Decisive Discipline

Family Matters

What do you think of the idea that kids misbehave to get attention; therefore, if a parent ignores bad behavior, it (the behavior, not the kid) will go away?

The idea that kids misbehave to get attention was one I was educationally nursed on. Fortunately, I didn't pay much attention to it then. And now, after 25 years of observing parents and kids, I am even more convinced that it is mostly false.

Here's the gist of the “kids act bad to get noticed” theory: 1. Kids want attention. 2. They'll find ways to get it. 3. Bad attention is better than no attention. 4. Acting bad will force big people to attend. 5. Discipline is an acceptable price to pay for attention.

Plausible sounding, but faulty. Kids do want attention. They will push for as much as they can get. It does not follow, however, that the typical motive for the typical kid's misbehavior is to force attention. Most kids, as studies suggest, misbehave for one psychologically complex reason: They want to do what they want to do. Indeed, don't we all?

Motives for misbehavior are nearly endless: impulse, frustration, control, deception, manipulation, aggression. (Sounds like the promo for a new fall miniseries, doesn't it?) Most children quickly learn that getting attention is not a priority reason for acting up, especially if it comes in the form of discipline. Discipline carries too many negatives, particularly if parents are consistent.

It is more accurate to say that kids can misbehave for attention, or that they can gain from the resultant upheaval (or control, or parental agitation) caused by their misconduct. But these are effects, not necessarily motives.

The misbehaviorfor-attention notion also heaps guilt on good parents. If Talulah is misbehaving just to get attention, does this mean she's not getting enough from you? Is your parenthood deficient in this regard? Is her obnoxiousness, at root, really all your fault? You may be just too oblivious or self-absorbed to raise a good kid.

Nonsense. Good parents give plenty of attention. They may not give all a child wants, but what children want is not always good for them. Some kids are ravenous attention-seekers because they get too much to begin with.

Naturally, it follows that, if attention is not a prime motive for mis-behavior, ignoring the trouble usually won't make it go away. Most misconduct has to be effectively dealt with in order to reduce it and to teach a lesson about life.

There's a pretty straightforward law of discipline: The more passive your discipline, the longer it takes to work. You may not be yielding to the demands of a temper fit as you attempt — however vainly — to tune it out. But you are also not holding Stormy accountable for the rudeness or nastiness or violence of her fit. Discipline works more quickly when a parent is willing not to ignore, but to act decisively and firmly when called for.

One last logic problem: If Harmony is truly acting up to gain your attention, and you don't give it, why then wouldn't she just escalate her misconduct until she gets it? If 90-decibel screaming evokes no reaction from you, why not kick it up to 110 and see what happens?

Sometimes, doesn't it seem that kids act as though they're too smart for us psychologist types and our theories?

Dr. Ray Guarendi is a father of 10, a psychologist and an author.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy