Why Our Kids Are Out of Control
Focusing on good behavior decreases the instance of misbehavior.
By Jacob Azerrad and Paul Chance published September 1, 2001 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Whiny, arrogant, rude, violent. America's children are showing their bad side. Child psychologist Jacob Azerrad, Ph.D., and Paul Chance, Ph.D., show us what we can do to save our children.
Michael is out of control. He has several temper tantrums a day, throws food during meals, deliberately breaks toys and household items, hits and bites his younger brother and sister and refuses to comply with reasonable requests. Asked to put away his toys or go to bed, the 5-year-old replies, "No. And you can't make me." He is, in truth, a very unpleasant child. He is also very unhappy: No one can behave as he does and feel good about himself or be pleased with life.
We seem to be in the midst of an epidemic of Michaels. I have been a child psychologist for 35 years, and each year I see parents dealing with more and more severe problems. Their children are not just ill-mannered, they are whiny, selfish, arrogant, rude, defiant and violent. Most of them are also miserable, as are their parents.
Such disgraceful behavior in young children predicts serious problems later in life. As adolescents they are more likely to drop out of school, use drugs, engage in delinquency and be clinically depressed. And when I read newspaper articles about road rage, commuter rage and office rage it seems to me that many out-of-control children are growing up to be out-of-control adults.
Why are there so many out-of-control children today? Many explanations have been proposed: high-sugar diets, environmental toxins, allergies, television, psychiatric disorders. In considering these theories, it is useful to note that the rise in outrageous child behavior is largely an American phenomenon. Psychologist Tiffany Field, Ph.D., of the University of Miami School of Medicine, found that in France, for example, 3-year-olds behave admirably in restaurants. They sit quietly and talk and eat their meals like "little adults." They do not argue or throw food or refuse to eat as many American children do.
In a separate study, Field noted another major difference in the behavior of French and American preschoolers: On playgrounds, French youngsters were aggressive toward their playmates only 1 percent of the time; American preschoolers, by contrast, were aggressive 29 percent of the time. It is probably not a coincidence that France has the lowest murder rate in the industrialized world, and the United States has the highest.
Can such dramatic differences in behavior between advanced, industrialized nations be accounted for by differences in diet, toxins, allergies, television or psychiatric disorders? It seems extremely unlikely, and I have found no scientific evidence to support these theories. I suggest that the fundamental reason behind so many more American children running amok is child-rearing practices.
Let me explain: Studies have consistently shown that the problem behavior of children is typically the result of misplaced adult attention. In a study done many years ago, psychologist Betty Hart, Ph.D., and her colleagues at the University of Washington, studied the effects of attention on Bill, a 4-year-old "crybaby" enrolled in a morning preschool. Each morning Bill had between five and 10 crying spells: He cried when he fell, bumped his head or if another child took away a toy. Each time Bill cried a teacher went to him to offer comfort. Hart and her colleagues reasoned that this adult attention, though intended to reassure and comfort Bill, might actually be the reason for all his crying.
To test their hypothesis, the researchers asked the teachers to try a new strategy. Now when Bill cried, the teachers glanced at him to be sure he was not injured but did not go to him, speak to him or look at him. If he happened to cry when a teacher was nearby, she turned her back or walked away. Teachers paid special attention to Bill only when he suffered a mishap without crying. If he fell, for example, and went about his business without a whimper, a teacher would go to him and compliment him on his grown-up behavior. The result of this new approach: In five days the frequency of Bill's crying spells fell from an average of about seven per morning to almost zero.
To be certain that Bill's change in behavior was because of the new strategy, Hart and colleagues asked the teachers to once again pay attention to Bill when he cried. Bill returned to crying several times a day. When the teachers again ignored the crying and attended to Bill only when he acted maturely, the crying spells dropped sharply. Hart and her coworkers repeated this experiment with another "crybaby," Alan, and got nearly identical results.
Similarly, researchers have shown that the disruptive behavior of school children is often a result of adult attention. In studies of elementary school classrooms, for example, researchers found some students repeatedly left their seats without good reason. Typically the teacher interrupted the lesson to reprimand them. But these efforts often increased the frequency of wandering. When the teacher ignored children who wandered and paid attention to those who worked hard, the frequency of the problem behavior usually fell sharply. It may seem odd that reprimands, threats and criticism can actually reward bad behavior, but such is the tremendous power of adult attention. When children can get attention by behaving well, they do.
