A Reader Asks
My son is 2 years and 10 months. He is a bright, affectionate, patient, obedient child. Or at least he was until about 3–4 weeks ago. At that point he decided to start fighting me on EVERYTHING. Today I told him that he couldn’t wear his shoes upstairs (he never wears his shoes in the house, far less upstairs, and he was already wearing just socks) and he threw himself down on the stairs pouting. I told him to come talk to me, and when I picked him up he refused to look at me, and when I made him, he started screaming.
Then I told him he needed to eat his carrots at lunchtime (vegetables have been our number one battle his entire life, but had been going great the last year or so), and he had a gigantic tantrum. He screamed and yelled and refused to do it. I gave him mild spankings, then he went back to the table and still refused. I told him he could go eat by himself and he told me no. So I gave him a good spanking and he laid across my lap screaming “NO! NO! I DON’T LIKE IT!!!!” continually, refusing to be quiet. Eventually he gave in, but he was still angry, not repentant.
He will throw fits about the craziest things. Yesterday we went to the park, and my mom (who had played with him the whole time) asked if he had a good time. He definitely had, but decided to say “No!” I told him that wasn’t true and it wasn’t polite and he needed to say “Yes, thank you.” He refused and threw himself down on the ground and made me drag him to the car (although he stood up right quick when I accidentally drug him through dog poop). Once in the car he tried to fight me on getting buckled and then tried to hit me.
He never used to hit me, but in the last week it is like his tantrums are not effective so he is trying more intense techniques. He refuses to answer me when I talk to him if he doesn’t feel like it. Any time I ask him to do something he doesn’t want to do, he throws himself on the floor either in a pouty lump (which to me is a quiet tantrum) or in a full-on screaming tantrum.
The only thing that has changed is that we have a new baby in the house (temporarily—we do foster care to adopt babies), but she arrived at the beginning of December and his attitude didn’t go off until the beginning of February.
I can spank him for ten minutes and he is still screaming angrily at me to stop. Today my HAND has a broken blood vessel. I know you suggest a plumber’s pipe, but my husband bought one that was way too big so I hate to use it, and end up using my hand most of the time.
[Note from Mike: I have never suggested a plumber’s pipe be used to spank a child. That was the fabrication of a sodomite reporter for Salon magazine, picked up and quoted by The New York Times and repeated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, another anti-Christian sodomite, and repeated again by Dr. Drew, the BBC, and two dozen other media outlets. In my book To Train Up a Child, I wrote of how I saw an Amish woman wearing a ¼-inch plastic plumber’s supply line around her neck on a string to be ready at hand when needed. It is flexible and will roll up in your pocket or purse. It is not PVC and it is not a pipe. I suggest any small instrument that is light and will not cause damage to tissue—like a kitchen utensil: spatula, wooden spoon, ¼-inch dowel rod, etc., but not your hand.]
I don’t know what to do. I give him lots of love and affection, and I spend pretty much all my time with him. I TRY to use a friendly voice when giving direction (which gets hard to do when you know a battle is coming), and I try really hard to never spank in anger (although after ten minutes I am pretty close to angry!).
I have started sending him to his room the rest of the day after two episodes, because frankly I can’t deal with any more, but I don’t know if that is productive or not.
I know I was similar as a child, but my mother was never able to break me of it, and I still struggle every day with my defiant attitude toward my husband. I know it is a terrible example, and I accept this might be part of the problem and am working on it, but I don’t think it is the WHOLE problem.
Is there something I am missing? I have To Train Up a Child but have misplaced it (I tend to stuff it away somewhere when I know the social workers are coming over, because while I think it is a wonderful training manual, I know they might beg to differ).
I guess my main question is: how much spanking is too much? Should I punish him for the pouting, or just let it go? It seems like such a defiant, bad attitude to me, but am I expecting too much? Is it wrong to give a warning when his behavior is wrong? Should I just spank him and let the switch tell the story?
Please help me! I miss my sweet little boy, and I desperately want him back.
I want to clarify, I don’t spank him nonstop for ten minutes straight. I spank him a few times, tell him to stop screaming, wait ten to thirty seconds, and if he isn’t trying to obey I spank him a few more times, and so on. I give him a swat every time he screams no (or something similar) at me. But I’m not whaling on him for ten minutes, it just takes a ten-minute block of time sometimes for him to submit.
