How giving a simple direction can create clarity

Quite often with a 3, 4 or 5-year-old there’s a lot of grey areas when they’re testing boundaries and you’re not sure a break is necessary – maybe he’s touching the baby’s face and he’s looking at you and he’s got this look in his eye like he’s thinking, “Can I do this?  How about his?  I’m I making you nervous? What can I do before you say something?”

Typically, parents give ambiguous information in these moments, like, “Be careful.  Your baby brother is very delicate so I need you to be gentle.” 

What is more effective in these moments is to give a clear action direction, “I need you to come and stand next to me for a moment.”  Then if he’s not moving to follow your direction count, “5…4…3…2…1…”.  And if he hasn’t come to you by the end of the count give him a break.  If he does come to you have him stay there for a moment and then either let him return or give him a direction to play somewhere else. 

This inserts a very clear map for him, and you, to follow in that moment.  You’ve asked him for something specific and you’ve given him a clear timeline.  He’ll begin to take your direction in these moments because he doesn’t want a break. 

It’s important that the parents aren’t threatening to do a break (so it’s not – “I need you to come over to me or I’m going to give you a break”) because we want him to generate this thought and self-prompt in this moment.

You say, “I need you to come and sit on the couch to play.”  He ignores you and you say, “5…4…3…2…1…” then if he’s still not on the couch, and you say in a relaxed tone, “Oh, now I need you to take a break”.  Now he looks up and says, “No, no, no!  I’ll sit on the couch.”  And you respond, “It’s no big deal.  You take the break then you can go to the couch.  Right now you have a short break.”

You follow this pattern because your goal is to have your child follow your directions when you give them.  Once you have a break process in place you can give all kinds of other prompts because now he takes your words seriously.  As you move forward you ask him to do what you need and if he doesn’t, you give him a break, or you count down and then give him a break.  But you don’t always have to count down. 

You might simply ask your child to do something and then pause quietly for five seconds and then give the break.  You don’t have to do it the same way each time because you want to keep him on his toes so he learns to hold an awareness of your needs.  There’s no judgment in your tone with this, it’s easy, it’s fun, it’s playful – like your child.  This speaks directly to the difference between punishments and consequences. 

You can begin by giving a clear direction then counting.  A few days later you shift to pausing quietly for 5 seconds then giving the break.  Inevitably, your child will say, “Wait! You didn’t count!” and you can tell him, “Well I’m not always going to count.  I don’t want to work so hard.  You know what happens after I give you a direction.  I wait a few moments and then you get a break.  Its no big deal, you take the break and you come right back.”  The tone of voice you use and the lack of moralizing is the difference between punishment and consequence.  You’re shifting from judgment and anger, which implies his actions are either good or bad, to good natured coaching with cause and effect.

There is often a misunderstanding that administering cause and effect without judgment is too soft, but it’s not, it’s actually more effective.  When your child is very defiant you can give consequence after consequence after consequence and frustrate the heck out of him.  But the more you frustrate him the more your tone should be sweet and empathetic so that your child focuses on the consequence of their choices rather than your judgment of them. 


Getting Your 2-Year-Old (or your 18-Year-Old) To Do Chores

The NPR blog Goats and Soda has been commenting on some research comparing Mayan and American child-rearing strategies. The finding of this research is that Mayan children participate in “adult” activities such as household chores from a very young age and seem capable of completing difficult tasks more easily than American children. So, to test it out, writer Michaeleen Doucleff tried the strategy on her 2 1/2 year old. It turns out that yes, her little one is capable of doing household chores and keeping up with it, too; as long as the writer gives her a manageable task. So children are capable of much more than we have expected of them, at least what we expect of them in American culture. Culture is complex and dynamic. and there are many aspects to this particular phenomenon. But the point here is this: your children are much more capable than you might think.

A couple of weeks ago, I published a video about this kind of activity. In it, I make cookies with a couple of 2 and 1/2 year old twins (aka adult actors that are fantastic at pretending to be two year olds). They are excited to participate, but maybe too excited to be productive. This doesn’t need to end in a stalemate! Doing complex activities can be learning experiences that end in a better-functioning family environment. Watch the video here:

Raising Lions for Teens: 2-for-1 Time


Joe Newman as a teenager with his adoptive dad, Ira.

I am often asked if the Raising Lions method works with teenagers as well as younger children. The answer is a resounding yes.

If you want to use the Raising Lions method with a teenager, the basic principles aren’t going to change. However, while you can help your 4 year old through a tantrum by giving them a holding break, you cannot reasonably do this with your 15 year old. Your teenager is not only physically grown, but they are also very capable of mapping out decision processes for themselves.

What doesn’t change, however, is the clear and direct structure of the protocol. The structure you are building has to have a clear endpoint. When you are in conflict, where do things end? Do you end in a stalemate or slammed doors? You do not want to be guessing and making up consequences in the middle of the conflict. Instead, you want consequences to be very clear and set out before conflicts even appear. The clearest way to do that is by using a tool I call 2-for-1 time.

2-for-1 time is simply this: if you don’t get what you need by a certain time, you start a timer and for every 1 minute the timer goes, 2 minutes are taken away from the resource your teen wants.

