Kids' Bad Behavior: The Answer is at Home...Commentary

I can't begin to count how many parents have asked over the years how to modify behavior in a disturbingly naughty child. I always tell them the same thing.

Poor behavior begins to develop in the second year. It begins when the child realizes that he can do pretty much what he wants without consequence - a consequence that will count. It often begins with parents too busy and too distracted by other things to understand that this is THE age - 2-3 - when children learn what "no" really means.

Some parents with the best intentions will choose to defer to a more enlightened philosophy of child rearing - they skip saying "no;" they decide that it's better to ignore poor behaviors and let them work themselves out. It's a new more tolerant scheme that lets the open minded parent off the hook about saying "no." Parents find it's easier than bearing the brunt of a child's anger and tears.

Poor behavior is attractive to some children and not to others. Some children despise what amounts to rearing themselves and will lash out at authority figures simply because they are frightened and then later on about age five, they are simply angry. Fear and neglect will do that to a child. This causes them to appear naughty and act naughty.

Some children love the freedom to do whatever it is that upsets the apple cart. They hit, they scream, they throw tantrums, they destroy, they disrupt, they treat their parents and everyone around them like dirt, and after age three, no one seems to be able to stop them.

To the more enlightened, progressive child expert, it's not fashionable to stop a child; it's fashionable to "redirect" him. So the behavior continues without consequence for the child - just the parent.

The question is what is going on? The answer is not much. There have always been poorly behaved children and there always will be. The more interesting question is how can parents stand it?

By the time a child is well into behaving poorly, a lot of parents have become afraid of conflicts with the child. It's ugly; it's loud; it upsets the whole household. And when they reach out for the parent mace, the child balks and threatens them.

So when it gets really bad, what can a parent to do curb a child who is finally completely out of control?

If you truly believe that the parent is the first and primary educator of a child, then you also believe that there is something about the behavior of the parent that is causing the child to model poorly. The key to success then is to examine one's conscience and ask, "What is it that I am doing wrong that I am willing to change for my child?"

Most adults are not willing to go that far or think that it's all that necessary or even know where to look in their own profiles to find the culprit behaviors.

Sadly, the result is that most parents will never succeed in curbing a nasty child because they won't understand that their own behavior is actually the child's first and most important classroom and he's learning from them. Children respond to and for their parents.

If parents finally take the leap toward changing, they can begin the therapy by asking, "Who is the child? Who is the parent? What is the order of these lives? What is the order supposed to be?"

Making the changes necessary to salvage a child will be an uphill battle. Opening the window of opportunity when it has closed for teaching anything, even what "No" means will be extraordinarily difficult. It will take twice the patience, twice the time, twice the work, and for a while, the child will struggle with nearly everything. It takes a really strong parent to undo what has been done and redo what should have been done.