The principle you are attempting to follow is traditional, intuitive, and biblical. It works for most people, but right now it is not working for you. So something is missing. I am not suggesting that you are a bad parent. There are many variables that may be beyond your control or understanding. Many parents will have great success on their first two or three children and then out of nowhere, as if the new child is a different species, they have inexplicable trouble just as you describe. The usual methods fail to produce good results. Like you, they will have self-doubt and be perplexed, blaming themselves.
Good parents who suddenly experience the exact same exacerbating behavior have asked me what they can do to help their child. Unless I could observe your interaction with the child and hear your answers to several questions, I could not even begin the process of understanding what is missing. So I will use the shotgun approach.
In some rarer cases the child’s normal propensity to selfishness is not readily conquered because of some underlying physical deficiency, causing a chemical imbalance in the brain.
Sometimes the behavior you describe is triggered by a change in the social setting, like conflict in the home, or, as you indicated, the introduction of a baby that the child perceives to be a threat to his station.
Sometimes it is the result of sexual or physical abuse that provokes angry behavior. A child left to himself, not part of a vital circle of fellowship (causing low self-esteem), will act out because he doesn’t have any allegiance to the family group. You cannot measure the appropriate level of fellowship based on what your other children required. Every child is different in temperament, some requiring additional affirmation that they are cherished.
But most common is the fact that children in their third year discover their autonomy and learn they can manipulate their environment for the advancement of pleasure, and they resent anyone who says no to them or who resists their self-indulgence. In attempting to address this defiance, sometimes parents trigger a competitiveness in the child that causes him to stand his ground in defiance. It takes much more effort to get the little rebel to lay down his arms. It is a special case that seems to defy the normal principles of child training. But there is a way.
Restating Child Training Principles
For the sake of our readers, especially those who are new to our material, I will briefly state the concept of traditional, common-sense child training. Children, like adults, are complex souls of conflicting drives and emotions. They come into the world with all of the passion and lust but with none of the wisdom or self-control. To say it another way, small children have a gas pedal but no steering wheel and no will to apply the brakes. Infants, toddlers, and small children require steering and restraint. Parents must apply the brakes from time to time whether the children like it or not. Children must be made to submit to the oversight of caretakers, for “a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame” (Proverbs 29:15b).
When children are a little older (4 or 5) they are more responsive to being guided through reason and modeled behavior, but when they are two or three years old, reason is about as useful as a set of encyclopedias. Furthermore, good modeling goes unnoticed by a 2-year-old, whereas bad modeling seems to be very contagious at any age, more so when they are very young. A 2-year-old will pick up a lousy attitude like a cold in a toy store.
All psychologists and so-called “child rearing experts” agree that parents and caretakers must set boundaries, or “limits” as they sometimes call them. They also agree that parents must “enforce” those boundaries. One psychologist says, “If you don’t set and stick to clear limits, your kids will push and push until they get their way.” But the professionals don’t offer any definitive means that parents can employ to “enforce” limits. “Time outs,” where children are sent into isolation for a period of time, are not enforcement; they are abdication of authority to the attrition of time. The entire Bible verse quoted above is: “The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame” (Proverbs 29:15).
All authorities must have the power to force compliance by means of layered and measured negative consequences; otherwise limits and boundaries are dismissible personal preferences. Policemen will give you a ticket. Schools and universities will fail you. Judges will sentence you to prison. Employers will fire you. The IRS will take everything you own. If at two o’clock in the morning you don’t observe the boundary that is your neighbor’s back door he may shoot you. Children without enforced boundaries grow up to be selfish losers or, worse, criminals. And they will likely be as poor as a Democrat in the inner city.
If you are going to prepare your children to live in the real world of boundaries, you must model the home after the rules they must play by when they enter the real world. You do that by having rules and consistent consequences. That is, when they cross the red line they should meet with irresistible force, as they will in society.
Children will test the boundaries by various means until they discover the weakness of the authority, and then they double down on independent selfish action until they are in control and can indulge with minimal consequences.