This applies to any needs your family might have: for example, you’re trying to get somewhere (school, church, event, etc.). Your child’s refusal to be ready on time is sort of holding you hostage, or making a problem for your family. When heading out of the house, for every minute your child is late, two minutes are taken from your child’s free time or tech time later that day.

There are a couple of different ways to use 2-for-1 time. One way is as a protocol as the last step of a cognitive map.

For instance, your child is cursing all of the time, and you don’t like this behavior. When they start to curse you tell them to take a 1 minute break, which turns into a 5 minute break, and if the 5 minute break isn’t taken, it turns into 2-for-1 time.

 The reason to put it into a protocol like this is that it creates a condition that you can repeat all the time. This map makes 2-for-1 time the end of the road in a cognitive map, and enables you to help your teen stop small behaviors you’d like to see them change.

Just as important as the 2-for-1 tool, and even more important with teenagers, is that alongside establishing a consistent protocol, try to shift your language surrounding these expectations from speech-making and lecturing towards giving your teen their own autonomy and open-ended dialogue. Allowing your child to make their own decisions and dealing with the natural consequences of those decisions themselves will help them to create their own autonomous identity.

Fix the Bedtime Routine, or: How to Get Everyone a Great Night's Sleep

While it is impossible to make a child go to sleep, it is much more possible to get them to put themselves in a position where they are likely to fall asleep. 

Typically, it is best to incorporate this strategy into what happens during the bedtime routine. 

For instance, if you read a book to your child, make sure that while you are reading the book, they are laying down completely under the covers and in their pajamas. 

You might have two parts of the reading every night, the first part you can do without requiring anything and the second part is the bonus reading which you can only do if they are laying down under the covers with their eyes closed. The bonus reading can only be had if they choose it. Now you have set up a scenario where they can autonomously choose the second "bonus" reading and you can help them put themselves in a position where they are very likely to fall asleep.

That conversation might sound like:

Ok, so we finished the regular reading. Do you want me to read the bonus section?


Ok, so I need you to close your eyes and be under the covers and we can start the bonus reading.

I don't want to! I want to look at the pictures!

In the bonus reading, we can imagine the pictures. We don't have to have the bonus reading, but if you want the bonus reading you're going to have to close your eyes.

I don't want to close my eyes! I want to keep them open!

Well, you can keep your eyes open, but I can only do the bonus reading if your eyes are closed. If you want to keep your eyes open that's OK, I just can't do the bonus reading. I'll sit here with you for ten more minutes, but since it is sleep time, we can only sit quietly. 

The conversation with your child may continue a little further, but at this point you have established the contract of being under the covers with your eyes closed gets you more reading time and attention, whereas not being under the covers with eyes open gets no more reading time or attention. Wait ten minutes in the room for the first option to be chosen, and after that the window closes. While you are waiting, there is no need to talk further or engage the issue. Its not a big deal! They can choose to spend this ten minutes in a really boring way, or they can choose the bonus reading. After that, it is “lights out” time.

This tool that I’ve gone over here is a basic tool that I call "mapping" that I am going to talk more about in the 2nd edition of Raising Lions coming this winter.

Joe Newman on the goop Podcast


This week, the goop Podcast interviewed Joe in their episode "What Problem Kids are Trying to Teach Us." From the goop website:

"In this must-listen—whether or not you have or even want kids—Joe Newman, the author of Raising Lions, explains his simple, systems-based approach to conflict that could have a profound effect on our entire culture. And it starts with so-called problem children. Newman knows them well: He used to be one, a typical ADHD, disobedient type. Today, he’s able to connect with kids no one else seems able to reach, and he teaches his life-changing method to parents, family members, and educators. Newman’s perspective—on why things go off track, why so many of us were misjudged as kids, and why we continue to misunderstand kids today—challenges our preconceived notions of what it means to grow up."

Listen below or get the goop podcast at the goop website!


Your 15 Minutes Have Started

While I’m writing at a café a girl of about 9 is carrying a mason jar of parfait balanced on a saucer, as she begins to sit it slides off the saucer, bounces on her chair, then shatters on the floor.  She freezes as the tears start to well up in her eyes.  She looks at her brother who seems unfazed.  She stands, moving slowly to get a napkin as her face contorts as she half tries to clean it, not knowing what to do.  

The adults, it looks like her mom and grandpa, reassure her it’s fine, “Everyone makes mistakes”, and “We’ll get another one, it’s no big deal”.  It occurs to me that 40 years ago the tears would be about the lost dessert and perhaps the scolding that came with breaking the jar, but these tears are humiliation, they come from a pressure to know how to do things, a pressure to have it all together.  

The café staff also reassures her and moments later they have appeared with a new, identical parfait.  They have her move to another spot at the table so they can clean up the floor-splattered dessert and jar.  Something about this scene reminds me of my friend’s 10-year-old son.  His interactions seem like he’s trying to remain calm and confident while the plates he’s spinning fall to the floor, always overly confident about facts and insights that are as often wrong as right.  

