A stubborn 8-year-old needs nudges, not pushes

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  December 16, 2010 06:00 AM

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What do you do with a child (8-year-old son) who has a strong will? He gets very angry if he's asked to do something he doesn't want to. He will yell and resist. He seems to have a very limited sense of empathy towards other people, although he has friends and enjoys playing and participating in activities. He's happy doing what interests him (reading, computer games, Nintendo DS) but pushes back on other things. He behaves in school and does his work (he's very bright) but "off the clock" it's a different story. How do we help him become more flexible and try other things (activities, foods, etc...) that he so far is resisting? Thanks.

From: Kathode, Roslindale

Hi Kathode,

There are a couple reasons why an 8-year-old boy might "push back," as you say. One is his stage of development; this tends to be a time when kids are very rule-bound. They see the world as black and white with no shades of gray: Food is either yummy or yukky with no room for nuance, something is either fair or not fair, with no wiggle room whatsoever. This age is also on the cusp of big developmental changes. Puberty is not far ahead, and kids at this stage want to feel validated. They want to know that you respect them.

The best way to deal with this combination is to not push an activity or a food or whatever, but rather to suggest or recommend: "Gee, this is something I really like. You might like it, too." If you do that and then back off, you're sending the message that you know he has his own likes and dislikes and that you respect his judgment and his choices. In fact, it doesn't hurt to even say sometimes: "Listen, I know you're your own person. I was just hoping you'd try a bike ride with me just once. If you don't like it, you don't have to do it again." If his answer is, "Yuk, why would I want to try that?" then just say, "OK, I thought you were someone who liked to be a little adventuresome. If you don't want to, it's your decision." That gives him some food for thought, at least, and I bet that in time, he will try it.

For choices that aren't really choices -- doing homework, or a chore -- let him feel as if he's in control by giving him some flexibility and choice in the matter: "I need help with these two before-dinner chores. Which one do you want to do?" Or: "It seems like you don't like doing homework before dinner anymore. What ideas do you have about when you want to do it?" In other words, you're making it clear that he doesn't have a choice about whether to do the chore or the homework, but he does have some control over when and how.

Don't let yourself get sucked into negotiation, because then you are into a power struggle and that's what leads to yelling and resistance. The choices you've given him are the negotiations. I don't think of this as negotiation, by the way. Of course, there also are times when there isn't even room for this much and that's when you need to be firm: "This isn't a choice." But even if you think he's spending too much time in front of a screen, say, or he's not getting enough exercise, whenever you can put that in the form of a choice, you will have greater success.

As the parent of a boy, you might enjoy "Raising Cain," by Michael Thompson, and his companion book, "Best Friends, Worst Enemies, Understanding the Social Lives of Children."

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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1 comments so far...
  1. Your response to the letter writer is brilliant here, if I may say so.

    The writer also shows good insight and willingness to see the whole child, including the good.

    So often parents take a narrow view of the situation in any given moment. They see any defiance as an insult to them and the parent lets himself get provoked into an angry reaction to perceived disrespect.

    Kids need to be compliant to reasonable demands and they need to show respect to all people, especially their parents.

    But not every incident is all about disrespect. There are any number of issues that can make a kid defiant, even if they generally respect the parent. Developmental issues, anger over some issue at school, like peer rejection, failure at some sports activity or a girl who doesn't reciprocate a childhood crush, to name a few examples.

    Parents need to step back and let go of anger and rage that understandably arises when a kid is being mouthy or otherwise problematic.

    It is plain foolish to get into a power struggle with a child over respect issues. Parents need to be more savvy than that.

    Direct angry confrontation and punishment can often worsen matters and cause all parties more grief and pain than necessary, and lead to lingering resentment by the child, no matter how righteous a parent may feel at the time a kid is being spanked or having soap put in his mouth.

    Ugliness and consequent bad feeling can be avoided while still maintaining order if parents can step back and utilize their greater maturity and perspective to manage what really matters about the situation (their child's healthy socialization and moral development) without confounding the situation with the parent's own anger over a provoking kid and trying to vent bile over what doesn't really matter (momentary rage that a kid is disrespectful, for God knows what reason).

    Every parent has a mix of feelings when a kid disrespects them and doesn't reasonably follow rules and comply. Denying such feelings is unhelpful and can lead to acting on anger feelings that are not acknowledged. Accepting that their is foolish anger within you is a key step to managing the scene as gracefully, efficiently, competently and safely as possible.

    You don't need to always act like a friend to your kid, but you want them to be your friend someday in the future. Don't botch that hopeful future by getting into power games with your child and trying to vindicate short term anger at the expense of long-term mutual respect and love that should emanate within the parent/child relationship.

    Overreacting to protect parental authority can lead to a bad outcome, not the child winding up in a jail house some day, but a child who doesn't feel respected by his parents and who then loves them less for it.

    Believe me, I know about this from personal experience. And I'm a pretty normal guy, if I may say so.

    Just my long-winded explanation of one ideology that could under-gird the advice given in this column.

    Posted by neilpaul December 16, 10 11:17 AM
 
1 comments so far...
  1. Your response to the letter writer is brilliant here, if I may say so.

    The writer also shows good insight and willingness to see the whole child, including the good.

    So often parents take a narrow view of the situation in any given moment. They see any defiance as an insult to them and the parent lets himself get provoked into an angry reaction to perceived disrespect.

    Kids need to be compliant to reasonable demands and they need to show respect to all people, especially their parents.

    But not every incident is all about disrespect. There are any number of issues that can make a kid defiant, even if they generally respect the parent. Developmental issues, anger over some issue at school, like peer rejection, failure at some sports activity or a girl who doesn't reciprocate a childhood crush, to name a few examples.

    Parents need to step back and let go of anger and rage that understandably arises when a kid is being mouthy or otherwise problematic.

    It is plain foolish to get into a power struggle with a child over respect issues. Parents need to be more savvy than that.

    Direct angry confrontation and punishment can often worsen matters and cause all parties more grief and pain than necessary, and lead to lingering resentment by the child, no matter how righteous a parent may feel at the time a kid is being spanked or having soap put in his mouth.

    Ugliness and consequent bad feeling can be avoided while still maintaining order if parents can step back and utilize their greater maturity and perspective to manage what really matters about the situation (their child's healthy socialization and moral development) without confounding the situation with the parent's own anger over a provoking kid and trying to vent bile over what doesn't really matter (momentary rage that a kid is disrespectful, for God knows what reason).

    Every parent has a mix of feelings when a kid disrespects them and doesn't reasonably follow rules and comply. Denying such feelings is unhelpful and can lead to acting on anger feelings that are not acknowledged. Accepting that their is foolish anger within you is a key step to managing the scene as gracefully, efficiently, competently and safely as possible.

    You don't need to always act like a friend to your kid, but you want them to be your friend someday in the future. Don't botch that hopeful future by getting into power games with your child and trying to vindicate short term anger at the expense of long-term mutual respect and love that should emanate within the parent/child relationship.

    Overreacting to protect parental authority can lead to a bad outcome, not the child winding up in a jail house some day, but a child who doesn't feel respected by his parents and who then loves them less for it.

    Believe me, I know about this from personal experience. And I'm a pretty normal guy, if I may say so.

    Just my long-winded explanation of one ideology that could under-gird the advice given in this column.

    Posted by neilpaul December 16, 10 11:17 AM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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