Children’s behaviour may be accidental

I need more help understanding how to interpret childish behavior. My problem is that I don’t know how to react when my son, Chris, annoys me.

Question: I need more help understanding how to interpret childish behavior. My problem is that I don’t know how to react when my son, Chris, annoys me.

I’m sure there are many minor infractions that a parent should just ignore or overlook. At other times, immediate discipline is necessary. But I’m not sure I’ll react in the right way on the spur of the moment.

Answer: Obviously, the first thing you have to do is determine Chris’ intent, his feelings, and his thoughts. Is there evidence that Chris is challenging your authority?

The more blatant his defiance, the more critical it is to respond with decisiveness. But if he has simply behaved immaturely, or perhaps he’s forgotten or made a mistake, you will want to be much more tolerant.

It is a very important distinction. In the first instance, the child knows he was wrong and is waiting to see what his parent will do about it; in the second, he has simply blundered into a situation he didn’t plan.

Let me be specific. Suppose Chris is acting silly in the living room and falls into a table, breaking some expensive china cups and other trinkets.

Or maybe he loses his books on the way home from school. These are acts of childish irresponsibility and should be handled as such.

Perhaps you will want to ignore what he did, or maybe you’ll require him to work to pay for whatever he lost — depending on his age and level of maturity.

However, these accidents and miscalculations do not represent direct challenges to authority.

Since they aren’t motivated by haughty defiance, they shouldn’t result in serious reprimands or punishment.

On the other hand, when a child screams obscenities at his mother or stamps his foot and tells her to shut up, something very different is going on.

He has moved into the realm of willful defiance. As the words imply, it is a deliberate act of disobedience that occurs when the child knows what his parents want but he clenches his fists, digs in his heels and prepares for battle.

It is a refusal to accept parental leadership, such as running when called, or disobeying and then perhaps lying about it.

When this kind of nose-to-nose confrontation occurs between generations, parental leadership is on the line. It is not time for quiet discussions about the virtues of obedience.

It is not the occasion for bribes or bargaining or promises.

Nor is it wise to wait until Dad comes home from work to handle the misbehavior.

You have drawn a line in the dirt, and Chris has tossed his cute little toe across it. Who is going to win? Who has the most courage?

Who is in charge here?

Those are the questions he is asking, and it is vital that you answer them for him.

If you equivocate at that moment, he will precipitate other battles designed to ask them again and again. That’s just the way a strong-willed child thinks.

It is the ultimate paradox of childhood that youngsters want to be led but insist that their parents earn the right to lead them.

In summary, when misbehavior occurs, your obligation is to look first at the issue of intent, and second, at the issue of respect.

From your interpretation of these two attitudes, you should know instantly how to respond.

Question: Do you think a child should be required to say “thank you” and “please” around the house?

Answer: I sure do.

Requiring these phrases is one method of reminding the child that his is not a “gimme-gimme” world.

Even though his mother is cooking for him and buying for him and giving to him, he must assume a few attitudinal responsibilities in return. Appreciation must be taught, and this instructional process begins with fundamental politeness at home.

James Dobson is founder and Chairman Emeritus of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80995 (www.focusonthefamily.org).

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