This is the problem with too much praise, with too much allowing them to pretend they know more, are capable of more, are better at more than they are.   It creates pressure to be something they’re not.  To spend too much effort managing the façade, managing the image of perfection.  Their 15 minutes of fame have started and they’re only 7.  From this moment on they must keep treading water to keep themselves up in this rarified air.

Little Darth Vader

Many parents I talk with have children whose behaviors are baffling and difficult to understand.  These children appear to enjoy “being bad,” laugh when they’ve made an adult angry, and show no remorse after they’ve emotionally or physically hurt someone.

I spoke with a couple that told me the director of their upscale preschool told them their 4-year-old son was, “The worst child I’d ever seen.  He appears to understand but not care about the rules.  He’s aggressive and violent with other children and shows no remorse for his actions.  He seems almost like a sociopath.”

While it’s typical for adults to rush to conclusions about these children (Emotionally Disturbed, Bi-Polar, Autistic, Oppositional-Defiant, or even Sociopathic) there are simpler explanations for the behavior and motivations of these children.

Imagine a 3 or 4 year-old who enters preschool and finds that his natural tendencies to play with and be liked by others don’t work very well.  He thinks it’s funny to push and grab, but the other children find it annoying.  He gets loud in hopes of being interesting. Some of this he does impulsively, without thinking or intention.  He is good natured and affectionate but gradually finds that he isn’t liked and embraced by the other children.  His mind works hard to unravel the social puzzle in front of him.  He craves interaction, attention and some feeling of social status in this new world.  Though his attempts to be accepted aren’t working, many of his loud and aggressive gestures do get him the immediate attention of others.

It’s as though he’s in the casting call for Star Wars.  He looks around the room and sees there are a few good candidates for the role of Luke, there are a few Princess Leias, Obi-Wan is taken, there’s a bigger Chewbacca and even a better Han Solo.  But wait!  No one has taken the role of anti-hero Darth Vader.  That’s a great role, filled with power and very cool.

Children want social power, a strong role in their peer group.  Social power can be negative or positive.  When a child has a hard time finding a positive role in their peer group, they will find a negative one.

For the child who is playing the role of Darth Vader all the usual motivators are reversed.  Luke wants you to like him, Vader wants you to fear him, Luke wants your positive attention, Vader wants your negative attention.  Luke has lots of friends, Vader doesn’t and pretends not to care.

This is why so many professionals have a tough time dealing with the little Vaders in their classrooms.  They’re treating Vader as if he was Luke, and it’s not working.  In fact, it’s actually making things worse.  When Luke hurts another child’s feelings you sit down with him and explain to him how he’s hurt someone else and he feels bad about it because he wants to be liked.  If you sit Vader down and tell him how he’s hurt someone’s feelings he thinks, “I know! That’s my role. That boy doesn’t like me anyway so at least he’s a little afraid of me.”  When Luke throws his toys you tell him you don’t like it when he does that, and because he wants to please you, he’s motivated to stop.  When you tell Vader you don’t like it when he throws his toys, he is encouraged to do it again, because he’s successfully gotten a rise out of the teacher and shown he doesn’t care what you like.

The most important thing to understand about Little Vader is that his embracing of this role in the classroom or the home is natural and logical, not a sign of disorder or lack of ability to empathize.  Little Darth Vaders are typically very bright and socially astute.  They may have come into the school setting already feeling too powerful and a bit isolated.  Then they are either draw to the Vader role in the social structure of the group and/or they choose it after failing to be successful at one of the other roles.

The role of the anti-hero can be an exciting one for a child.  I’ve seen little boys (and girls) who walk onto the kindergarten play yard only to have other children scream and run away from them.  You can almost hear Darth Vader’s theme music playing as he struts across the sandbox (Bom, Bom, Bom, Bomba-bom, Bomba-bom).  He might as well have been a rock star (think girls screaming and pulling on their hair).

The most common response, and the one that backfires with little Vader is explaining to them why what they did was wrong while telling them how angry, sad, disappointed or hurt you are by their actions.  Vader knows what he did wrong and he did it for exactly the effect he got.

To effectively deal with our little anti-heroes we first need to stop telling them what they already know, and give them short consequences that discourage what they’re doing.  Take away the feedback that empowers Darth Vader, and create opportunities for them to successfully get positive feedback for the little Luke Skywalker that’s trying to come out.

