforded a certain level of respect and authority (she uses the word honor a lot) based simply on their title as “Parent” or “Teacher” or “Coach.” This does not mean we have the right to control them, but we do have the right to insist on respect. This insistence is an exercise in parental authority. When we indulge children by pampering them, make decisions based on avoiding disappointing them, cater to every need and desire, avoid giving them age appropriate responsibility and independence because they won’t like it, we have abdicated our role as parent or teacher and become rather a desperate friend wanting to be liked. Our kids want to have strong leaders to admire and respect. They may not act like it in the moment when they protest a limit we are setting (time to turn off the TV for instance), but we are building in them a foundation of security. As my Rabbi said once in regard to her 5 children leaving home: They all need to “jump off diving board” as they leave home. Our job is to make sure that this diving board (parents) has been a sturdy and secure one for a good launch. Love the New Yorker cartoon. It speaks volumes!!


  6. Rick says:

    Gary and Leah,
    there are some subtle language habits that may get in the way:
    Everyone says: “Hold kids accountable,” but it gets put into practice a wide variety of ways many of which are counter productive. Vicki did not hold her daughter accountable, but rather showed her how to be more grown up and let her be internally motivated to be a contributing member of her community and someone who could take care of herself.
    Who holds whom accountable for what and how makes all the difference.
    Leah, I am not sure that Vicki was paying attention to her daughter’s strengths as much as to her inner desire to be self-reliant and responsible. Ability is more a function of response-ability, than the other way around. When your responsibility matches your ability, it is a little boring, isn’t it?
    At least these are thoughts I have been having lately as I hear people talk about “the problem with kids these days.”

  7. Rick says:

    Good thinking, Lisa. Thank you for bringing up the diving board. Nice image to keep in mind. I have had that experience of pressing down to get myself launched and the thing under me collapsing instead of holding steady–a terrible feeling: betrayal, fooled, misled, etc. even thought it was an inanimate object.

  8. doug phelps says:

    You have proposed a fundamental discussion for schools and families. Thank you! With the enormous need to control their children’s lives less and less do we find children with any responsibilities in their homes. We we want them responsible then give them responsibilities. It is fundamental to any kindergarden class but often lacking in the same children’s homes.
    Keep up the good work!

  9. Rick says:

    Thank you, Doug.
    If we want them to “be responsible,” then notice when they want to take responsibility and support them in that.

  10. Interesting. I had forgotten that my girls got themselves up on time and ready for school along with us as my wife and I got ourselves ready, and as schedules changed, everyone still got themselves ready. And support was often but not always available, and given when asked for, as well as offered when not asked, as well as declined when it didn’t work. We were just free. And I had forgotten how unusual that is. Part of it is Rick’s comment to Doug. Of course we want them to be responsible, but it’s hard to see that underneath the resistance we inadvertently cause by trying too to hard to get them to do things. I never felt the need to be the authority with my children, by the way. Why I treat them any differently than I would anyone else with the same abilities and experience who wants to live in our house? (Just thinking out loud on the last sentence.) Thanks for all the great comments.

  11. Rick says:

    Marty, your description seems, well, so natural. Like that’s what it would be like if you didn’t try too hard.

  12. Thanks, Rick. I take that as a compliment, and my goal in my work with parents is exactly that: be your natural self and stop trying so hard. Our children are much better learners than we are teachers. From us they are learning what works and what doesn’t work about living a fulfilled life, and both are equally valuable – up to a point. Again, thanks for your contribution – the genius within – is that it is a useful tool to find ways to nurture and support them.

  13. Skye says:

    Yes! That last little bit at the end – 1&2&a&b- that’s exactly the missing piece of my puzzle… Thank you for this post! Going to check out your book!!

  14. Gary Gruber says:

    Recent piece on some adverse effects of helicopter parents. Some colleagues have referred to the successors to the helicoptering paretns as “snow-plow parents” and that is even more frightening, for kids that is. Herewith on H-Parents:

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