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The Return of the Volleyball Bawler

December 15, 1997

As I sat on the sidelines of the volleyball court, I observed a good example of child training. A young mother of three children was playing ball when she saw her eighteen-month-old daughter being steered toward the court by a small child about five years old. They were coming from across the grounds where the children had been playing. The little one was not crying, but all her body language indicated she had been in distress. When she got within hollering range the five-year-old began to explain that the little one had fallen on the ground. When the eighteen-month-old became aware that her mother was now focused on her, she began to cry in earnest. At this point I started taking mental notes. Would the mother train her child to be independent and tough, or would she train her to be a crybaby and a whiner?
As the mother stopped playing and showed some concern, the child increased the volume of her crying. When the mother hollered to her that it was alright, that she should return to her playing, the cry then became desperate and defiant. The demand in the little voice was quite evident. It was not an “I’m hurt and in pain.” It was a “You better pay attention to me, or I’ll make you wish you had.”
Watching this all-too-familiar proceeding, they had my full attention. Would the little girl control her mother? Would guilt move the mother to inappropriate action? The child was no longer hurting. She didn’t need medical attention. She did not cry until she saw her mother looking at her. Her crying increased as a means of enforcing her desire for attention. People were now looking on. How are mothers supposed to act in a situation like this? “What do they expect me to do?” The question a mother should be asking is, “What is best for my child?”
This mother has developed some wisdom from her previous children, so, as she left the court, she pulled a switch from a tree. The little girl, seeing her mother’s response, suddenly diminished her crying. By the time the mother got to the child she had stopped crying altogether. Mother made one token swat at the child and then spoke a word of exhortation, which included, “Stop crying and go back to playing.” The swat hardly made contact and did not invoke further crying. Quite the contrary, the little girl immediately dried it up and turned to play.
Now you may be impressed with this level of control. Many of you would be glad to have as much control as this mother. But I want you to know that this is only half training. While this mother was training her daughter to stop crying, she was also training her to commence crying and wait for a rebuke—only then would she stop crying. If you could end every whining/crying spell with a quick rebuke and a token swat, you would feel successful. But what if you trained her so that when she fell down or when there was a potential for being distraught, the child just got up, dusted herself off, and continued to play? Wouldn’t that be much better?
Remember the rule of child training: Never reward the child’s undesirable behavior and the behavior ceases to be desirable to the child. Children repeat actions that give some measure of reward. The reward need not come every time. One time out of ten is enough for a child to keep trying. That mother is either not consistent, or her responses are not sufficiently negative. The child would stop her demanding wail and her stumbling, pitiful presentation to mother if it were always without reward.
Back to our illustration. When the mother stopped playing and approached the child with kindly rebuke and a token swatting, the child did, in a small measure, get her way. She may have hoped for more, and may occasionally get more, but that little attention is sufficient to keep her whining and keep her returning for the ten seconds of attention.
You may feel sympathy for the child and say, “Well the poor child obviously needs attention; the mother should give it to her.” Yes, children need much attention, but should they be allowed to demand it with a whine or a pretended hurt? If you allow such to be the occasion for affection, you are perverting something wholesome. You are reinforcing negative behavior. Those of us who have been parents for a while and have successfully raised kids are not impressed with children’s self-pity. They will get the attention they need, but not on such warped terms.
How could the mother entirely eliminate this negative behavior? Do not give the child any of what she wants. Tell her to stop crying, “Now!,” and without making sympathetic eye contact, go to her and switch her on the leg (one lick) so that it hurts, and as you turn away, over your shoulder say, “Stop crying and go play.” Don’t give her any of what she wants, and make sure that what you do give her will be unpleasant. When she is convinced that you will no longer reward her demands, she will cease demanding. There is a time to give attention and a time to withhold attention. Give the child attention when you want to reinforce behavior, and withhold attention when the behavior is negative. If you must respond in a corrective manner to negative behavior, make sure that there is no reward in it for either of you. Get tough Mama. Ask, “What is best for my child?” And then ask God to give you the courage to do it.

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9 comments on “The Return of the Volleyball Bawler”

  1. I'm sorry, but when my child (12 mos, not much younger than the child in this story) hurts herself I comfort her! Teach her that I care about her feelings and I care about who she is as a person, and that she matters to me. After a quick cuddle with me (something that barely takes a minute) my child is ready to go play again. I feel that if a parent wants to "train" his or her child to be able to ignore injuries or to not seek out comfort from their providers, they are simply lazy parents, so sorry if your child is such an inconvienence for you! This behavior will not last forever, soon my child will be able to get hurt, dust herself off and go back to what she was doing.