Now this is key to understanding the tantrums of a child. When parents are not consistent in forcing compliance, or when the consequences are not of sufficient severity to discourage bad behavior, the child’s heart is hardened against the concept of the rule of law. When parents administer discipline only at the end of an intolerance curve so that the child is sometimes allowed to break the rules with impunity, he gets a taste of the autonomous indulgence and takes it to be his due, his right. If it feels good, he does it. If it doesn’t feel good, he refuses, and he gets away with his rebellion often enough to love it like a gambler loves gambling when he wins only 10% of the time. The obsession to win—or, in the child’s case, to indulge—is so powerful and addictive that the child will suffer the half-hearted consequences 90% of the time in anticipation of breaking free on those occasions when he is not punished. Therefore, the child will never appreciate or accept the times when consequences are enforced. Conversely, he will feel that he is being treated unjustly, because he has developed a permissive worldview in which consequences have no place. He is like a hippie in college on an irrevocable fixed income. If you dare step between him and his autonomous indulgence, he will hate you for it, believing you just want him to be miserable. When that happens, spankings cease to be effective and produce more resentment and anger.
Generally speaking, spanking is only effective on small children who have not yet developed the ability to comprehend logical exhortation—up to four or five years old. There are exceptions, but space does not allow us to visit that subject further. See my books: To Train Up a Child and No Greater Joy, volumes 1–3.
Observation in answer to the letter
… He feels he is being treated unjustly, so he is treating you as an enemy whom he wants to defy and hurt.
You expressed concern that your spankings may be inappropriate given the fact that they are not working. Your instinct is correct. All forms of discipline are effective only when they result in a good attitude. Conformity of actions is not our goal, rather conformity of attitude.
Normally, a child who is discipline or spanked will surrender his will, resulting in a purging of conscience and cheerfulness from a sense that all indebtedness is paid and the rule of law prevails. Forced obedience is necessary to break the stubbornness of the child, but, as you well know, if it fails to result in a gentle spirt, it is counterproductive.
There are several questions I would need answered before I could determine the right mixture and dosage. Sometimes we do the right things but we do them disproportionally or out of order. In the end, raising children is an art form administered from the heart; it must be intuitive. Hard, fast rules or procedures blindly administered are not likely to be effective.
- Is your son natural born to you or adopted? There are many reasons why adopted children can be much harder to raise.
- I would ask, but you already told me that your son’s rebellion is not aimed at you only but is general, as expressed in the way he responded to your mother concerning the playground.
- What is his attitude toward the new baby? Are you including him in the parenting and nurturing of the new child? You should.
- Does he have times when he manifests a quiet, gentle, compliant spirit? Is his rebellion fairly constant or is there a trigger?
- You didn’t say anything about the father. What role does he play? What is their relationship?
- Is he the first born or first adopted child? If he is adopted, at what age did that occur? If adopted, what were his physical and mental conditions before you received him?
- Does he interact with other children? How so? Is it just authority he rebels against or does he express a general state of hostility?
My books, CDs, and MP3s express the ageless principles of child training that have proven to work extremely well in millions of homes when properly understood and applied. But children are not simple machines that can be properly assembled by following the directions. And parents are not all created equal. I cannot tell you exactly what you need to do, feel, or say that will work magic in your situation. The simple, correct answer has proven to be effective in the great majority of cases, but we are complex creatures, sometimes with indefinable inadequacies. In the final analysis, you must learn all you can and then follow your heart and intuition.
What I Would Do
If I were to take in a foster child (which we did for about fifteen years) who acted as your son does, and I were allowed to spank and discipline as I saw fit (which is never the case with foster children), I would start by winning the little guy’s heart, causing him to be addicted to my fellowship, putting him in a position where my approval and praise become the most important thing in his life. That is not achieved by sentimental praise and approval. It is achieved by sharing the daily events of home and family. It is achieved by engaging him in the fellowship of overcoming a challenge together—like moving a washing machine away from the wall so you can clean behind it, or carrying the trash to the street together, or painting a picture, baking a cake, etc.
Since spanking and severe reprimand would just confirm his sense of isolation and feed his “me vs. them” worldview, I would apply a different form of ultimate force until I had gained his confidence and admiration.
The principle is that you as the lawgiver must win all contests of will. You must be the chief potentate and he the obedient servant to the rule of law. He will still be a boy and still be self-willed under the best of circumstances. There will still be showdowns and confrontations. Where spanking would normally resolve a contest of wills in a matter of seconds, you will have to be more creative and take a lot of extra time.