Raising Charlie Sheen

Charlie Sheen is the perfect icon for a culture that encourages, even idolizes, unconditional rather than transactional relationships.  We laud those who become so powerful/wealthy that they don’t have to answer to anyone.  We promote self-esteem as the primary virtue and value speaking your mind over responsibility to others.  While most people see Charlie Sheen as having gone too far, he’s only taken our culture’s delusions to their logical conclusion.
Internet pornography is the ultimate unconditional relationship.  Bill Maher recently made headlines when he said, “Now psychologists are telling us that for a sizable percentage of men in America, masturbating to porn is Plan A, and doing it with your wife or girlfriend is more like a fallback option for when the power goes out.”
So what do Charlie Sheen, our national porn addiction, and parenting have in common?
Raising children where the emphasis is placed on the many and elaborate ways in which the parents should recognize the child’s needs while sacrificing the assertion of their own needs creates children who are self-absorbed, narcissistic, and filled with feelings of their own omnipotence.  This creates adults who understand the world as unconditional and not transactional and is the number one contributor to our growing national porn addiction.
Boys with mothers who don’t assert their own needs and desires grow up to become men who want women without needs and desires.  And since empowering children through martyrdom parenting is so in vogue, they will be hard-pressed to find adult women who will suppress their own needs and focus primarily on them like dear old mom.
These boys are being groomed to seek the non-transactional, virtual sex lives found in Internet porn.  Why bother with a real woman with wants and needs of her own when they can have all the selfless, unconditional, virtual women they want who’ll demand nothing of them, just like mom.
Alternately, these boys might become men with powerful feelings of their own omnipotence (think Adonis DNA and tiger’s blood) that propel them to successful, take-no-prisoners careers and money.  In this case they can run through strings of women who each eventually become tiresome due to the assertion of desires, needs, aging, and real life.  Perhaps becoming as successful as Charlie Sheen who exchanges his brides every few years in between having porn stars come to him.
As a culture we have gradually shifted our childrearing away from transactional to unconditional.  Transactional childrearing requires a give and take, respect, appreciation, and courtesy.  Entitlement is its nemesis.
Unconditional Parenting prepares children for an unconditional world. A world where friends don’t leave you no matter how abusive or obnoxious you’ve become, where everyone gets an “A” whether they made efforts or not, where employers won’t fire you when you refuse to show up, and where wives stay with husbands who continually beat them. The world is not unconditional (unless you’re Charlie Sheen?). The world is transactional. Love is transactional.
This worship of children –this idea that we should be kind and respectful to children even when they are rude and inconsiderate –is inane, and ironically, self-serving; self-serving because it is born of the narcissistic desire to see in our children our own unfulfilled perfection and to create for them a perfect world free from disillusionment.  It is the popular conceit in a society where we strive to inflate our self-identity based on our selfless acts toward our children.  But when adults make themselves selfless children are left all alone.  How about giving our children a break and finding our self-identity without them?  Children need real people with real needs, not parents who will service them unconditionally.

Tips for Transactional Parenting
Insist your children treat you with respect. Set consequences that make their lives very difficult when they choose not to.
Require your children participate in the upkeep and maintenance of the home.  The things parents provide shouldn’t be taken for granted and your children will appreciate your efforts more when they are required to chip in regularly.  Making dinner, cleaning up, walking the dog, etc.
Assert your needs and desires. Parents provide all of the resources for a family to function and should make the lion’s share of decisions.  When parents continually make decisions with the priorities placed on the children’s preferences, the children learn they are entitled to this everywhere.

Difficulty With Transitions

I was talking to a friend recently when he told me something I’ve heard many parents say, “My son has difficulty with transitions.”

He went on to describe the battle that happens every afternoon when it’s time for his son to get off the computer and begin his homework.  He warns his son that in ten minutes he’ll need to turn off the computer and start homework.  When the time comes to begin, his son ignores his requests to turn off the computer or says, “I just need to finish this level.”  Five minutes later he again tells him he needs to turn off the computer.  Then the son begins resenting his father’s nagging and tells him, “Get off my back!  I said I’m getting off.”  Voices get raised.  Soon they’re yelling, and the computer is still on.

There were daily struggles to get him out of the house to school and getting him to the dinner table.  “Any transition from one thing to another seems to be a huge drama,” he said to me.

Then I said to my friend, “It’s clear your son has difficulty moving from video games to homework and from television in the morning to getting dressed to leave for school, but what about the reverse?  Does he have difficulty transitioning from homework to video games, or transitioning from school to coming home?”

“No, none of that’s ever a problem” he said.

“So your son doesn’t have a problem with transitions.  You have a problem getting your son to do things he doesn’t want to do?”

He laughed and said, “Yeah that sounds right”

If it was really a difficulty with transitions, that would mean broadly having difficulty switching from one activity to another, from a preferred activity to a non-preferred activity, or from a non-preferred activity to a preferred activity.  If there’s no difficultly transitioning from a non-preferred activity to something else, then clearly the problem isn’t transitions.

The problem is doing what they don’t prefer.

By using the phrase “difficulty with transitions” we pathologize what is actually normal, healthy behavior.

In truth, the child has no problem at all, it’s the adult that has the problem.  The adult has difficulty getting the child to do what the child doesn’t want to do – plain and simple.

By saying the child has “problems with transitions” we make what is inherently an adult problem to solve a child’s pathology.  What should be “I can’t get that child to do anything they don’t want to do” becomes, “That child has an inability processing a change from one activity to another.”

To be fair, there are a small percentage of children who do have difficulty with transitions, whether it’s transitions toward or away from preferred activities, but they are now the rare exceptions.  Initially, the term “difficulty with transitions” was likely meant to describe children who obsessively fixate on the activity in front of them and then have a real inability, or great difficulty, disengaging from one activity and beginning another.  Children with moderate to severe autism come to mind.  In the case of these children, the “difficulty with transitions” would present itself in both directions, toward and away from a preferred activity.

