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Q:  My eight-year-old son is a poor sport. He’s been asked to leave several sports programs because of rudeness to other players and disrespect to adults, but he doesn’t seem to care. I think he’s just not as sports-minded as his dad wants him to be. His teachers report that he is a bad sport if he can’t be first to do whatever the class is doing. When other children make mistakes in class, he makes fun of them. What can we do to shape him up before he becomes the most unliked kid around?

A:  This is not a simple problem of your son not being “sports minded.” He is exhibiting some very pronounced antisocial behaviors—bullying in today’s vernacular—which are likely to worsen over time. Children who are verbal bullies at age eight are likely to be physical bullies in their early teens. The antisocial child is nearly always described as not caring about the consequences of his or her behavior.

Children who engage in antisocial behavior of this sort often come from families in which there is a high level of marital discord. If this describes your situation, then it’s vital to your son’s emotional and social health that you and your husband seek marriage and family counseling. Even if this doesn’t apply to you, it would be a good idea for you to seek a family health evaluation from a qualified and experienced professional.

When family health is not the issue, I’ve had the best outcomes with an approach I call “kicking the child out of the Garden of Eden.” The child comes home from school one day to find that all of his possessions save furniture and essential (not to include favorite) clothing have been transferred to a storage unit that he has no chance of accessing. In addition, all electronics—television, video games, computer, CD player, even a radio—are prohibited for the duration. At that point, the child is put on a program that allows him to earn back possessions and privileges one at a time, beginning with those he values the least.

A comprehensive list of “misfit” behaviors is drawn up, and a copy is given to the child. In your son’s case, the list would include making fun of or laughing at other children, being rude to other children or to adults, becoming angry if he can’t be first, and so on. Next, after checking with his teacher, you have him write a one-page letter of apology—a letter, mind you, not a sentence or paragraph—to every child in his class or on a team that he has ever made fun of or been rude toward. He must also write a letter to his teacher and to his coaches. In these letters, he must not only apologize for disrespectful behavior but also tell the person why the behavior was wrong. Future antisocial outbursts require more letters of apology.

Every week, you meet with his teacher to get a progress report. On Friday evening, you have a home conference with your son to review his progress or lack of it. He can earn nothing back for two weeks, after which good reports from his teacher, along with good behavior at home and elsewhere, result in the restoration of either one possession or one privilege. You determine what he gets back, not him, and possessions/privileges are returned in “reverse order”—the ones he values the most he gets back last.

I’m glad you recognize that your son has a problem with antisocial behavior. Too often, the parents of bullies defend their children. Given the seriousness of the problem, and regardless of your family situation, you would do well to contract with a professional who can help coach you through the inevitable backsliding and relapses that will occur. At best, this is going to be a relatively long haul, and the more support you have, the better.

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 Elizabeth Stevens at 919-403-8712.

When Your Child Is a Bully

by John Rosemond
From the March 2007 Signs