My son was 6-years-old.
He was reading chapter books and could string together a story about the Pokemon sitting on his shoulder who didn’t need a seatbelt because he could just fly into the air if we got into a collision—yes, he could use words like collision accurately—and he loved to learn and discover and invent things.
But he would NOT write three sentences a day in his “journal” for his first grade teacher!
Every night, the same routine:
Me: What can you write in your journal?
Him: I don’t want to.
Me: It’s just three sentences. What happened today? Just write anything.
Him: dawdle dawdle dawdle …no writing…
Me: *threats of time out, no TV, ranting about how this should have taken 5 minutes but it’s already been 30, why won’t you just do it?*
Yeah, I have better skills than that, but sometimes I forget to use them.
The root of an at-times defiant, difficult child: discouragement
Rudolf Dreikurs, a 20th century psychologist who focused much of his work on parenting, observed that, “A misbehaving child is a discouraged child.”
What? Why would he be discouraged? He’s a creative story teller! Why can’t he write three sentences?
To find out, I needed to look beyond my son’s misbehavior, to the possible belief behind it.
I remembered what his Montessori teacher told me when he was two:
“He has temper tantrums because his brain is ahead of his body, and he can’t get his body to do what his brain wants to do.”
Hmmm… I asked him, “Is it thinking of something to say that’s hard or the actual writing part?”
He couldn’t make the letters look the way they were “supposed to,” and it took too long to write all the words that were in his head—his body wouldn’t do what his brain wanted it to do.
He was discouraged: deprived of courage and confidence; disheartened (Merriam-Webster).
The belief behind his behavior was, “I can’t do it. I’ve given up, and I want you to give up on me, too.”
Dreikurs referred to this belief as “assumed inadequacy.”
I hear it in kids all the time. It sounds like:
*I just can’t do math. I give up.
*I can’t pay attention. I have ADD.
*I can never do it well enough to suit my parents, so I just won’t do it.
This is one of the hardest places to pull a kid out of because the child’s behavior makes adults feel the same emotions that the child is feeling: hopeless, helpless, and inadequate.
These uncomfortable emotions are frequently masked by the child with defiance and lack of motivation. Adults mask with anger and then want to give up, too. But when we dig a little deeper, we will nearly always find a cry for help:
“I’ve given up on me. But please, don’t you give up on me, too!”
Tips for encouraging your child, combating defiant behavior
Pulling our child out of this hole takes creativity and patience. The Positive Discipline program (developed by Dr. Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott, and based on the work of Dreikurs and his colleague, Alfred Adler) provides lots of suggestions, including:
1. Break a task down into small steps and ask your child to just do one step at a time.
Take a break between steps, depending on the nature of the task.
“That’s a pretty big pile of clothes to put away. Let’s find all of the shirts and do them first.”
2. Focus on the child’s assets and use them to handle challenges.
“You are really good at remembering stats about famous ball players. I wonder how you could use your memory skills to help you with those math formulas.”
3. Stop all criticism. Notice any movement in a positive direction.
“I noticed that when you got your homework done in 30 minutes, we had time to play catch before dinner.”
I used a combination of all three of those to help my son.
I asked if he would trace the letters if I wrote them lightly on the paper first. He said ok. He felt skilled enough to trace—just not enough to make the letters freehand.
Then I asked him to tell me a story, and I wrote the first three sentences. He traced what I had written, and felt proud of how his writing looked. With this kind of daily practice, within a few months, he was writing everything by himself.
To grow courage in our kids, parents have to be courageous!
When they want to give up, we have to keep trying! We can start by assuming they want to be successful, and then look beyond the behavior that seems to contradict that assumption.
Once we’ve found the core belief that’s locking them up, we can work with them to create solutions that lead them out of discouragement and into capability.