    I actually remember I was a little girl of 7 when I fell down and skinned my knee, I did not cry, I did not whine. I looked up at my father, and said "Daddy, I hurt my knee, could you help me clean it?", and I was PROUD, because I didn't cry. I wasn't beaten into submission and taught that my feelings didn't matter. I was loved, and hugged when I was hurt, and disciplined when it was necessary.

  2. Your are not treating your child as an inconvenience if you do not cuddle them every time they get hurt. You are helping them to cope in the future. If you drop everything to run and cuddle your teaching your child to be self centered. And in my experience with two girls 1 and 3 I know that cuddling only encourages the behavior to get worse. I did not start any kind of training with my three year old until she was 2 and I wish someone would have brought me to the Pearls earlier. Furthermore calling a quick switch a "beating" is ridiculous. I hope that your daughter can grow up to be as tough as you. I know for my children it would not work.

  3. So I have a question isn't there times for comforting a young child when they are hurting? I mean in this case it was obvious that the child was being controlling. But when my child is really hurting I want him to come to me for comfort as an example for them when older that they need to go to God for comfort when they are hurting.

  4. I belive the whole point of this story is the fact that this child was not truly hurt. Parents, if they are paying attention, learn quickly the difference in the demanding whine/cry of their child and the cry of true pain. I do not believe she is saying that you should ignore your truly hurt child. However, I believe that even this comforting should be done carefully so as not to prolong self pitty once the comfort has been given. Love and comfort your child, but teach them to "shake it off" and get on with life too.

  5. I can't believe what I just read! The problem with the internet is that anyone can publish here.
    Sure, my job as a parent would be a piece of cake if I used fear and intimidation to force my daughter to do things. After all, I outweigh her by 100 pounds. But God gave us brains and intellect, hearts and souls. I'm pretty sure he made the trees for the birds and squirrels, not so that adults would have easy access to switches.

  6. I am continually amazed at the wisdom of the Pearls. There is so much to learn from this article and I can't say enough how much I appreciate Michael's encouragement to "get tough" while also stressing the importance of not allowing anger to have a place in your heart. In this world I feel constantly pressured to give in to my child because of what others would think instead of doing what would be best for him. Thank you so much for your work!!!

  7. I too, am thankful for the Pearl's wisdom in raising children. I am lucky to have come by their books while my children are still young enough to benefit from it. Everyone always comments on how well behaved my kids are. My Aunt even remarked that my job as a mother would be more difficult if my children weren't so naturally good! I told her I'd like to think they are so good because I have taught them to be that way, using the Pearl's principles. I had an incident where my youngest was trying to get down out of my arms by flailing and squirming to get down, instead of asking "please can I get down". I calmly explained to him that he could get down any time he wanted by simply saying that phrase, or any phrase that included asking with a please. His response was that he didn't want to. So I refused to set him down until he obeyed. About 20 minutes later I was still holding him, and he was still screaming and crying as if I was injuring him. I was absolutely sure that I was doing the right thing, but my four year old became disturbed by the whole situation and started crying. I explained to my four year old that my three year old could get down anytime he wanted by using the word please. He then joined me in trying to persuade the little one to use words instead of screaming crying. Long story short, one of our cats came down and sat on the chair. I asked him if he wanted to go pet the cat. His response "Yes, please." Whew! It was over, I let him down, I won the power struggle, and he always asks to please be set down now, instead of screaming and crying. And the older one learned the lesson as well. Thank you Pearls, for your wisdom and tough love in parenting.

  8. I am a young mother of a two year old boy. I have always comforted my son when he was hurt, hit, shoved, etc. Now I have a whiny two year old. He whines over EVERYTHING!!!! I now am trying to train my child to not act in this behavior which is really hard. I feel I have to spank him all the time. I believe with all my heart if I had done different and didnt run to his every call he would not be this way.Thank you for the Godly leading to a young mother who needs it. God Bless

  9. this is the first time on this site and today also was the first time i found about this training a child i have a 3 year old little girl and a 6 year old little boy . i as well am a 25 year old mother my husband is 26 i cannot wait to change the way our home and children are for the better . as a child my mother chose not to be in all 5 of her childrens lives ages ranged from 7 to a month old baby so i have struggled on the way to be the best that i can be to teach my children with no mother still in my life. god bless you and your wife for the tools you have given this family look for to reading and applying it in our home thank you for you courage to stand on anderson coopers stage you have im sure saved my family