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“Children: The Challenge” by Dreikurs and Soltz

October 8, 2012

Just over two years ago, I hit a nadir in my satisfaction and effectiveness as a parent. My son, not quite 4 years old, seemed to enjoy defying me, and I was angry with him for being uncooperative and angry with myself for being unable to rein him in.

In desperation I turned to a book recommended by my Uncle Chris: “Children: The Challenge” by Rudolf Dreikurs, M.D. with Vicki Soltz, R.N. Despite its antiquated view of parental roles (which reflect its 1964 publication date), it dispenses wise advice on how to avoid conflicts with one’s children while still guiding them toward appropriate behavior. It’s written in a crisp, confident style that I find remarkably compelling.

Below are excerpts that illustrate the crux of the authors’ advice. If you like these passages, you should get a copy of the book for yourself.

[from Chapter 5: The Fallacy of Punishment and Reward]

Mother wondered why everything was so quiet and decided to investigate. She found Alex, two and a half, busily stuffing toilet tissue into the toilet again. Alex had been spanked several times for stopping up the toilet in this fashion. Furious, Mother yelled, “How many times am I going to have to spank you for this?” She grabbed Alex, took down his pants, and whipped him. Later that evening, Father found the toilet stuffed up again.

After so many spankings for the same act, why in the world does Alex continue? Is he too small to understand? Far from it. Alex knows exactly what he is doing. He deliberately repeats this misbehavior. Of course, he doesn’t know why! But his behavior tells us why. His parents say, “No — you can’t.” His actions say, “I’ll show you I can — no matter what!”

If punishment were going to make Alex stop stuffing the toilet, one spanking would have accomplished results. Repeated spankings have not made much impression. What is wrong?

. . . We must realize the futility of trying to impose our will upon our children. No amount of punishment will bring about lasting submission. Today’s children are willing to take any amount of punishment in order to assert their “rights.” Confused and bewildered parents mistakenly hope that punishment will eventually bring results, without realizing that they are actually getting nowhere with their methods. At best, they gain only temporary results from punishment. When the same punishment has to be repeated again and again, it should be obvious that it does not work.

. . . Punishment, or the authoritative idea — “obey me, or else,” needs to be replaced by a sense of mutual respect and co-operation. Even though children are no longer in an inferior position, they are untrained and inexperienced. They need our leadership. A good leader inspires and stimulates his followers into action that suits the situation. So it must be with parents. Our children need our guidance. They will accept it if they know we respect them as human beings with equal rights to decide what they will do. The insult to a child’s dignity is enormous when he is whacked, and not much of Mother’s dignity is left when she is through with the procedure, particularly if she feels guilty afterwards.

We parents can learn to use more effective methods to stimulate a child so that he has a desire to conform to the demands of order. We can create an atmosphere of mutual self-respect and consideration and provide an opportunity for the child to learn how to live comfortably and happily with others. We need to arrange learning situations without showing a lack of respect for the child or for ourselves. And we can do all this without a show of power, for power incites rebellion and defeats the purpose of child-raising.

. . . The system of rewarding children for good behavior is as detrimental to their outlook as the system of punishment. The same lack of respect is shown. We “reward” our inferiors for favors or for good deeds. In a system of mutual respect among equals, a job is done because it needs doing, and the satisfaction comes from the harmony of two people doing a job together.

[from Chapter 6: The Use of Natural and Logical Consequences]

Since punishment and reward are ineffective, what can we do when children misbehave? Well, what happens if Mother forgets about the cake in the oven? It follows by logic that the cake is burned. This is the natural consequence of her forgetfulness. If we allow a child to experience the consequences of his acts, we provide an honest and real learning situation.

. . . Alice, four, is underweight and catches cold easily. Both Mother and Daddy are convinced that her health will improve with proper nourishment.

Alice sits in front of her plate eating the first few bites with relish. She drinks a little milk; and as the conversation between Mother and Daddy starts, she gradually loses interest in her food. She leans her elbow on the table and supports her head on her hand. Listlessly, she pushes the food around on her plate. “Come on, darling,” prompts Daddy. “Eat your good dinner.” He speaks gently and lovingly. Alice smiles winsomely, puts a bite into her mouth, and holds it there. Daddy is again talking to Mother. Alice’s jaws move once or twice. “Come on sweetheart. Chew it up.” Mother interrupts her conversation with Daddy. “You want to be a big, healthy, girl, don’t you?” Alice chews vigorously. “That’s my girl,” Daddy encourages. But as soon as Mother and Daddy talk again, Alice stops eating. The whole meal is one of continually coaxing Alice to eat.