The use of the term “difficulty with transitions” to pathologize behaviors in children that are actually normal and healthy isn’t just common among parents it’s commonly misused among educators and psychiatric professionals.

Whether it’s at school or at home, mistaking normal willful behavior for disorder or disability can cause serious problems.  When adults attribute a behavior to inability, the natural response is to create accommodations or give more lengthy explanations to help the assumed thinking problem.  In either case the result is a real disconnect between the adult and the child.  The adult is assuming and speaking to problems that aren’t there and consequently are less able to address the actual problem.

Additionally, a sort of shadow relationship between the adult and child starts to develop.  The adult assumes an inability that doesn’t exist.  The child learns that encouraging this fallacy allows them to avoid doing the things they don’t want to do and feign even less ability.  The adult unwittingly makes more accommodations, more convinced that an actual disorder exists, while simultaneously becoming more frustrated at the lack of response to their requests.  The cycle feeds itself.

It will take a conscious and concerted effort for parents and teachers to actively go against the current culture that encourages us to pathologize our children.  If we are to move toward healthier and more honest relationships with our children, the first step is to assume our children are able of much more than we know.  Only then can we take the responsibility to deal squarely and honestly with the strong, empowered children we’ve worked so hard to raise.

Think Like a Child

Recent research on children is showing that children as young as 18 months have an uncanny scientific instinct.  They are constantly observing their surroundings and gathering data about the people around them and the world.  Developmental Psychologist Alison Gopnik puts it best when she said, “Babies are making complicated calculations with conditional probability that they’re revising to see how the world works.”

As I thought about the ways in which children are very much little scientists, I realized that much of the success I’ve had working with difficult children comes from the fact that I have much in common with our little scientists.

1. I never believe anything until I’ve proven it for myself.

I never assume that any behavior I see can’t be controlled.  I see attention, emotional states, and comprehension as flexible states that tell me very little about a child until I’ve tested them to see if his or her behavior can be changed.  For all I know these “inappropriate”, difficult and even aggressive or violent behaviors are serving an important purpose.  Most likely, these behaviors have developed to meet a need.  Let’s change the effects/reactions to these behaviors in a precise and consistent way and see if these things change.

Anyone who’s worked with difficult children knows that the first thing they ask you, before you even meet the child, is “Have you read their file?”  The kids I’ve worked with all came with a file.  Filled with others observations, diagnosis and conclusions about the existing disorders.  Others always gave me funny looks when I’d respond with “No I haven’t.  I don’t like to read the file before I’ve met them.”  Truth be told, I almost never read the file even after I’d met them.  I didn’t want to prejudice myself before I’d seen things with fresh eyes and tested what I was seeing.

2. Always do rigorous testing.

A mother recently said to me about her 8-year-old, “He is always putting his mouth on the dog, it’s gross.  I’ve asked him to stop, but he’s been doing it for more than a year.  I can’t give a break for something like that can I?  I mean, he’s got an oral fixation.  I don’t think he can help himself.  He walks around the house going like this (she opens her mouth, sticks out her tongue and wags it back and forth).  So if I’m going to try and get him to stop, I should give him something else to do with his mouth instead, right?”

I said to her, “Let’s not make any assumptions about an oral fixation.  When I think about it, I’ve never seen him do this at school, and maybe there’s a reason for that.  Perhaps at school when he did that the other children gave him funny looks.  Maybe they mocked him for doing it.  Maybe others just asked him quizzically, “What are you doing?”  Perhaps that was enough for him to inhibit this behavior.  There’s nothing wrong with inhibiting behavior.  We inhibit behavior all the time.  We don’t fart when we’re around others, hopefully.  We don’t scratch the wrong places in public, hopefully.  We inhibit urges to interrupt when others are talking, etc….  All of this healthy inhibition happens because we feel a slight tension, an awareness of others needs and feelings when we are in their presence.

So before we rush to any conclusions about your son having an oral fixation, let’s create some healthy tension around that behavior.  Let’s test it and see what happens.  This is actually a perfect behavior to give short breaks for.  The next time you see your son put his mouth on the dog tell him to take a break for a minute.  Don’t tell him why you want him to take the break.  Don’t be angry, disgusted or judgmental in your reaction.  Just tell him to sit quietly in the nearest chair for a minute.  Do this every time you see him put his mouth on the dog.  Essentially, you’re creating a similar kind of tension to what exists at school minus the shame, guilt or judgment.  This tension, this mild one-minute frustration, will create awareness of your needs (you need to not see your son putting the dog’s tongue in his mouth).

Do this for a month, and then tell me if the behavior has changed significantly.

3.  Consider the situation with scientific instincts.

When they’re presenting a behavior (a problem behavior like tearing pages out of a book), they aren’t doing this because they need to tear. They’re doing it because they want to see what happens when they do that. It’s an experiment. When the parent sees the child tearing the pages out of the book and responds with, “No thank you, we don’t tear books.  Do you need something to tear?” (giving them paper to tear so the child can satisfy their need to tear something) they’re missing the point.  The child’s actions ask questions.  What will Daddy do when I do this?  Can I do this?  Is this allowed?

