Q: We have two boys, ages eight and seven. They are completely—and I mean completely—out of control. They constantly argue, fight, and tattle. If they’re not fighting, they’re playing chaotically. Homework is a constant battle, and getting them to bed takes more than an hour. To top it off, they completely ignore us when we give them instructions, and one boy’s disobedience seems to make the other boy worse. It’s driving me absolutely nuts, but they don’t seem to care. We can’t go out in public or have people over to our house because their behavior is at its worst when other people are around. They love an audience. Please help!
A: When unresolved discipline problems have piled up to this level, parents begin acting frantic, which simply makes matters worse. No discipline approach is going to work when parents are at their wits’ end. Under these circumstances, when some method doesn’t work, the defeat results in a greater feeling of despair and yet another haphazard approach that’s bound to fail.
To begin solving your numerous problems with these wild boys, you’re going to have to focus on one problem— and one problem only. While doing so, you will need to let the others go. Just muddle through them as best you can, the important thing being that you stop losing your cool. How do you stop losing your cool? By experiencing some success, and by realizing that these problems are not insurmountable. You’re in desperate need of some optimism, and I’m going to do my best to help you acquire it.
I recommend that you start with the conflict between the boys themselves. Even though the other problems may be bigger, let them go for now. After all, they’re not going to get any worse; and if you try to solve more than one of these problems at a time, you’ll end up solving none.
Create a “three strikes, you’re out” rule. A strike occurs whenever the sibling conflict disturbs you even in a small way, and that most definitely includes tattling. A strike, no matter which boy causes it, applies to both boys, which means they have to sit in separate chairs, in separate places in the house, for 30 minutes. Use a kitchen timer to signal when the time is up. If either boy so much as stands up before the timer goes off, reset it for both boys, and keep resetting it until they’ve sat for an entire 30 minutes. The third strike of the day means they sit in their designated chairs for the rest of the day, which you shorten by putting them to bed immediately after supper. During this time, give them five minutes an hour to go to the bathroom.
If they have separate rooms, you can put them in their rooms at the third strike, but for this to be effective you must first remove anything they can use for entertainment.
If you can keep your cool and simply enforce the “do not disturb Mom and Dad’s peace” rule dispassionately, you should begin seeing significant improvement in a couple of weeks. Give it two more weeks for the progress to “harden,” then add a second problem to the list. In relatively little time, these wild boys are going to realize that their wild days are over.
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.