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Kids misbehave in public, testing parents' composure

 

QUESTION: My three-year-old can be counted on to behave like a brat whenever we are in the mall or in a restaurant. He seems to know I will not punish him there in front of other people. How should I handle this tactic?

DR. DOBSON: Let me answer you with an illustration from nature. They tell me that a raccoon can usually kill a dog if he gets him in a lake or river. He will simply pull the hound underwater until he drowns. Most other predatory animals prefer to do battle on the turf of their own choosing. So do children. If they’re going to pick a fight with Mom or Dad, they’d rather stage it in a public place, such as a supermarket or in the church foyer.

They are smart enough to know that they are “safer” in front of other people. They will grab candy or speak in disrespectful ways that would never be attempted at home. Again, the most successful military generals are those who surprise the enemy in a terrain advantageous to their troops. Public facilities represent the high ground for a rambunctious preschooler.

You may be one of the parents who has fallen into the trap of creating “sanctuaries” in which the old rules aren’t enforced. It is a certainty that your strong-willed son or daughter will notice those safe zones and behave offensively and disrespectfully when there. There is something within the tougher child that almost forces him to “test the limits” in situations where the resolve of adults is in question.

Therefore, I recommend that you lay out the ground rules before you enter those public arenas, making it clear that the same rules will apply. Then if he misbehaves, simply take him back to the car or around the corner and do what you would have done at home. His public behavior will improve dramatically.


QUESTION: I have a very fussy eight-month-old baby who cries whenever I put her down. My pediatrician says she is healthy and that she cries just because she wants me to hold her all the time. I do give her a lot of attention, but I simply can’t keep her on my lap all day long. How can I make her less fussy?

DR. DOBSON: The crying of infants is an important form of communication. Through their tears we learn of their hunger, fatigue, discomfort, or diaper disaster. Thus, it is important to listen to those calls for help and interpret them accordingly.

On the other hand, your pediatrician is right. It is possible to create a fussy, demanding baby by rushing to pick her up every time she utters a whimper or a sigh. Infants are fully capable of learning to manipulate their parents through a process called reinforcement, whereby any behavior that produces a pleasant result will tend to recur. Thus, a healthy baby can keep her mother hopping around her nursery twelve hours a day (or night) by simply forcing air past her sandpaper larynx.

To avoid this consequence, it is important to strike a balance between giving your baby the attention she needs and establishing her as a tiny dictator. Don’t be afraid to let her cry for a reasonable period of time (which is thought to be healthy for the lungs), although it is necessary to listen to the tone of her voice for the difference between random discontent and genuine distress. Most mothers learn to recognize this distinction very quickly.

When my daughter was one year of age, I used to stand out of sight at the doorway of her nursery for four or five minutes, awaiting a momentary lull in the crying before going to pick her up. By so doing, I reinforced the pauses rather than the tears. You might try the same approach.


Dr. Dobson is founder and Chairman Emeritus of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80995 (www.focusonthefamily.org). Questions and answers are excerpted from “Complete Marriage and Family Home Reference Guide” and “Bringing Up Boys,” both published by Tyndale House. COPYRIGHT 2010 JAMES DOBSON INC.