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The parents of a five-year-old asked for my advice about an interesting problem. Mandy took things from her parents without their permission. Most of the things she took were small items that belonged to her mother such as makeup, jewelry, and other accessories. Occasionally, however, Mandy took things from her father like chewing gum and nail clippers.

When something turned up missing, Mandy’s parents would confront her. “Did you take it?” they would ask.

“No,” she would reply.

At this point, the game of “Scotland Yard” would commence. Her parents would follow a trail of clues straight to where Mandy had secreted the missing item. This might take anywhere from three minutes to three days. After her parents found the loot, Mandy would confess, and her explanation was always the same: “I just wanted to look at it.”

“But why did you hide it?” her parents would plead. “Why didn’t you put it back?”

“I don’t know,” Mandy would reply, tearing up.

“Why didn’t you just ask us for it in the first place?”

Once again, Mandy would say “I don’t know” and begin to cry.

Mandy’s parents didn’t know what to think, say, or do about all this. Sometimes they were angry at Mandy, and sometimes they worried that she took things from them because she felt unloved. Eventually, they went to see a child therapist who came to the conclusion that Mandy was “manipulating” her parents in order to control them and be the center of their attention.

When Mandy’s parents came to me about the problem, I told them I didn’t think Mandy was trying to manipulate them. A child Mandy’s age has no more insight into her own behavior than the moon has cheese. Insightfulness and, therefore, the ability to knowingly manipulate others, doesn’t fully emerge until a child reaches early adolescence, at best.

When a problem such as Mandy’s has a stranglehold on a family, the parents must take the upper hand and in so doing demonstrate their authority, defuse the issue, and remove the child’s need to continue misbehaving. Although some form of punishment may, in certain instances, be appropriate, punishment alone will change nothing. In some way, the child must be given a large share of the responsibility for solving the problem. The manner in which this is done depends upon many things, but here’s how we did it with Mandy.

First, her parents stopped playing Scotland Yard. They put a small box, labeled “Mom and Dad Things” in Mandy’s room. Next, they redefined the problem, calling it “curiosity” (a positive word) instead of “stealing” or “taking” (negative words).

“Mandy,” they said, “you have our permission to be curious about our things. From now on, when you take something of ours to look at or play with, just put it in this box when you’re through with it.”

If something turned up missing, they went to Mandy’s room and looked in the box. Usually, it was there. If not, instead of asking questions (the first move in Scotland Yard), they made a statement to Mandy such as, “Mandy I need my car keys back, please,” and lo and behold, Mandy would give them back! Ultimately, Mandy stopped going into her parents’ room altogether unless she had their permission. And all returned to normal in Mandyland.

Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, call Elizabeth Stevens at (919) 403-8712.

Living With Children

by John Rosemond
From the May 2008 Signs