As we get older we tend to believe the rules and take more for granted.  We stop experimenting.  Someone tells us this is the right way, these are the rules, this is how it’s done, and we believe them.  For children, everything is new and must be tested independently by them alone.  They don’t care if you say hitting the other children is wrong or bad.  They are trying to learn the meaning of “wrong” and “bad.”  When they do it they get a reaction.  For example, the other child drops their toy, and you give them lots of excited and loving attention.

When you know your children’s behaviors are guided by healthy, scientific instincts it’s much easier not to become mad or judgmental in reaction to their behaviors.  Children aren’t acting out of some flawed moral compass or desire to hurt or disrespect you or others – they are learning!  To reason exhaustively with them, as many popular parenting approaches advocate, is like refusing to speak French when you are in France, and becoming annoyed when no one answers you.  Give your children data!  That’s what a scientist loves.

The Opposite of Thank You

I heard about a Buddhist philosopher recently asking a group, “What is the opposite of thank you?” After the listeners had offered a variety of responses he said to them, “The opposite of thank you is: you’re supposed to do that.” In others words, a feeling of entitlement. Living in the condition of thank you is happiness. Living in the condition of that’s what you’re supposed to do is suffering because you’ve set yourself up for constant disappointment.

I watched a woman reading to her three-year-old grandson, Ryan. Halfway through the book Ryan had chosen, he decided he wanted her to read a different book. Grandma said, “No. You chose this book and I want to finish this one.” Ryan whined and started to cry, “But I want the other one!” Ryan’s mother came over and said, “Come on Mom, why don’t you read him the other one?” But the older woman wouldn’t budge. “He needs to learn he’s not the only one around here,” she stated. By asserting her desires, Ryan’s grandma was insisting that he recognize her. She was instinctively trying to establish mutual recognition.

In order for Ryan to develop a healthy capacity for mutual recognition, the adults around him must be willing to have faith in his ability to survive disappointment and frustration. They must not let their fear or anxiety sway them toward indulgence. The fear implicit in Ryan’s mother’s impulse to give him what he wants in this situation is, What if he doesn’t develop a love of reading? or, What if he doesn’t learn to assert his wishes? Or, maybe just, I want this moment to be one of joy, not of disappointment.

The accumulation of so many moments when adults have yielded their wishes and desires to the wishes and desires of the child results in the imbalance toward children developing power over connection. While these moments, when viewed in isolation, appear harmless enough, the cumulative effect is a child who develops a very strong feeling about their entitlements and a very weak feeling about the needs of others.

When giving your child choices, remember that you must prepare her for being successful and happy at school. If home is a place of unlimited choices and accommodations and school is a place of limited choices and few accommodations, don’t be surprised when your child doesn’t like school.

The parenting practice that is closely tied to choices is regularly soliciting the child’s opinion. This can range from letting him choose what clothes he’ll wear to asking his preference of which restaurant to go to, to choosing what color to paint the kitchen.

Whether it’s the boy who wants to continue to wear his Halloween costume to school two weeks into November or the girl who refuses to wear anything but her favorite dress even though her mother hasn’t had a chance to wash it in five days, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a parent dragging a tearful, puffy-eyed kindergartener into school late after a long battle over what the child will wear.

Children who are given choices about everything learn to question anything they don’t prefer. This might seem fine for a tolerant parent at home, but by the time these children enter school it becomes extremely difficult to deal with their belief that their opinions are just as valuable, or more valuable, than the opinion of their teacher.

I’ve seen third grade math classes where children argue with the teacher about the way she’s teaching. This isn’t spirited discussion aimed at clearing up a lack of understanding, but rather an insistence that their way is correct and the teacher’s is not.

A veteran teacher approached me after a seminar I gave and said, “It’s like you’ve given us permission to be adults again.” As parents and teachers, we are encouraged to provide so many choices and to elicit so many opinions from our children that we are left feeling as though our opinions are less important than those of the kids. We are supposed to make everything fair, consider everyone’s opinion, see to it that no one is inconvenienced (except us), and that everyone’s needs are met, all while facilitating some great, chaotic democracy. But in the middle of all this have we forgotten that we are the adults? We should decide what is good and not good for our children.

Giving children choices and soliciting their opinions can have many positive effects only when you also regularly assert the needs, to which children must yield, of the others in the home. Additionally, you should be prepared to set and hold firmer, more tenacious boundaries to balance the powerful identity your child consequently develops.

Children who are given choices –and asked their opinions –about everything grow up feeling entitled. Children who are practiced in considering the wants and needs of others learn to live in the condition ofthank you.

ADHD Summer Camp

Nineteen years ago I was working as the Crisis Intervention Specialist at a summer camp for all-star behavior problem children.  There were about 280 children that came from all over the country and a few from other countries.  Most of them had been thrown out of several camps and schools before coming to us.

That summer I noticed that the biggest problems came up in the “Education Department”.  The teachers couldn’t keep any control or get anything done, there were constant arguments about behavior, and the kids hated being there.  I think I understood the sources of the problems so the next summer I came back as the Director of Education in charge of the program for myself and six other teachers.

