My guilty little secret turns out to have been a good thing

In Marin County, spanking a child is a very dangerous activity.  Although spanking is not illegal, it’s enough to entangle you with Child Protective Services and, from that moment on, parenting life as you know it is over.  Despite the danger, when my kids were little, I spanked them.  With two unguided missiles, sometimes the only way I could get control over the situation was a quick smack.  With a four year old, reasoning doesn’t work; taking away privileges is too time-attenuated; and my kids didn’t care about time-outs.  A quick spanking relieved my anger and gave them a very quick lesson in cause and effect (cause:  naughty; effect:  spanking).

It turns out now that my secret forays into old-fashioned discipline were a gift to my children:

Children who are smacked by parents often turn out more successful than those who have not, research has found.

The study concluded that children who had been physically disciplined when they were young, between the ages of 2 and 6, were performing better as teenagers on almost every measure that was taken into consideration than those who had never been smacked.

It was only in cases where it continued beyond the age of 12 that the children were found to be affected negatively, resulting in a dip on performance indicators.

The results of the US-based study undermines the efforts of various campaigners who have been trying to have physical punishment outlawed in the UK, who have claimed that it causes long-term damage to the children.

Read the rest here.

I only wish I could have been able to smack them on a more regular basis when they were really naughty little kids.  (Not beat, smack.)  As it was, because of the dangers inherent in corporal punishment, the situation had to be very extreme before I resorted to spanking.  I think my life would have been easier and, I think, they might have been more disciplined now.

Autism diagnoses and parenting problems

Back in November 2007, I wrote a long post talking about the fact that I see a lot of children who are labeled as having Asperger’s (a subset of autism) but who seem instead (or also) to be the victims of profoundly bad parenting.  I noted that I have known over the years children who are actually profoundly disabled, and whose disability has been given the Asperger’s/autism label.  These correctly diagnosed children are quite different from the problem kids I identified in my earlier post.  The children I identified in my post, the ones I thought were victims of diagnostic overkill rather than an actual disability, weren’t kids who lack language skills, or control over their bodies, or who have obsessive interests that impair their ability to function, or who fail to recognize ordinary human emotions.  The kids I know who fall into those latter categories of genuine disability are, frankly, doing wonderfully well and working vigorously to maximize all of their strengths.

Instead, in my November post, I was talking about the children who are prone to chronic tantruming and who get slapped with an Aspergers label as a sop to the parents.  Here is how I described these children, all of whom have on their “permanent records” labels that place them within the autism spectrum:

Where I’m about to get controversial is my sense that, in some cases, Aspergers is the diagnosis given to children whose parents are not parenting. I know three — count ‘em, three — children who are nightmarish behavior problems. What characterizes all three of them is the uncontrollable temper tantrums they have. And I’m not talking about 2 or 3 year olds lying on the floor hollering “No!” I’m talking about kids who are 7 or 8 or even 11 or 12 and who regularly engage in scenes that involve uncontrolled screaming, hurling insults and, often, physical violence against other adults or children. Because of the scenes — and only because of these scenes — each set of parents eventually took the child to a psychiatrist. That is, the parents did not take their kids to the psychiatrists because they weren’t socializing well or because they were obsessed with a single subject at school. They took them because of those off-the-charts tantrums. In all three of the cases I know, the psychiatrists diagnosed the kids with Asbergers.

But here’s what I didn’t tell you about those three children: In each of the three cases, the parents (in my humble estimation) earn an “F” for structure and discipline. The common pattern in each of those households is that one or both of the parents feels an almost excessive sympathy for the kid when he (or she) is frustrated or unhappy. What the child wants, the child gets. One of the children I’m thinking of ruled the whole household. She dictated what was eaten, what wasn’t eaten, where people went, what they did, what bed time was, what toys and games were bought and rejected, etc. The parents thought that they were making her happy, but to an objective observer, the child was miserable. It was way too heavy a burden to place on a 10 year old, and she was a frenzied, hysterical tyrant who was unable to cope if anything didn’t go her way.

What also characterizes all of these parents is that, when the child has a tantrum, regardless of how awful it is, and what havoc it creates, the parents respond, not with discipline, but with sympathy: “The poor little thing. He couldn’t control himself. He was so upset I didn’t have the heart to punish him.” And in each case, this sympathetic response to the child’s tantrums worsens after the diagnosis. Now the parent is not only sorry for the child, but he’s convinced that the child is “sick” and must be handled with ever greater care.

