Thomas W. Phelan, PhD | The Children’s Book Review | January 30, 2016
You hear a lot of people these days complaining that children are running the show, that five-year olds are in charge of the house, and that parents refuse to check their children’s unruly behavior in public. Moms and dads, it is claimed, just don’t exercise their authority anymore. Is this really true?
Although a blanket generalization about parental abdication of authority certainly is not valid, there does appear to be a trend in the direction of increased discomfort with the legitimate use of parental power. In their determination to avoid spanking, yelling and “Because-I-Said-So” discipline, and in their concern with “modern parenting” and emotional intelligence, parents these days are becoming conflict avoidant and committed to a philosophy of “Let’s talk it out till everyone is happy.”
The result is this: In discipline situations, parents are talking too much. Another way of saying this is that parents—in the crunch—all too often engage in prattle. The dictionary defines prattle as talking at length in a foolish or inconsequential way. Yes, that’s it. These days “modern” parents prattle.
A Donut Before Dinner?
Let’s look at an example. Fifteen minutes before dinner, seven-year-old Caitlin asks her mother for a snack. Here’s how the conversation goes:
“Can I have just, like, one of those donuts?”
“Not right now.”
“Aw, how come? I’m starving.”
“We’re eating in just fifteen minutes, honey.”
“Yeah, but I really want it.”
“I just told you, you couldn’t have it.”
“You never give me anything!”
“I never give you anything? Do you have clothes on? Is there a roof over your head? Am I feeding you in two seconds?”
“You let Allison have ice cream a half hour ago!”
“That was an hour ago. Besides, Allison always finishes her dinner.”
“I promise I’ll finish my dinner.”
“Why do you have to give me a hard time about this, Caitlin?!”
“This is stupid! I don’t want any of your lousy dinner!”
“Watch that mouth, young lady! You’ll eat when I tell you to!!””
After line four above (We’re eating in just fifteen minutes…”), this conversation is a power struggle, pure and simple. It may look like two people exchanging ideas, but it is really misbehavior (child) and prattle (parent) masquerading as dialogue.
Unfortunately, modern approaches to parenting encourage this kind of exchange. Why? Because of the objective (or burden!) these approaches place on parents: In a conflict, you must talk it over until both sides are satisfied; ending any interaction with ill will or anger is bad.
But here’s the problem: The child in our scene is not burdened with the same goal her mother is. What is Caitlin’s goal? It’s a donut. Caitlin does not care if the exchange ends in conflict; she wants a treat now! And, unbeknownst to her mother, Caitlin has been equipped by Mother Nature (and millions of years of evolution) with an instinctive, unconscious and automatic sequence of tactics she can use to get things from adults.
While Mom is fumbling around, Caitlin is using her reflexive, mechanized Frustration Management Algorithm. It’s right there—look at it!
Trial 1: Pleasant Request. Yes donut? Stop.
Trial 2: No donut? Repeat Pleasant Request: Yes donut? Stop.
Trial 3: No donut? Less Pleasant Request. Yes donut? Stop.
Trial 4: No donut? Switch to Martyrdom. Yes donut? Stop.
Trial 5: No donut? Switch to Unfairness Claim. Yes donut? Stop.
Trial 6: No donut? Revert to Pleasant Promise. Yes donut? Stop.
Trial 7: No donut? Switch to Direct Attack. Yes donut? Stop
And so on.
Crafty Caitlin vs. Muddled Mom
This is not a fair contest. The young girl has two qualities Mom can’t match: perseverance and expertise. Caitlin would go 40 trials if it would get her the donut. She’s got the energy and she wouldn’t be too worried about the conflict. Also, without Mom or Caitlin being aware of it, the girl already has an unconscious PhD in Testing & Manipulation. She’s just being a kid. She is hardwired with strategies designed to get her way—strategies that have worked for millions of years.
What about Mom? Her energy and perseverance are no match for her daughter’s. She’s twenty-five years older, for one thing. But it’s Mom’s strategy in this conflict/discipline situation that is really cooking her goose. She’s just prattling. She’s talking at length (she responds to everything her daughter says) in a foolish (“Do you have clothes on? Is there a roof over your head?”) and inconsequential way (doesn’t reduce the conflict).
Yet, even though Mom is chattering ineffectively, her strategy is sadly consistent. She is trying the “modern parenting” approach: reasoning—talk it out until everyone is happy. Some of her comments might be foolish, but they are not stupid. Caitlin does have a roof over her head. But Mom is presenting her arguments in the hope her daughter will suddenly—in a burst of insight—say, “You know you’re right. It is too close to dinner. Thanks for explaining it to me.”
The Hidden Tragedy
You often hear people say, “Kids really want limits.” Is that true? I don’t think so. I think kids want what they want, when they want it. It is true that children do better living in homes where the parents are in charge, and where rules and limits are enforced fairly and consistently. And where parents know when it’s time to stop talking.
Explaining and reasoning with children as they grow up are absolutely necessary. If you try explaining something in a parent/child conflict situation and that works, more power to you. However, if you explain and that doesn’t work—and you keep trying to explain—you are now guilty of prattling.
Prattling at your kids is not a neutral, innocuous or harmless thing to do. Notice, in our donut example above, how Caitlin and her mother are getting more and more frustrated with each other. Prattling decreases cooperation from kids.
But the tragic bottom line is this: Prattling causes child abuse. Many moms and dads, when pushed the way Caitlin is pushing, are going to wind up yelling at or spanking their kids—or worse. What started the whole thing? A parent’s staying involved in a silly conversation that shouldn’t have been taking place.
Summary: What’s Your Answer?
So here’s our basic logic:
- Kids are kids. They don’t always cooperate. Parental yelling and spanking are not good options for inducing compliance.
- Explaining and reasoning sometimes help kids cooperate. When words and reason fail, continuing to explain is known as prattling.
- Prattling decreases children’s cooperativeness and often causes child abuse.
So what’s your answer? What do you do when words, reasoning and explaining don’t work with your kids?
—Dr. Thomas Phelan is the author of 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 (Sourcebooks 2016).
Written by Dr. Thomas Phelan, PhD
Publisher’s Synopsis: The #1 child discipline book.
Being a parent is one of the most rewarding experiences in life, but every family faces challenges that can be frustrating and overwhelming. For more than twenty-five years, internationally renowned clinical psychologist Thomas W. Phelan’s 1-2-3 Magic has helped millions of parents, teachers, and caregivers raise independent, emotionally intelligent children and build happier, healthier families―all through an easy-to-understand program that you’ll swear “works like magic.”
1-2-3 Magic helps you discipline and set limits for your children by breaking down the complex task of parenting into straightforward steps. You’ll find tools to use in virtually every situations, including advice for common problems such as:
• Sibling rivalry
• Reluctance to do chores or pick up
• Refusing to to bed or getting up in the middle of the night
Parents all over the world have rebooted their families and their lives with 1-2-3 Magic. Learn the effective way to be a better, more loving, and more consistent parent, and start enjoying your child again―today!
Adults | Publisher: Sourcebooks | February 2, 2016 (6th ed. edition) | ISBN-13: 978-1492629887
About Dr. Thomas Phelan, PhD
Dr. Thomas W. Phelan is an internationally renowned expert, author, and lecturer on child discipline and Attention Deficit Disorder. A registered Ph.D. clinical psychologist, he appears frequently on radio and TV. Dr. Phelan practices and works in the western suburbs of Chicago.
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