There were three problems I sought to remedy.  First, the nature of the curriculum focused on learning in the modalities that were most difficult for them (sitting still, waiting your turn, keeping your hands to yourself, being quiet, etc.).  Second, there was judgment attached to the consequences and too much argument about behaviors.  Third, there was no effective means of reigning in the constant disruptive behavior in order to get anything satisfying done.

So I created a curriculum that required the children use their hands, move around, build things, call out, act things out and run around.  We built 12-foot tall freestanding dinosaur skeletons, played casino games with poker chips to learn math, acted out scripts to practice reading and learn history, and ran all over the camp during science and math scavenger hunts.

The next change I implemented was a clear behavior management system that utilized short breaks (time-outs) as its primary motivator.  If Billy kicked Jason under the table I’d say, “Billy I need you to take a break for a minute just over there.”  I wouldn’t engage any argument or discussion about the behavior.  If the child attempted to argue or got upset I’d tell them, “You’re not in trouble, and it’s no big deal, but you do need to take a break for a minute and I’m not discussing it.”  If they continued to argue I would double the break time.  If they needed to be taken from the room then the break was five minutes.

On the second day of class I’d add a warning prompt when a behavior was starting to become disruptive, “Do you need to take a break for a minute?”  This was a serious question, not sarcasm.  Children could always choose to step out of the lesson.  Occasionally, a student would say, “yes” to needing a break and take one.   The method communicated to the children that if they didn’t want to be in the lesson that was okay.  It was the student’s prerogative to choose to participate in the class or not.  It was the teacher’s prerogative to set and enforce the parameters of the lesson.

It took one or two hours of class time for this behavior system to start working smoothly.  At first the children got upset about getting a consequence and wanted to argue or tried to offer an apology or promise to stop the problem behavior in lieu of taking the one-minute break.  But soon they realized how simple and easy the small consequence was.  Because there were no long-term consequences when the break was over they returned to the activity of the group with fresh with a clean slate.  There was also an emotional relief because problem behaviors weren’t being pointed out or even mentioned at all.  These were children who were used to hearing about or discussing what they were doing wrong all day long.  If a child was upset about being given a break or didn’t understand why we would be happy to talk tot hem about it after they had taken the short break.  On average, once a week a child would choose to talk about he consequence they had just gotten.  I’d assumed correctly that these children would be able to figure out for themselves what had caused the small consequence.

By the third day of class the children would happily take the breaks that were given with very little argument, resistance or upset.  Sometimes in a class of 12 eight-year-old boys I might give 10 or 15 one-minute time-outs in a single lesson.  They would take the break at the end of which I’d ask them, “Are you ready to come back?”  “Yes” “Come on in” and they’d return eagerly to the lesson.

Classes became enormously productive.  The children were proud of what they were accomplishing.  There were no lectures, and almost no arguing, about behaviors.

Some of the most satisfying days occurred when the first half of camp ended and half the campers went home and were replaced with campers coming for the second half only.  The new classes were now composed of some children who were used to the program and some who were new to it.  When a new camper would become irritated or attempt to resist the one-minute break the veteran campers would coach them through it with, “It’s no big deal.  He’ll let you come right back” or “Your not in trouble.  You should take the minute” or “Don’t argue.  Joe never changes his mind.”

On visitor’s day many parents were shocked that the first place their children dragged them to see was Education.

The emotional judgment had effectively been taken out of the consequence.  The teachers had an effective tool with which to manage behaviors and teach.  The children were free from the emotional weight of constantly being reminded about what they had done wrong.  Great things were accomplished in class that every child was proud of.  The children did their best to self-regulate and respect their teachers and peers.

I’ve seen classrooms that have a clear and effective behavior management method but curricular content that is dry and boring.  I’ve also seen classrooms with exciting, well-varied curriculum and a poor or ineffective behavior management method.  And neither of these comes close to motivating and inspiring like a classroom that has both.

In the 18 years since that summer I’ve taught dozens of teachers to use immediate, nonjudgmental, short consequences to manage their classrooms.  And at the same time taught them how to drop the use of harsher, more punitive consequences, reward and point charts, behavior contracts, threats and judgmental or moralistic language.

Homework Tips

I get a lot of requests for advice on how to get children to to their homework.  Here’s some basics tips that I think make homework time easier.  Start using this pattern as early as possible.  The earlier you begin setting and holding a pattern for how homework is done the better.

Create a space to do homework. This place should be a desk or table that is free from other things/distractions. Do some trial and error to see what space works best. My daughter definitely worked best at the kitchen table. The mild tension created by the presence of others in or in and out of the room helped her stay focused. However, I’ve worked with families whose children worked best when they were at a desk, alone, in their room. If you do leave them alone to do their homework do a couple of weeks checking in on them during this time to make sure that their working and not doing something else.
I recommend that you don’t have a computer with internet access in your child’s room. My wife compares this to leaving your child outside in New York City at night.

Use homework to help your child develop their sense of time. Children do better in school if they have a good idea of what time means and how long common tasks in school take. Before homework time begins review the assignments and ask your child to estimate how long each assignment will take.

Set up a regular time and place for homework to be done. Everyday follow the routine below when doing homework.