Apparently I’m not the only one who has noticed this diagnostic trend — that is, to reach a psychiatric conclusion that all tantruming little children have a disease — although I pointed it out tactfully and to a small audience.  Radio host Michael Savage apparently made the same point, but did so in way that managed to offend everyone:

Radio talk show host Michael Savage, who described 99 percent of children with autism as brats, said Monday he was trying to “boldly awaken” parents to his view that many people are being wrongly diagnosed.

Some parents of autistic children have called for Savage’s firing after he described autism as a racket last week. “In 99 percent of the cases, it’s a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out,” Savage said on his radio program last Wednesday.

Savage offered no apology in a message posted Monday on his Web site. He said greedy doctors and drug companies were creating a “national panic” by overdiagnosing autism, a mental disorder that inhibits a person’s ability to communicate.

On his radio show last week, he said: “What do you mean they scream and they’re silent? They don’t have a father around to tell them, `Don’t act like a moron. You’ll get nowhere in life. Stop acting like a putz. Straighten up. Act like a man. Don’t sit there crying and screaming, you idiot.'”

As I already demonstrated months ago, I think Savage is on to something.  While all of us recognize that there are genuinely disabled kids out there, kids whose behaviors span the spectrum from severe autism to geeky Aspergers, those of us who are honest recognize that there is also a major epidemic of bad, weak, inconsistent parenting out there, and that it is creating thousands of damaged kids who are treated, not with good parenting, but with bad medicine.  I’m only sorry that it was Savage who made this point, because you can count on him being so spectacularly tactless and inflammatory that the message gets lost in the ruckus.

Teaching kids how to lose *UPDATED*

All of us have noted a trend, one that is especially prevalent in public schools, to insulate kids from losing.  I know that my kids’ public school, as part of its master plan, has instituted a policy by which the kids don’t do any competitive sports on campus in order to protect them from dealing with loss.

I think this is an appalling idea.  As I frequently tell my children, they’ll lose way more often in life than they’ll win.  In order to succeed in life, they have to have a hunger for winning, coupled with the ability to deal with losing.  I tell them that when you lose, you’re sad, you try to figure out how you can do better next time, you suck it up, and then you get on with it.

I actually have a very personal reason for feeling this way.  My parents were very rigorous, demanding parents.  I did not grow up in a loosey-goosey home except for one thing:  If I lost or didn’t do well at something, my mother was so sympathetic that, if I wanted, I was allowed to walk away.  I can’t tell you the number of things, academic, musical and athletic that I abandoned along the way.

I understand and appreciate my Mom’s motives.  She’d had a really terrible life (the usual “terrible” stuff of divorce and dislocation, compounded by several years interned by the Japanese in Indonesia during WWII).*  She so wanted me to have the happiness and security that she had missed.  Part of that was wonderfully done, by giving me love and structure and fairly high expectations.  And part of it was too soft, and didn’t teach me to deal with adversity.

The end result is that my default mode is to be a whiny quitter.  It’s only by high effort from my adult brain that I’m not a whiny, quitting adult.  I do stick with things, but it’s not easy.

I long ago figured out that I needed to do things differently for my kids.  I found my role model about eight years ago when we were visiting some relatives with three very athletic children.  The kids were running around madly, when suddenly the youngest squealed, and ran up to his Dad crying, with a bloody nose and fat lip.  His Dad enveloped him in a hug, said some truly sympathetic words, cleaned him up and threw him back in the game.  There was no lingering over his physical injuries or wallowing in his psychic wrongs.  The boy is now both a basketball and a baseball star, as well as a very sweet person.

I was thinking of all of this today because, over the last couple of weeks, my daughter has had run-ins with a little girl, as well as with the girls’ mother.  I don’t think I’m being unduly partisan when I say that, while I can be as critical of my child as the next person, my child has the right of things here.

You see, both girls are competing in the same sport, at the same age level.  My daughter adores the activity and has gone from abysmally horrible to pretty darn good.  The other child went from okay to okay.  She hasn’t seen the improvement my daughter has, probably because she doesn’t love the sport as my daughter does.

When my daughter was at rock bottom in the weekly competitions, and everyone else she knew was doing well, she was sad about her own failures, but applauded her friends’ successes (and I know this is true, because I saw her in action).  As my daughter has improved, over-taking this other girl, the other girl has not been a good loser.  Every time she does less well than my daughter, she has a tearful tantrum.