Unfortunately, many adults are far more likely to attend to annoying behavior than they are to desirable behavior. Glenn Latham, Ed.D., a family and educational consultant, has found that adults typically ignore 90 percent or more of the good things children do. Instead, they pay attention to children when they behave badly.
I believe that Americans attend more to bad behavior than to good behavior because they have come under the spell of self-described child-rearing authorities. These kiddie gurus--who include pediatrician Benjamin Spock, M.D., child psychiatrists T. Barry Brazelton, M.D., and Stanley Turecki, M.D., and child psychologist Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., among others--repeatedly urge parents to give special attention to children when they behave badly. Consider the following example.
In Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care (Pocket Books, 1998), a book that has sold 40 million copies, Dr. Spock recommends this approach in dealing with aggressive behavior:
"If your child is hurting another or looks as if he were planning murder, pull him away in a matter-of-fact manner and get him interested in something else."
Given what research shows about the effects of adult attention, getting a child "interested in something else" whenever he is aggressive is a sure formula for producing a highly aggressive child.
If a child gets angry and throws or smashes things, Dr. Brazelton suggests the following:
"Sit down with her in your lap until she's available to you. Then, discuss why you think she needed to do it, why she can't do it and how badly you know she feels for this kind of destructive, out-of-control behavior."
If your child has a particularly intense tantrum, Dr. Turecki gives this advice:
"With these tantrums you should be physically present with your child, with your arms around him if he'll permit it or just be there with him as a comforting physical presence in the room. Be calm and say reassuring things: 'I know you're upset, but it will be okay.'"
If the child has a tantrum that is not so intense, Turecki recommends being "menacing and firm." In other words, having a mild tantrum doesn't pay off, but having a severe tantrum does. I can scarcely imagine a more effective way of teaching a child to have severe tantrums.
Many of the most popular child-rearing books are full of such nonsense. They repeatedly urge parents to hold, soothe, comfort and talk to a child who bites, hits, screams, throws or breaks things, ignores or refuses parental requests or otherwise behaves in obnoxious, infantile ways. Common sense and a truckload of research argue solidly against this practice. Yet these experts seem to be unaware of the well-established fact that children do what gets noticed, that adult attention usually makes behavior more likely to occur, not less.
Nevertheless, thousands of parents follow the bad advice of these and like-minded child-rearing gurus every day. And the more faithfully they follow the advice, the worse their children become. Some of these parents eventually find their way to my office, desperate for help. I advise them to redirect their attention from infantile behavior to grown-up behavior. They are often amazed by the change in their children.
Take Dennis, for example. Ten-year-old Dennis was a "born liar," according to his mother, who added, "he wouldn't tell the truth if his life depended on it." Dennis had several siblings, but he was the only chronic liar. Why Dennis? With several children in the family, there was a good deal of competition for adult attention. Dennis wanted more than his share, and he got it by lying: His mother spent a lot of time with him trying to separate fact from fiction and trying to understand why he lied. Mom didn't realize it, but all this attention just encouraged dishonesty.
The solution was to give Dennis attention when it was clear he was telling the truth and to ignore him when he might be lying. When Mom knew that Dennis had given her the right amount of change after a purchase, or when a discrete call to his teacher proved that he really had been kept after school, he got time with Mom and approval for telling the truth. Instead of "tell a lie, get attention," the rule became, "tell the truth, get attention." When the rule changed, so did Dennis.
Five-year-old Debbie offered a different sort of challenge, but the solution was essentially the same. She woke up every night screaming because of nightmares about "the big germ" and "the terrible lion." Every night her parents rushed to her side to comfort her and assure her there were no big germs or terrible lions in the house. During the day, Debbie talked about her nightmares with anyone who would listen. Her mother encouraged this behavior because she thought it would be therapeutic for Debbie to get her fears "out in the open." In fact, all this attention to her fears made them worse, not better. From Debbie's standpoint, the lesson was: "If Mom and Dad are so interested in what I say about the big germ and the terrible lion, these monsters must really exist."
The solution to Debbie's problem was to pay less attention to talk about nightmares and more attention to grown-up behavior. When Mom and Dad started saying things like, "I appreciated it when you helped me set the table today" and "I heard you taking the phone message from Mrs. Smith. You were very grown up," they provided Debbie with better ways of getting attention than screaming in the night and complaining about monsters.
Even Michael, the screaming, out-of-control boy who made life miserable for himself and everyone near him, soon became a happy, self-disciplined child. He was more challenging than most children, but once again the most important step to turning him around was giving him the attention he wanted when he gave his parents the behavior they wanted.