1. Have your child take out all their homework. Have them do this at a table where you can see it.

2. Ask them to show you what they have to do and explain what’s required for each assignment. The parent should then examine the work and make sure the child understands correctly what the teacher is asking for. If your child doesn’t understand or misunderstands talk to them until they’re clear about it.

3. Have them write down the assignments and estimate how long it will take to do each (Math – 15 min., Spelling – 20 min., Science – 30 min, etc..)

4. Have your child order their assignments and place a number next to each to indicate the order. If the homework time is longer than 30 minutes you can also let them choose when to insert a short break (2nd Math – 15 min., 1st Spelling – 20 min., 3rd Break – 10 minutes, 4th Science – 30 min, etc..).

5. Now they do their homework. Have your child check in with you after finishing each assignment and take a moment to review the work with them and see how close their time estimate was. Have them write the actual number of minutes it took next to the assignment on their list (2nd Math – 15 min.(5), 1st Spelling – 20 (35) min., 3rd Break – 10 minutes, 4th Science – 30 min. (12), etc..). This step will help your child learn to tell time, and perhaps more importantly, it will help them develop a sense of how long various tasks actually take. This is an invaluable skill at school when a teacher tells them they have x number of minutes to complete an assignment.

6. When the work is completed watch them put it away into their notebooks/folders and put everything into their backpack so it’s ready for school. While this step may seem obvious, a high percentage of homework that children finish never makes it to school. In the morning rush to get everything done and ready for school homework is often left at home.


Little Stalker

I recently talked with a mom whose seven-year-old son, Jacob, would become enamored with girls at school and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.  Once he fell for a girl (usually a year or two older) he’d transform into a little stalker, relentlessly wanting to play with them, constantly trying to strike up a conversation and even sneaking up to kiss them when they weren’t looking.  It didn’t seem to matter whether the girls told him “no” politely or abruptly Jacob was undaunted in his pursuit of their affections.

Jacob didn’t have any problem taking “no” for an answer in other social situations.  In fact, he seemed to be socially astute and respected the boundaries of peers and adults.  His mom sat him down several times and tried to explain to him the importance of respecting the wishes of the girls he liked and listening when they told him “no”.  Although Jacob seemed to understand this, he had a harder time understanding that the girls actually didn’t like him.  After one conversation about this he was reduced to tears and inconsolable for almost ten minutes.  Thirty minutes later when he saw the girl in question he tried to kiss her when her head was turned.

Things came to a head when Jacob’s mother discovered he’d gotten the girls phone number from the online PTA directory and was now calling her at home despite the girl repeatedly telling him she didn’t want to talk to him.

Now I’ve known this family for some time and know that her son has been raised surrounded by loving, attentive women.  There was a nanny that was with her son whenever mom was working and a grandma who doted on him.  So I asked the mom, “Before he went to school was there ever a woman or girl who didn’t welcome his affections?”  “No” she immediately responded.  “And when he wants your attention to talk or show you what he’s doing or interested in, do you try to always be available?”  “Yes.  And I know Maria (the nanny) is the same with him.  It’s a very rare that I won’t give him my full attention if he wants it”, she said.

So for her son the idea that a woman might not want his attention and welcome his affections was completely out of his realm of experience.  The conversations his mother or teacher might have with him about “no mean no” must be weighed against his years of experience that taught him “women/girls always welcome my affections.”  The bottom line was the history of his interactions with women outweighed any conversation about boundaries.

It’s a common myth that if a child is misbehaving it’s because they don’t understand how they’re supposed to behave.  So we’re surprised when after a rational conversation the problem behavior continues.  But behaviors don’t have to be “appropriate” or “good” for a child to choose them.  They just have to work.  All the rational conversation and explanation in the world won’t change the fact that 99.9% of the time when Jacob has wanted the affections and attentions of females he’s gotten it.  “No” isn’t part of his experience, and experience trumps reason.

Jacob’s “little stalker” behavior is a natural result of his experiences, not a sign of an inability to understand social norms and cues.  And his behavior will change as he accumulates experiences that contradict his previous ones.  His mom and I talked about setting consequences for his “stalker behavior” that could speed up the realization that Jacob needed to come to, namely that his not taking “no” for an answer wasn’t going to work for him any more.

Our conversation about his led to a discussion about the experience an affluent, only-child has versus that of a less affluent child in a big family.  My wife, who is fifth of six children, commented that being aware of social cues was part of surviving when she was a child.  Her mother had five others to feed, cloth and attend to so if she wanted attention, or even her share of dinner, she needed to stay aware of those around her.  From a very young age it was important for her to read the social cues and know how to communicate her needs effectively to those around her.

On the other hand, many children today have parents that are so attentive to their needs that there’s not much need for them to become aware of the needs of others or the social cues around them.  While there’s inevitably a lot of healthy development in children with such attentive parents there’s a downside to not needing to consider others.

Much of our children’s behavior and thinking about things is a direct outgrowth of their experiences in the home.  Just as parents of children in bigger families should make special efforts to make sure no child’s needs get lost in the shuffle, parents of only-children and affluent parents should make special efforts to create situations for children to postpone or let go of having some of their needs met in order to meet the needs of others.