If that were all, it would be just between the girls, and that would be the end of it.  Last week, though, when my daughter ran up, flush with her first success, the mother turned on my daughter for daring to be happy in front of her own psychically wounded little girl.  She then proceeded to spend the next hour lavishing her daughter with attention in an effort to cheer her up.  As for me, I was stuck trying to explain to my daughter why someone yelled at her for being happy.

I’m perfectly willing to agree that my daughter, glorying in her first win after weeks of big losses, probably was completely insensitive to the other girl’s anguish.  Part of that insensitivity, though, was that my daughter has learned, as I’ve taught her, to suck it up.  Acknowledge your loss, feel bad about it for a minute, and then move forward.  She was totally incapable of comprehending a family dynamic that rewards  sore losing with enormous attention — and gifts.

These people are good friends, and I’m not going to damage a solid friendship over this one — which is why I’m venting here and not talking to my friend.  It’s also good for my daughter to learn that not everyone is as tough as she is and to develop the compassion to deal with them, even if she believes there response to be excessive or bizarre.

Mostly, though, I feel sorry for the other girl.  As I know to my own cost (and my mother was not as solicitious as this mother), it’s terrible to go through life not knowing how to lose or deal with adversity.  Sooner or later, something bad is going to happen that you can’t walk away from, and you’ll be stuck trying to deal with it without having developed any coping mechanisms at all.


*My Mom’s experiences at camp are one of the things that keep me from being quite as whiny as I could be.  For example, with today’s heat wave, when I was at the sports event today and temperatures were hitting 100, it was tempting to whine about how unbearable it was.  Then I remembered that, in camp, when the guards were feeling particularly malevolent, they’d impose a collective punishment on a camp filled with women (young and old) and children:  Everybody would have to stand in formation, in the tropical sun, for 24 hours.  Unsurprisingly, large numbers of them died where they stood.  I can therefore take a few hours under an awning with a cool drink in my hand.  If I whine, I keep the tone light.

UPDATED:  I am very, very happy to report that my friend herself figured out that her daughter needs to toughen up.  It turned out that, after today’s breakdown, she gave her daughter a good talking to about learning how to lose.  I’m so pleased.  These are good friends, and people I really value, and it was very hard dealing with situation involving our girls that had us using such diametrically different approaches to a common scenario.

Still, while this problem is resolved (Hurrah!), parents here continue to have a really sad inability to let their children deal with the fact that life is not fair.  On that same point, if you haven’t yet read Joseph Epstein’s The Kindergarchy, you really should.

Switching from a communist to a capitalist economy

I never thought about it, but I was running my house like a commune.  The kids had chores to do, of course, but the incentive was the greater good, my approbation, and an allowance that, in their minds, had no relationship to the tasks demanded.  The kids did not find these incentives inspiring, and the days and works tended to be a blur of my pushing, and pushing, and their pushing back.  I was frustrated, they were resentful, and the house chaotic.

Aside from the practical stalemate of a sort of general household chaos, the “incentives” of “the greater good” and punishment did not work very well at controlling behavioral problems either.  The kids fought like cats and dogs, whined more than one would have thought possible, and thought that interrupting me was an Olympic sport.

Believe it or not, they are nice kids, but life has been a day to day struggle to achieve things that, in the perfectly run “communist” household of my youth, worked well.  As to my youth, my sister reminded me that it probably worked well because my mother, who is a lovely woman, nevertheless carried a a very big stick.  Also, my sister and I were exceptionally biddable children (probably because of that same stick).

I decided this summer to switch to capitalism, aided by the fact that the kids have very strong commercial desires — he wants a Rip Stick and she (I blush to admit this) Abercrombie clothes.  Here’s the method I devised:

I have a lot of big tasks in the house that have been bedeviling me, mostly in the form of closets that badly need organizing.  There are also the usual things of dirty kitchens, clean (but full) dishwashers, and stacks of clean, unfolded laundry.  I told the kids that, on a daily basis, I will assign them a task with a good salary.  Not a piddling 50 cents or $1 per task, but $5 to $20 per child, depending on the task’s magnitude.

