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Q: Our son, who’s almost four years old, says nasty things to us. Last night, for example, when my husband was reading him a bedtime story, he said, “I don’t love you anymore, Daddy, and I want you to move out of our house.” We don’t know where he’s picking this stuff up. We’ve explained that comments of that sort hurt people’s feelings, but it seems to make no difference. We’ve even sent him to his room for about 20 minutes, and upon release he promises to say nice things, but the nasty comments keep coming. Should we continue to punish him or just ignore this?

A: Let’s take the issues one at a time. First, you don’t know where he’s picking up the nasty talk. Where does a toddler who’s never been to day care pick up, “You’re not the boss of me”? Children sometimes think of things on their own, and a good number of the things in question are attributable to nothing more than being human, ergo, being obstinate, willful, and even perverse.

Second, you’ve probably succeeded at getting him to understand that some of his comments hurt other people’s feelings. He probably already knew that, but knowing that he’s hurting other people’s feelings may actually make “nasty talk” all the more satisfying.

America slipped into childrearing la-la land in the 1960s, and we’ve been stuck there ever since. Part of the la-la involves the belief that all child behavior can be explained in terms of psychological mechanisms, when in fact, some behavior is “just the way it is.” The other part of la-la is the notion that children are inherently good, when the preponderance of evidence suggests otherwise. You don’t have to teach bad. You have to teach good, and sometimes, even if you teach it, the bad persists.

In days gone by, responsible parents took child rearing seriously, but they took their children with the proverbial grain of salt. Today, responsible parents take both child rearing and their children very, very seriously. As a consequence, the humor has all but drained out of parenting.

So a child says something completely ridiculous such as, “I don’t love you anymore, Daddy,” and today’s parents become instantly anxious. They talk to the child, because they think proper talking will solve all problems. I call this “yada, yada discipline.” Suddenly, the child finds himself sitting at the controls of the family. The “power corrupts” principle kicks in, and the problem worsens, which results in more parental overreaction, and in no time at all, there’s a mountain where there could have been a molehill.

The next time you have the opportunity to respond to a nasty comment, try saying something like this, “Oh, I am moving out! Tomorrow! I’m going to build a hotel just for me, and I’ll make it look like a castle, because I’ve always wanted to live in a castle and be a king. And when I’m king of my own castle, you can come see me, and you can even come to my birthday party at the castle. There’ll be clowns and horses and even ephalumps. Won’t that be fun?”

By then he’ll probably be laughing. That’s when you kiss him good night and leave the room. And everyone will sleep well that night.

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 September 2008 Signs