Raising a naughty child
Susan DeMersseman, Ph.D.
My work and my life have given me a window into this worthy pursuit, doing a good job of raising a child who is naughty. At the school where I’m the psychologist I’m sought out to help with naughty children and in some cases to be the advocate for them.
I use the term naughty for many reasons. It covers a multitude of behaviors, but I also like the “old fashioned” quality it imparts to behavior that was once described in less pathology laced terms.
Before we had initials that described all sorts of syndromes and diagnoses, kids were naughty or they had “ants in their pants” or they were quirky. Some were mischievous or clueless or immature. Back then they were kids, now, with the increase in “parenting” as an almost competitive or professional endeavor, they are sometimes viewed as our products. We feel, and often are, judged harshly for the imperfect products.
In this context I try to help people have a sense of proportion. Yes, there is ADD and ADHD and OCD and ODD and CAPD. I don’t disagree with this, but there is also naughty behavior in and out of the labels and we, as parents, need some understanding and support in trying to deal with it.
Years ago I attended a presentation by Dr. Stephen Hinshaw, one of the foremost national experts on ADD and ADHD. I asked him for both personal and professional reasons, “What variables are most likely to determine a ‘good outcome’ with ADHD kids?” I loved his response and have shared it often in my workshops and in my office. His answer, “A mother who is firm and affirming.”
A naughty kid often gets so much correction and criticism at school. Even if much of it is deserved, it can create its own problem. A colleague shared the research that ADD and naughty kids can become defiant, because they get so agitated by always being scolded and put down. I’ve seen that happen, and I have also seen kids become what they were blamed for. The busy kid can become the class pariah or the “usual suspect.” After the teacher calls a name a few hundred times, the classmates simply perceive that child as “the one”. I’ve seen these kids get blamed for things when they were absent on that day. A principal I worked with shared the story of once being called at home about her son’s misbehavior that day. She was delighted to share the fact that he was home sick, on the sofa beside her.
I don’t believe that we should ignore bad behavior, but we who work in schools must be careful, by our behavior not to create “the usual suspect.” I once worked with a teacher who would not allow her students to call out a complaint about another child. They had to come quietly and report. She tried not to correct in a public way. Her motto was “praise in public and correct in private.”
As parents of naughty kids, how do we convey our displeasure and still be positive with our children? It is indeed a balancing act --firm and affirming. That was my challenge for several years. I had to be firm, but when the school had been biased or overly harsh I had to be more affirming, even put the child back together at the end of a day when blame was not fairly assigned. My children often thought I was too firm and complained that if there was trouble, I always asked first thing what they did wrong. Sometimes they felt like I was not in their corner. They came to understand that I was trying to help them see their part in any problem and a route to a solution.
At times I coached, “Fly below the teacher’s radar.” Only to realize that the teacher’s radar was locked on a child. I could never dismiss or dilute the teacher’s authority, lest it be seen as license, but sometimes it was hard to find that perfect balance. Sometimes the only thing that helped was reassuring them and myself that the time with this teacher was temporary and that from the experience my child would find a challenge to grow from.
In my heart I brewed and stewed and swore that I would go ballistic if one of those teachers ever tried to take credit for my child’s eventual success. It did once occur in the form of a note in the mail, saying she knew he would someday turn out great. My ballistic response was quashed by my son’s gracious reaction, his forgiving nature and his good heart. I think firm and affirming might have worked.
More than once I’ve told my grown son that many other little kids have benefited from the struggles he dealt with when he was little. In workshops mothers often come up and thank me for the practical and reassuring outlook. Some appreciate “permission” to be very selective about attending certain social events with their hyper little child. Missing an event will cause less regret than having to deal with the dessert table crashing down as your child hides beneath in a game of tag with other children. No, it never happened to me, but I could see it as possible. Parents have also been helped by the metaphor of horsepower. Rather than trying to reduce that, we might do better to help our busy child improve the transmission, steering and brakes
Sometimes other parents criticize the parents of the naughty child because they do not discipline the child strictly in public. It is often the case that the parents prefer to handle it in private rather than making an unpleasant scene for all present. I encourage this. The opposite, making a show of how strict and firm you are in public, is not a good idea.
Be firm, set boundaries, have consequences, rehearse appropriate behavior, set up reward charts, choose social events carefully, and whenever you see the goodness that you know is in there notice it, pay attention to it, affirm it.
When my role at school has included discipline, one of my most effective lines to a child in trouble is, “That’s not like you.” 90% of the time I’m telling the truth and even when it’s a stretch, it works much better than, “There you go again.” Children rely upon us for their identity. To be viewed as a decent person who made a bad or thoughtless choice is a valuable gift to any child, naughty or not.