There are conditions, however.  First, they must listen well as I explain the task.  Second, while doing the task, they cannot fight with each other or come whining to me.  If they don’t understand something, they may interrupt me only if it brings the task to a dead halt.  Otherwise, they have to set aside things that confuse them and wait until they’ve reached a functional wall.  If they commit any of the bad employee sins — not listening, fighting, whining, or excessive interrupting — I dock their pay, to the point where they may find themselves doing the task for no money at all.

My husband, to my surprise, thought this was a wonderful idea.  He offered a further incentive.  If the kids could get through the whole summer without having their pay docked, he’ll double whatever they earn from me.

We put the system in effect yesterday and it was the first day ever that the kids cleaned their rooms, tidied the house, and organized a closet without fighting, whining or interrupting me every second.  The whole thing flowed.  They leaped from project to project with enthusiasm and good will.  At the end of the day, they eagerly counted their earnings, projected ahead to the time at which they’d be able to make their purchases, and expressed surprise at (a) how fun it had been to work well and (b) how nice it was not to fight.

I couldn’t resist, of course, and gave them a little lesson in the differences between communism and capitalism.  They completely understood how, with money as the hub, we were all able to achieve our goals:  they moved further towards their Rip Stick and Abercrombie clothes, and I got a tidy house, an organized closet, and two well-behaved kids.

I’ll try to keep you posted on this capitalist experiment.

Am I being insufferably self-righteous?

I would like your opinion. Mr. Bookworm thinks I’m taking “holier than thou-ness” to a nauseating (and hypocritical) extreme. I think he is on the verge of a parenting error. Here’s the deal:

Mr. Bookworm came across an opportunity to obtain some stuff for the kids without actually going through the shopping process. Indeed, early tonight, he was so strong in his belief that he will be doing this that he told the kids he might be getting a gift for them.

“But if I do, you can’t tell any of your friends about it,” he told. “You have to promise not to.”

“Why not,” I asked?

“Because, well, because it’s illegal.”

My daughter was instantly concerned that the police would be after her. After we assured her they wouldn’t break down our door (especially because this is all hypothetical right now), my husband and I took the discussion out of the kids’ hearing.

I told my husband I strongly disapproved of his going ahead with this project. I’m not worried about the cops breaking down the door. I also conceded that, yes, in the past and in small ways, I too have deviated from the straight and narrow. Heck, I’m willing to bet that each of us has in our possession a CD a friend made for us, filled with songs the friend copied from various albums, and that we’ve made, and given, identical CDs to friends. In other words, I wasn’t fool enough to claim the moral high ground on this one.

My really big problem was that I thought the message my husband sent to the kids, with his warnings about silence, was that it’s okay to steal, as long as you don’t get caught. He responded with long, convoluted arguments about the fact that we weren’t really stealing because, because, because, because, each of which I was able to shoot down. (They were all self-serving sophistry, if you ask me.) He also said I never would have taken this position if it weren’t for my blogging. (Apparently blogging conservatively gives you abnormally heightened sensitivities about honesty and how children perceive parental behavior.)

I really didn’t want to argue about the merits of obtaining the stuff, though, since I thought that was a distraction from the main issue. As far as I was concerned, the whole thing came to a screeching halt, without any further room for discussion, when my husband told the kids that he was thinking about giving them something “illegal” (his word), so they couldn’t tell anyone. The unspoken statement there was that, if they keep mum about it, it’s okay. (The funny thing was, when I asked him why he told the kids the stuff would be illegal, he announced that it was because he was being “honest.”)

In my mind, if we go down this path, we’re paving the way for our kids, when they get older, to believe that they can engage in any type of forbidden activity, as long as they keep it secret. That’s true whether they promise me they’ll go to one friend’s house but, instead, sneak off to another’s; or they take drugs or alcohol; or they have sex; or they cheat; or any of a number of activities parents don’t want for their kids. The fact that, as adults, they may actually do those things, and that many adults commonly commit little crimes and lies (“No, really, that skirt is darling on you!” “Honest, officer, the light was yellow.”), doesn’t mean it’s okay for that message to come from the parents.

So, back to my original question: Am I being an insufferable prig when I say that a parent is setting a terrible example by telling the kids that something they’re getting is illegal, so they better keep it secret?