You Provided An Example
“Then I told him he needed to eat his carrots at lunchtime (vegetables have been our number-one battle his entire life, but had been going great the last year or so) and he had a gigantic tantrum. He screamed and yelled and refused to do it. I gave him mild spankings, then he went back to the table and still refused. I told him he could go eat by himself and he told me no.”
You set this contest up for failure. I have repeatedly said and written, “Never create a challenge to make a child eat something he doesn’t want.” To win that contest you may have to resort to an induced coma and tube feeding [For all my enemies, that’s a joke]. Pick your contests. In the early stages of training, make far fewer demands; completely ignore many things that concern you but need not be made into a contest where you could lose.
How could you have addressed the eating situation? When children have a great variety of things to eat, and they can eat tasty snacks between meals, why would they eat carrots now when they just had junk food two hours ago and will have junk food again in a couple hours? Their favorite meals are between meals. The eating contest is cured when you go shopping. Sugar is more addictive than heroin. Never buy anything processed, and purge your home of all sugary products. Serve healthy food only and snacks can be leftovers. Then the child will know that you are not holding out on him and there is nothing tasty hidden in the cabinet that he may get with enough begging and whining. He can eat anything in the house. In time he will get hungry and eat his spinach and carrots. If he complains, just smile and say, “That’s okay, you don’t have to eat it; eat what you want and we will save the rest for dinner.” You win. He loses. You are boss. No spanking. He makes the right choice eventually—when he gets hungry enough.
Another Example You Provided
“Today I told him that he couldn’t wear his shoes upstairs (he never wears his shoes in the house, far less upstairs, and he was already wearing just socks) and he threw himself down on the stairs pouting. I told him to come talk to me, and when I picked him up he refused to look at me, and when I made him, he started screaming.”
When you know how he is going to respond to a challenge, don’t show up as the opposing team to battle it out. Anticipating his reaction, arrange circumstances to your advantage. Once you have told him not to wear his shoes upstairs, turn away and ignore his response. He “threw himself down on the stairs pouting” is a form of speech and manipulation. It worked. You took the bait, allowing him to manipulate your emotions further. He refused to look at you because, as a rebel, he was compelled to win the contest of wills. If he couldn’t best you in the shoe game, he would best you by not assuming the compliant spirit you expected. When you lose your cheerfulness and cut off the fellowship in frustration, he wins. It is the same spirit seen in a terrorist who blows himself up to make a point or the monk who sets himself on fire in the streets. He wins the contest of wills by his ultimate sacrifice. The worst thing you can do with a group of rowdy protesters is take notice.
Once you command him to not wear his shoes upstairs, turn and walk away smiling. All is well. You won. Remember, if a child falls down in a protest pout and no one hears or sees it, there was no protest. Here he is on the stairs pouting and you are in the kitchen singing and having fun, not caring one way or the other. You won.
I was once babysitting a child who threw himself down in protest, and when I pretended to ignore it and turned away, he jumped up and got around in front of me, repeating the display of disappointment. I laughed to myself and walked in the bedroom, again ignoring the protest. To my amazement and great entertainment, he followed me into the bedroom, jumped in front of me, and repeated his brokenhearted response, throwing himself down like it was the first time. This time I good naturedly laughed at him and dismissed his response as a source of entertainment. He got up and walked away, never trying that form of hate speech on me again. I won. And best of all, he won in character development.
What if he did defy you and wear his shoes upstairs? Then express alarm and grab the vacuum cleaner. Sternly and quickly rebuke him, and then cheerfully and hastily relieve him of his shoes—five seconds. Pay no attention to his response, and ask him to help you vacuum the floor where he walked. While vacuuming, express your concern for the soiled floor in a tone of camaraderie. Maintain a “we are in this together to keep our floor clean” attitude. You won. He lost. Remember, if you don’t see a pout, it didn’t happen.
“He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In.”
—Edwin Markham, from the poem “Outwitted”
In normal parenting, one swat with a switch and the shoes stay downstairs. All is well and there is no attitude problem. But for reasons yet undetermined, yours is a special situation that will require a heart of patience and a good deal of creativity. Others in your situation have overcome; you can as well.