The purpose of Alice’s poor appetite is to keep her parents busy with her. This is easy to discover when we look at what the parents are doing.

Eating sustains life. It is a normal function. There is always a misbehaving parent when a child becomes a feeding problem. It is the child’s business to eat. The parents should mind their own business and not the child’s.

The simplest way to teach Alice to eat properly is to “let” her eat. If she refuses, the parents should maintain a friendly attitude, abstain from verbal reminders altogether, remove the unfinished food from the table when everyone is finished, and allow Alice to find out what happens. If we don’t eat, we get hungry. At the next meal, and not before, food is again offered. If Alice still dawdles, nothing is said; friendliness prevails at the table. The implication is, “If you wish to eat, here is food. If you don’t wish to eat, then I must assume you are not hungry.” The food is casually removed if the child plays with it. There is no threat of punishment and no bribe of reward (dessert). Alice may complain of hunger an hour later and beg for milk and cookies. Mother replies, “I am sorry you are hungry. Dinner will be ready at six; it is too bad that you will have to wait so long.” Regardless of how pitiable Alice’s hunger may appear, Mother must allow Alice to be hungry because this is the natural consequence of not eating. The suffering inflicted by a spanking is punishment because it is inflicted by the parent. The discomfort of going hungry is not imposed by an adult but is the result of not having eaten at mealtime.

. . . If logical consequences are used as a threat or “imposed” in anger, they cease being consequences and become punishment. Children are quick to discern the difference. They respond to logical consequences; they fight back when punished.

Alice’s parents have decided to use logical consequences. She dawdles. Mother is annoyed but says nothing. Daddy and Mother converse, but without animation. Their problem sits right there under their noses, dawdling, pushing food around. Mother and Daddy have almost finished their lunch. Daddy turns to Alice with loving patience. “Alice, come on, eat your lunch. If you don’t, you know you will be hungry before dinner and you can’t have anything between meals. You don’t want want to go hungry, do you?” “I don’t want any more lunch,” Alice replies. “All right – you’ll be hunry. And remember, nothing till dinner.”

This is not logical consequence: it is still punishment. Alice is “threatened” with hunger. Mother and Daddy are still concerned with her eating and have subtly shown it. They still want to “make” Alice eat. Clever Alice. She senses how bad they will feel if she is hungry. So she denies herself her lunch and will “suffer” hunger to punish her parents.

The only way out of the dilemma is for Alice’s parents to be actually and genuinely unconcerned with her eating. It is her problem. She has to solve it. She may eat or not; she may feel hunger or not – it is her choice. Let her take the consequences for herself.

When we use the term “logical consequences,” parents so frequently misinterpret it as a new way to impose their demands upon children. The children see this for what it is – disguised punishment. The secret lies in the manner of application. It comprises a judicial withdrawal on the part of the parent that allows room for the logical sequence of events to take place. It works both ways. The natural consequence of not eating is the discomfort of hunger. The natural consequence of eating is the comfort of satisfaction.

. . . Many times a logical consequence to fit the act will occur to us after a little thought. We merely need to ask ourselves, “What would happen if I didn’t interfere?” Homework not done brings the teacher’s wrath. Toys destroyed are gone – not replaced. Clothes not put into the hamper don’t get washed. And so on. At other times it may be necessary to subtly arrange the consequence.

Betty, three, neglected to brush her teeth. In order to get the job done, Mother had to go with her and force her each time. This quarrel upset both Mother and Betty. Then Mother thought of a consequence. She told Betty that she need not brush her teeth if she didn’t want to. But since candy and sweets destroy unbrushed teeth, Betty could have no sweets. Thereafter, Mother avoided any mention of tooth brushing. For a week Betty neither brushed her teeth nor had any sweets. The other children had candy and ice cream. One afternoon Betty announced that she wanted to brush her teeth and have some candy. “Not now, Betty. Morning is the proper time to brush teeth.” The girl accepted this without complaint. The next morning she brushed her teeth of her own accord.

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