Dealing with kids' discipline issues...Expert commentary

Garden School kids on a recent outing.
Garden School kids on a recent outing.

(Editor's note: Judy Lyden has worked with very young children for over thirty years. She's been a preschool teacher for over twenty. She co-owns the Garden School, an early childhood academic center, with Edith St. Louis. )

One of the problems we're seeing at the Garden School is a sudden influx of truly poorly behaved children - children who are demanding, rude, and insufferably selfish. We've wondered why, but only nominally, because it became very evident very quickly that the local trend to "never say no to a child" and the fact that "we are a non-teaching place" has more than outlived its usefulness if it ever had one.

Five different children have come from five different places in the city and each one of these children has terrible anger management issues that go with a belief that the problem lies outside self and is actually the fault of the nearest adult - whoever he or she is.

So what's the source of the problem and how do parents resolve it?

The source of the problem is lack of commitment on the part of those who say they will care for a child. Caring for a child during day time hours is a very complex thing. Providing a roof, a toilet, a couple of passable meals and a few toys in 35 square feet of monotonous space amounts to kiddy storage not kiddy care. The result of kiddy storage more often than not is kiddy anger, frustration and lashing out. Families are frustrated, but it seems to be the only show in town.

So what should parents expect and even demand when paying for "Childcare?"

The first and primary expectation parents should have is a commitment to the continuation of a child's home, and that means employing adults who form, discipline, teach and love a child. It means having enough for a child to do during the day that the adult doesn't have to say "no" a lot.

Formation allows a child to grow up well. Discipline teaches a child he is not invincible. Through trial and error, through perseverance, a child learns to work, to reap the rewards of his own efforts, and these things allow him to build real self-esteem rather than the kind of cookie jar (everyone gets a cookie) self-esteem we too often see.

Discipline doesn't mean punishment; it means self control. Learning self control is a difficult lesson to learn if the adult in charge doesn't love you. But how can you love a child you can't teach, can't bond with, can't help to form? We are talking about 8-10 hours a day five days a week - of what?

The longer I'm in this business, the stronger my own commitment to teaching becomes. The more I see my Garden School children thrive on what my staff teaches, the more dedicated I am to the kind of liberal arts education that classical schools teach. Filling a child's mind with information he can use to dream, to play, to work is not a gift, not an extra, but an essential, and parents should demand that care providers teach real things in a real curriculum every single day.

What is happening throughout the city is a failure to teach, a failure to provide enough activity and brainwork in childcare and as a result, the children are unhappy and lash out. The basic plan for 1950's childcare was to "round 'em all up by age and put 'em in a room for a whole day - oh, throw in a few toys once in a while. Sure, they can toilet, eat, sleep, play and live in the one boxy room all day for ten to twelve hours. It can't hurt them..."

But it is hurting them. Children who come from single room childcare centers, who spend whole days and months in the same 35 square feet of space, develop the same behavior problems as caged animals. They get mean; they get sullen; they begin to resist even the affections of those who would love them. They have trouble with social issues, friends, and self love.

So what's the prognosis for the five children? It will take weeks for these children to begin to trust adults again. Then it will take time to re-teach what their parents once taught them - how to love.

Re- examine your child's situation ASAP.  If your child is rarely allowed out of his box during the day, if he eats, sleeps, and toilets in the same room, you need to re-think this mind deadening situation. Try staying half a day with your child to know what it's really like.