OK. This post is opinion-based advice. I wrote it yesterday, but did not hit "Post" until today. There is no science, no scripture, and no rigorous double blind trial to back it up. If it is of some benefit to the reader I'm tickled, but I offer no guarantees of any nature, nor condemnation for those who disagree. I can certify that I am still happy with the way my kids turned out, even after one turned from the Lord immediately following the divorce, and the other has not truly turned toward Him. They are great kids to be around. So, this seems to have worked for me.
I sat in a restaurant the other day, with my whole divorced family, and one other family who are friends of my ex. The other family were sweethearts, and being a young couple, they had a 4 year old child. The young man was precocious and charming, and at age 4, quite capable. He had gigantic brown eyes, a cherub's face, and an inquisitive nature. He was a natural delight to be around.
The parents were both quite pleasant as well. I enjoy them both, and enjoyed them that day. When we left the restaurant, though, that little boy was the subject of conversation for a minute between my son and I. I turned our chat quickly to the parents. The boy was fine, but the parents were in need of some verbal kaopectate. Here was the restaurant conversation. We all recognize it:
Quit banging the table. Don't spin your chair like that, it bangs the table. The chair is bothering everyone, son, so don't swing like that. Let's get a chair that doesn't spin. There, isn't that better? You're doing so good! No, you won't like your father's margarita. No, you won't like it. Just put your finger in and see whether you like it. Don't you put your fingers in my drink! Here try it. Don't let him try it! Take a sip. See you don't like it do you. Quick, get your sippy cup and get a drink. Food will be here in a minute. Yes, I know you're hungry. Food will be here in a minute. Take a bite of your hamburger. Let me cut it up. Let me put on ketchup. Take a bite. Yes, it's just how you like it. Yes, you can eat a french fry. Don't just suck the ketchup with your finger. You have to eat the french fries too. There's ketchup on your hamburger. Don't you want your hamburger? If you don't eat your dinner, you won't get any cake. If you don't eat your french fries you won't get any cake. If you don't eat a french fry, you won't get any cake. Yes, that french fry will be enough. You did so good! You ate your french fry. You get to have some cake! ....
I will let you insert the mental pictures and tones as appropriate.
That doesn't bother me. Really. It's been years since I have heard the sounds of children, and I enjoyed watching the show. Sure, I tired of it by the beginning of the second hour, but I tire of watching tennis sometimes too. It's their kid, and their business. If it were my kid I would be a shame laden mess, but it wasn't. All three of them were sweet natured and fun. (I did get anxious when the poor little boy began running laps around the 12 tables closest to us. It was not fair of them to force the other patrons of the restaurant to appreciate their little darling. I made sure we left a 40% tip.)
Some young parents don't want their kids to act like that. If I am ever asked I will give this answer, so I am going to practice it first here in blogland.
The cure is simple, and all you need to remember is one statement.
Don't work to make your children to obey you. Work to make them pay attention to you.
If they are paying true attention to you, the rest will take care of itself. By concentrating on obedience, we make the wrong things our focus.
1) You pay attention to people who surprise you. So will your children.
If they know everything you are going to do and say, they don't really pay attention to you. They are just marking you to make sure you are staying close to expected behavior. Everything this boy's parents said did go in one ear, but it was not really relevant to his desires, so it went right out the other. Instead, he obsessed with his boredom. I think he was really hungry, but he even forgot to eat. Nothing they said or did surprised him, so he just kept playing his self-destructive game.
2) You pay attention to people who say things that matter. So will your children.
I do not advocate punishment, per se. I advocate the natural consequences of decisions. "Oh, if you are not feeling well enough to finish your dinner, then you must need some extra rest. Are you sure you cannot finish dinner? Yes? OK. I will save it for your breakfast, and you can go to bed now. What? You changed your mind? Hmmm. No, you said you were sure. Let's go brush your teeth, and I'll read you a bedtime story." Done this way, Daddy does not have to get angry, so it's a lightweight event that the child will remember for a long, long time. It's a natural consequence of the child's own decision. The cool thing is that I don't need to lecture anyone about how important it is to finish dinner. And I probably won't have to send the child to bed a second time (but if I do it's hardly unpleasant.)
(BTW: The natural consequence of some behaviors is spanking, but those behaviors are rebellious, not simply selfish. Spanking happened, but not terribly often.)
3) You need to have a chance at success. So do your children.
Give them a fair chance! The little buggers still cannot tie their shoes. Acting right in public is much harder for them than tying shoes. Don't ask them to succeed in public situations without real training. Setting the child, and yourself, up for failure is not wise and not profitable.
So, how do you surprise your child, say things that matter to him, and give him a chance to succeed?
Script the training of hard lessons.
It probably won't be too hard to train this precocious little cherub with the bad eating habits. It might be a little more difficult to train the parents. This boy has been taught a lot of unprofitable lessons already, and it's the parents who have been doing the teaching. That's OK. We can overcome that. They can script a situation in which he will succeed, and another in which he will fail.
Our restaurant example is straightforward. The real-world effect of unruly behavior is that wonderful conversations are interrupted, and dinner is not enjoyable. The consequence for causing these bad things should be along the same lines.
First, script a situation in which the child will succeed. Cook his favorite dinner at home, make sure the TV and other distractions are off, and that it's just the three of them at home. Give him a small portion of dinner, and explain that this is a "talking dinner", but that everyone has to take turns. Talk about things that interest him. If he makes it through dinner, then it's time for a talking dessert. If he succeeds at that, then some praise is in order. Overly much praise is a bad thing if they want polite dinners to be a normal thing. They should definitely point out that they saw him succeed, and that they are happy for him, but not gush about it.
Should he fail, then the parents did not set up a careful enough first experience. But, that's OK. The consequence is simple. No more talking. No more favorite dinner. No dessert. The scenario was set up at home, so there's no pressure from the public gaze to worry about. He doesn't have to go to bed, or be in trouble. He simply must excuse himself from the table, and find something else to do.
This will come as a very unpleasant surprise to this child. This has never happened to him before. If there is a lot of talking and explaining before or after the event, then all the work is wasted. The point here is not about eating dinner politely, nor to explain a deep lesson about public meal-sharing to the child. The point is to unsettle him. The point is to show - not tell - that a single instruction given once matters and cannot be ignored.
Most of the time, when a child fails the parents want to pretend that he is "about to fail", and try to coach him through it. This is a mistake. Coach a tiny bit ahead of time, then let the child perform and experience the consequences of his performance. Should he succeed, acknowledge that success. Should he fail, do not lecture. Just quietly, happily enforce the consequences of his decision. Try again tomorrow, and briefly coach again if necessary.
When he has proven that he can succeed, then they must give him the opportunity to fail. The parents should invite some friends over. Talk about things that interest them, and not him. Make the food a little less exciting. He will fail, and they should remind him that he knows how to do this, because he did it the last time and correct him.
If the parents succeed at giving clear instructions, not repeating them, and allowing consequences to happen kindly but immediately, they will notice something truly gratifying. Their child is paying attention to them. The point is not to be harsh or strict, but to say things that matter and to be a little bit surprising. The child will pay attention, or risk missing important matters.
It's easy to be overwhelmed by parenting. It's easy to be pushed beyond our capabilities. It helps, once in a while, to take control of the situation and to work to a known objective, to act instead of react. Have fun!