When Children Drive You Crazy

Your home doesn’t have to be a battle zone pitting parents against children. Here are some ideas for making peace.

It will come as no surprise to parents, I’m sure, that children can be quite gifted at power games. These contests begin in earnest when children are between 12 and 15 months of age. Some get started even earlier. If you’ve ever watched a very young child continue to reach for an electric power point or television control while his mother shouts, “No!” you’ve seen a power game in progress.

It is probably not a conscious process at this stage, but later it will be. I’m convinced that a strong-willed child of 3 or older is inclined to challenge his mum and dad whenever he believes he can win. He will carefully choose the weapons and select the turf on which the contest will be staged. I’ve called these arenas “the battlefields of childhood.” Let’s look at some of the common battles that have gone down in family history.

Bedtime

One of the earliest contests begins at 18 months and one day–give or take a few hours. At precisely that time, a toddler who has gone to bed without complaining since he was born will suddenly say, “I’m not getting back to bed” or “I’m not tired.”

That is the opening shot in what may be a five-year battle. It happens so quickly and unexpectedly that parents may be fooled by it. They will check for teething problems, a low-grade fever or some other discomfort. “Why now?” they ask. I don’t know. It just suddenly occurs to toddlers that they don’t want to go to bed anymore, and they will fight it tooth and nail.

Although the tactics change a bit, bedtime will continue to be a battlefield for years to come. Any creative 6-year-old can delay going to bed for at least 45 minutes by an energetic and well-conceived system of delaying tactics. By the time his mother gets his pyjamas on, brings him six glasses of water, takes him to the bathroom twice, reads him his bedtime stores, and then scolds him for wandering out of his bedroom a time or two, she is thoroughly exhausted. It happens night after night.

A college friend of mine named Jim found himself going through this bedtime exercise every evening with his 5-year-old son, Paulie. Jim recognised the tactics as a game and decided he didn’t want to play anymore. “When parents are desperately trying to avoid punishment, their level of irritation reaches a dangerous level.” He sat down with his son that evening and said, “Now, Paulie, things are going to be different tonight. I’m going to get you dressed for bed; you can have a drink of water, and then we’ll read a story together. When that is done, I’m walking out the door, and I don’t intend to come back. Don’t call me again. I don’t want to hear a peep from you until morning. Do you understand?” Paulie said, “Yes, Daddy.”

When the chores and bedtime reading were completed, final hugs were exchanged and the lights were turned out. Jim told his son good night and left the room. Sweet silence prevailed in the house. But not for long. In about five minutes, Paulie called his father and asked for another drink of water. “No way, Paulie,” said his dad. “Don’t you remember what I said? Now go to sleep.”

After several minutes, Paulie appealed again for a glass of water. Jim was more irritated this time. He spoke sharply and advised his son to forget it. But the boy would not be put off. He waited for a few minutes and then called out again. Every time Paulie called his dad, Jim became more irritated. Finally, he said, “If you ask for water one more time I’m going to come in there and spank you!”

That quieted the boy for about five minutes, and then he said, “Daddy, when you come in here to spank me would you bring me a glass of water please?”

The child got the water. He did not get the spanking.

Food

The dinner table is another major battlefield of childhood, but it should be avoided. I have strongly advised parents not to get suckered into this arena. It is an ambush. A general always wants to engage the other army in a place where he can win, and mealtime is a lost cause.

A mother who puts four green beans on a fork and resolves to sit there until the child eats them is in a powerless position. The child can outlast her. And because meals come around three times a day, he will eventually prevail.

Instead of begging, pleading, bribing and threatening a child, I recommend that you place good foods before him cheerfully. If he chooses not to eat, then smile and send him on his way. He’ll be back. When he returns, take the same food out of the refrigerator, heat it and set it before him again. Sooner or later, he will get hungry enough to eat. Do not permit snacking or substituting sweets for nutritious foods. But also do not fear the physical effects of hunger. A child will not starve in the presence of good things to eat. There is a gnawing feeling inside that changes one’s attitude from “Yuck!” to “Yum!” usually within a few hours.

Schoolwork

Perhaps there is no greater source of conflict between generations today than schoolwork, and especially that portion assigned to be done at home. This is another battlefield where all the advantages fall to the youngster.