It sounds easier than it is. Parents who have fallen into the habit of offering attention for disagreeable behavior often have a hard time shifting their focus to agreeable behavior. Over the years I have devised a simple procedure to help parents do this. I call it the Nurture Response:
1. Be on the alert for behavior that indicates growing maturity: Taking disappointment calmly, performing spontaneous acts of kindness and demonstrating an interest in learning. When you see this kind of grown-up behavior, make a mental note of it. Perhaps Margaret, who usually responds to disappointments with a tantrum, is unperturbed when told her favorite breakfast cereal is unavailable. Maybe Sam, who is typically selfish with his belongings, shares his toys with the neighbor's child.
2. Some time later (anywhere from five minutes to five hours after the event), remind the child of the behavior you observed. You might say, "Do you remember when Harry's bike fell over and he couldn't straighten it because it was too heavy for him? You went over and helped him. Do you remember doing that?"
3. When you're sure the child remembers the event in question, praise her for it. You might say, "It was very good of you to help Harry with his bike. I'm proud of you." Often the highest praise you can offer children is to tell them they acted like an adult. You might say, "I know you were disappointed that you couldn't go to the mall, but you were very grown up about it. I was impressed."
Don't mix the praise with criticism. Don't say, for example, "I was proud of the way you helped Harry; you're usually so mean to him," or even, "I'm glad you were finally nice to Harry."
4. Immediately after praising the child, spend some time with him in an activity he enjoys. Do this in a spontaneous way, without suggesting that it is payment for the grown-up behavior. You might play a favorite game, go for a walk, or read a story. Remember that nothing is more important to a child than the undivided attention of a parent, so give the child your full attention for these few minutes.
The nurture response is not a panacea, of course. Some dangerous or extremely annoying forms of behavior, such as knocking other children down or having screaming tantrums, may require additional measures, including punishment (see "Time Out the Right Way," page 46). But it is amazing how much can be accomplished by simply ignoring the behavior you don't want and noticing the behavior you do want.
For decades many child-rearing icons have urged parents to pay special attention to troublesome behavior, to offer sympathy, understanding and reassurance when children behave in outrageous ways. This view so pervades our society that scarcely anyone questions it. Both common sense and scientific evidence tell us, however, that this approach is bound to backfire, and it does.
Parents should think of themselves as gardeners. A good gardener encourages desirable plants and discourages undesirable ones. In the same way, a good parent encourages desirable acts and discourages undesirable ones.
Do you want your children to be well-behaved and happy? Then ignore experts who tell you to shower attention on children when they are badly behaved and miserable. Remember that gardeners must nurture the flowers, not the weeds.
TIME OUT THE RIGHT WAY
Most of the annoying things children do can be dealt with very effectively by ignoring them and attending to children when they behave more maturely. However, when the behavior is particularly immature or poses a risk of injury to the child or others, it may be necessary to turn to punishment. In these instances, Time Out usually does the trick.
Time Out is probably the most widely researched technique for dealing with unwanted behavior in young children. Unfortunately, it is often used incorrectly. It is therefore worth noting that Time Out means removing the child from all rewarding activities for a short period. The common practice of sending a child to his room, where he can play computer games, watch TV or talk with friends on the telephone, is not Time Out, nor is sitting on the couch with the child and discussing the merits of his behavior. Time Out means exposing the child to a very boring, unrewarding environment. For the sake of illustration, let's assume that your child has bitten someone. Here is a simple, highly effective way of discouraging this behavior:
1. Say to her: "We do not bite." Say nothing more than this--give no further description of the behavior, no explanation of what you are doing. Say nothing except, "We do not bite."
2. Take her by the hand and seat her in a small chair facing a blank wall. Stand close enough so that if she attempts to leave the chair you can immediately return her to it.
3. Keep her in the chair for three minutes. (Do not tell her how long she will be in the chair. Say nothing.) If she screams, kicks the wall, asks questions or says she has to go to the bathroom, ignore her. It is absolutely essential that you say nothing.
4. At the end of the three minutes, keep her in the chair until she has been quiet and well-behaved for five more seconds. When she does so, tell her she has been good and may now leave the chair. Never let her leave until she has been well-behaved for at least a few seconds.
5. Following Time Out, say nothing about it. Do not discuss the punished behavior or the fairness of the punishment. Say nothing except, "We do not bite."
Once the child realizes that you mean business, that she cannot manipulate you into providing attention for bad behavior, Time Out will proceed more smoothly and quickly and there will be far fewer times when you need to use it.