Q: My 11-year-old son cuts corners on everything. If he does a chore, he’ll leave the cleaning products behind. If his bed is hard to make, he hides the sheet in the closet and throws the blanket over the bed. He doesn’t bother studying for tests, figuring he’ll get A’s anyway. We’re now seeing this in his soccer practices, where he’s started literally cutting corners. How can we get a handle on this bad habit?
A: Because it isn’t blatant, as in out-and-out disrespect or disobedience, this sort of problem can be difficult to get a handle on. Today’s parents believe in “parenting technology”—that for every behavioral problem, there’s a solution. The fact is that parents can’t solve all the possible problems a child may develop. In fact, they can’t solve any of those problems. It doesn’t matter what the problem is, parents can only put on pressure in the form of consequences of one sort or another, in hope that it will motivate the child to solve the problem. Some children respond well to this pressure, some don’t. Sometimes children don’t solve the problem until they’re into a crisis, and the crisis may not occur until they’re well into adulthood.
When parents use consequences in the mistaken belief there’s a magic consequence that will solve the problem in question, they miss the point and may be setting up both themselves and their children to fail. The purpose of consequences is simply to demonstrate to children that in the real world, sooner or later, bad behavior causes bad things to happen. Hopefully, your son will “get it,” and solve his problem.
Furthermore, if the consequence doesn’t lead your son to solve the problem, that doesn’t necessarily mean the consequence wasn’t the right one. That belief often causes parents to try one consequence after another in a rather haphazard attempt to find the one that will work. It’s possible that the consequence in question was insufficient—that it didn’t apply enough pressure. On the other hand, it may well be that the consequence was sufficient, but the child wasn’t ready to change.
Having delivered the necessary disclaimer, my recommendation is that you focus on one problem area and one only. Don’t bite off more than you and your son can chew by trying to solve the chore, school, and soccer problems all at once. Start with chores. Make a list of the specific things your son does to cut corners on chores. Suspend a privilege or package of privileges until he’s solved the habit of slacking off on chores and has had no relapses for a month. Mind you, his rehabilitation may take four weeks, or it may take four months or four years. Hang in there, and continue imposing the consequence(s) until he gets it. And be ready to accept that you are not the appointed agent of change concerning this problem. The appointed agent of change may not enter his life until he’s 45 years old. We’ve all seen that happen, haven’t we?
This is what I call the “hang in there principle.” If a child does wrong things and the child’s parents do the right things and the child keeps on doing the wrong things, then the child’s parents should simply keep on doing the right things.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.