Only he knows for sure what was assigned and how the work is supposed to be done. The difficult child will capitalise on this information gap between home and school, claiming that “I finished my homework at school,” or “I have nothing to do tonight.”

Parents should know that most students go through an academic valley sometime between Standard 6 and Form 3 in school. Some will quit working altogether during this time. Others will merely decrease their output. Very few will remain completely unaffected.

The reason is the massive assault made on adolescent senses by the growing-up process. Self-confidence is shaken to its foundation. Happy hormones crank into action, and sex takes over center stage. Who can think about school with all that going on? Or better yet, who wants to? As parents, you should watch for this diversion and not be dismayed when it comes.

Vacations and Special Days

Tell me why it is that children are the most obnoxious and irritating on vacations and during other times when we are specifically trying to please them? By all that is fair and just, you would expect them to think, “Boy! Mum and Dad are really doing something nice for us. They are taking us on this expensive vacation when they could have spent the money on themselves. And Dad would probably have preferred to go fishing or do something else he wanted. But they care about us and have included us in their plans. Wow! I’m going to be as nice and as cooperative as possible. I’ll try to get along with my sister, and I won’t make any unusual demands. What a fun trip this will be!”

Do children think that way? Fat chance! There is no such thing as intergenerational gratitude.

Before the family has even left town, the troops are fighting over who gets to sit by the window and which one will hold the pet cat. Sister yells, “I’m telling!” every few minutes.

“Perhaps there is no greater source of conflict between generations today than school work, and especially that portion assigned to be done at home.”

Tensions are also building in the front seat. By the time they get to Penang, Dad is ready to blow up. It was tough enough for him to complete his office work and pack the car. But this bickering is about to drive him crazy. For 300 odd km, he has endured arguments, taunts, jabs, pinches, tears, tattling and unscheduled bathroom breaks.

Now he’s starting to lose control. Twice he swings wildly at writhing bodies in the back seat. He misses and hurts his shoulder. He’s driving faster by this time, but he’s quit talking. The only clues to what he’s feeling are his bloodshot eyes and the occasional twitch in his left cheek. Happy vacation, Pop. Only 13 days to go.

When parents are desperately trying to avoid punishment, their level of irritation reaches a dangerous level. By then, anything can happen. That is why I have contended that those who oppose corporal punishment on the grounds that it leads to child abuse are wrong. By stripping parents of the ability to handle frustrating behaviour at an early stage, they actually increase the possibility that harm will be done as tempers rise.

Before we leave the matter of family vacations, let’s deal with why it is that children seem to become more obnoxious on those special days. There are two good reasons for it. First, adults and children alike tend to get on each other’s nerves when they are cooped up together for extended periods of time. But also, a difficult child apparently feels compelled to re-examine the boundaries whenever he thinks they may have moved.

This was certainly true of our children. On days when we planned trips or other holidays, we could count on them to become testy. It was as though they were obliged to ask, “Since this is a special day, what are the rules now?”

We would sometimes have to punish or scold them during times when we were specifically trying to build relationships. Perhaps that’s why Erma Bombeck said, “The family that plays together gets on one another’s nerves.”

The Ramifications of Power

To repeat our thesis, these trouble spots between generations are not simply matters of differing opinion. If the conflicts amounted to no more than that, then negotiation and compromise would resolve them very quickly. Instead, they represent staging areas where the authority of the parent can be challenged and undermined.

What do we recommend, then? Should parents retain every vestige of power for as long as possible? No! Even with its risk, self-determination is a basic human right, and we must grant it systematically to our children. To withhold that liberty too long is to cause wars of revolution to start.

This, then, is our goal as parents: we must not transfer power too early, even if our children take us daily to the battlefield. Mothers who make that mistake are some of the most frustrated people on the face of the earth.

On the other hand, we must not retain parental power too long, either. Control will be torn from our grasp if we refuse to surrender it voluntarily. The granting of self-determination should be matched stride for stride with the arrival of maturity, culminating with complete release during early adulthood.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? We all know better. I consider this orderly transfer of power to be one of the most delicate and difficult responsibilities in the entire realm of parenthood.


This article was written by Focus on the Family Malaysia and the Questions and Answers are extracted from The Complete Marriage & Family Home Reference Guide by Dr. James Dobson with permission. 

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