My book ‘When Good Kids Do Bad Things‘ was first published in 1991. I was worried enough then about the emphasis on kids feeling good instead of behaving properly. The myth was that feeling good would lead to proper behavior. The truth is that proper behavior leads to feeling good and high self esteem. And true confession, until I became a foster parent I was 100% on “the understand a child’s feelings, help them feel good and all will be well” band wagon. How wrong I was.
This morning, Sunday 4/22/2012, I sent up a world class cheer. Why? On one of the talk shows Peggy Noonan commented that acting like a grown up seemed to have gone out of fashion. She was referring to the scandals rocking the airways about the behavior of some government employees. I cheered because I finally felt someone with some clout was on my side. Here is what Peggy said recently in an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal.
My favorite quote from the article: “Special thanks to the person who invented casual Friday. Now it’s casual everyday in America. But when you lower standards people don’t decide to give you more, they give you less.”
Now, I know that makes me sound like a wearisome old woman or Miss Manners or a Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child Preacher. I am old, but I am a born again hippie, not a born again preacher. Let me share the lesson I learned my first six weeks as a foster parent. We were special need foster parents selected for my professional credentials and charged with caring for six teens each in one way or another in trouble with the law. Some just couldn’t get along with their parents, others were deliquents.
The week our doors were opened to our kids three boys and three girls came to live with us. The first week was hectic, but the kids were relatively easy to get along with. The second week four out of the six asked us to adopt them. The third week, four had to be removed, three rioted and threatened to kill our son and then us. The fourth threatened just to kill us. The fourth week a psychiatrist who had talked to each of the kids, said the problem was that we had not been understanding enough. He said the kids complained that we treated our two year old son differently, lived in too fancy a town, and had dogs. My biggest sin was that I served skim milk. Yes, I served skimmed milk, but only to David; the foster kids had whole milk. Essentially, the message was that I hadn’t been a good enough therapist. David disagreed and felt I had been too much a therapist.
I had insisted we work to understand feelings and particularly that we not worry about what was said. “Behavior, not language, matters.”
How wrong I was. Language was the fence keeping other behaviors under control. Once we controlled what was said, if a kid got angry as kids will do, a loud use of the F-word replaced riotous wall smashing or “Kill the parents” talk. Now it was a bit more complicated than that, but controlling the language was a major step. We did three things to get bad talk under control:
- Expressed our rage if our language rules were broken. It was interesting to me that real anger had to be part of my response. Hurt and angry kids need to lash out and a neutral response did not satisfy that need.
- Deducted a bad talk fine from the culprit’s allowance.
- Made it clear, that except for fighting words, we didn’t care much what kids said when only with other kids.
I was constantly astounded that the most foul mouth, street hardened kids cleaned up their acts within a day or two.
Since my days as a foster parent, I have watched language denigrate to the point where cursing a parent or teacher is standard behavior for some. Not healthy. Related to Noonan’s complaint. I do not blame parents, but I do blame my fellow therapists and the Soft Love parent advisers. And I also blame the media, the movies, the ranting heads on television.
What is a parent to do? Don’t despair, don’t turn to applying the rod. Do make good manners and clean language the standard for your home and yourself. Make it clear, language itself isn’t the problem, but respecting other people is and that starts with respecting your rules.
If dealing with a teen, do the same. If you haven’t come down hard on language or been big on teaching the ins and outs of saying please and thank you, confess you have had an awakening. Your children are on their way to the real world and in the real world manners matter and you expect them to start mattering in your house.
You can make manners a rule for all and whatever reward or punishment systems gets put in place all will be subject. Freedom from chores for the most mannerly might work. I suspect some of you can come up with some good ideas for bringing on the manners.
Stay strong and keep caring.