Child Protective Services, police and prosecutors run amok

Do you recall that, a couple of months ago, I wrote a lengthy post about the fact that the apparently benign sounding Child Protective Services has become a vicious scourge assaulting good parents because they’re easy targets? If you don’t recall that post, I recommend that you read it either before or after you read this news story about a good, middle-class Chicago Mom who did nothing wrong by any normal standards, and who certainly didn’t do anything tons of us haven’t ourselves done because we know it’s not the wrong thing, but who is nevertheless being dragged through the criminal justice system, with all the horrible threats that entails:

Treffly Coyne was out of her car for just minutes and no more than 10 yards away.

But that was long and far enough to land her in court after a police officer spotted her sleeping 2-year-old daughter alone in the vehicle; Coyne had taken her two older daughters to pour $8.29 in coins into a Salvation Army kettle.

Minutes later, she was under arrest — the focus of both a police investigation and a probe by the state’s child welfare agency. Now the case that has become an Internet flash point for people who either blast police for overstepping their authority or Coyne for putting a child in danger.

The 36-year-old suburban mother is preparing to go on trial Thursday on misdemeanor charges of child endangerment and obstructing a peace officer. If convicted, she could be sentenced to a year in jail and fined $2,500, even though child welfare workers found no credible evidence of abuse or neglect.

The hysterics who support her prosecution are waffling on about the fact that there are kids who are abandoned in cars and who are kidnapped or die as a result. The problem with that kind of “logic,” if you can dignify such nonsense with that term, is that the facts of this case show that the child was not abandoned and quite manifestly was not at risk:

On Dec. 8 Coyne decided to drive to Wal-Mart in the Chicago suburb of Crestwood so her children and a young friend could donate the coins they’d collected at her husband’s office.

Even as she buckled 2-year-old Phoebe into the car, the girl was asleep. When Coyne arrived at the store, she found a spot to park in a loading zone, right behind someone tying a Christmas tree onto a car.

“It’s sleeting out, it’s not pleasant, I don’t want to disturb her, wake her up,” Coyne said this week. “It was safer to leave her in the safety and warmth of an alarmed car than take her.”

So Coyne switched on the emergency flashers, locked the car, activated the alarm and walked the other children to the bell ringer.

She snapped a few pictures of the girls donating money and headed back to the car. But a community service officer blocked her way.

“She was on a tirade, she was yelling at me,” Coyne said. The officer, Coyne said, didn’t want to hear about how close Coyne was, how she never set foot inside the store and was just there to let the kids donate money, or how she could always see her car.

Coyne telephoned her husband, Tim Janecyk, who advised her not to say anything else to police until he arrived. So Coyne declined to talk further, refusing even to tell police her child’s name.

When Janecyk pulled up, his wife already was handcuffed, sitting in a patrol car.

Crestwood Police Chief Timothy Sulikowski declined to comment about the case. But he did not dispute the contention that Coyne parked nearby or was away from her car for just a few minutes.

He did, however, suggest Coyne put her child at risk.

“A minute or two, that’s when things can happen,” he said.

These self-righteous, self-serving busy-bodies are evil, super-duper idiots who are using vague ideas about societally achievable perfection to prosecute and persecute the good guys. I’ve talked before about the ridiculous trend of “legislating to the fringe,” by which I mean enacting far-reaching legislation that hampers people and business severely, and that is enacted merely because of a story about something bad that happened to (or could maybe have happened to) a handful of people.

The Coyne case is a perfect example of arresting and prosecuting to the fringe: people with the power of the government behind them have taken some extreme and unrealistic scenarios of bad behavior and applied them to a manifestly different situation. This is the gross tyranny of petty bureaucrats and power-mad prosecutors, wannabe Spitzers in the making. I am, as you might have guessed by now, disgusted, angered and, as a good and loving parent, very, very afraid.

Words to my daughter

My daughter is a tween and is just starting to think that she is smart and I am stupid.  We therefore had a little talk this morning.  Or, rather, I gave her a short lecture.  I explained that, when I was young and my mother, like me, was in her late 40s, we used to do Israeli folk dancing together, a very popular activity amongst Jews in the early- to mid-1970s.  I learned dances in an instant, remembered them forever and was as light as a feather.  My mother learned dances painfully over days and weeks, forgot them quickly, and moved stiffly.  My teenage mind reached an instant and absolute conclusion:  I was much smarter than my mother.

It’s only now that I’m my mother’s age, of course, that I see what was actually going on.  When we’re young, our fairly empty minds absorb information like sponges.  When we’re old, and our brains have hardened, we throw information at ourselves and hope that some of it sticks.  Confusing memory with intelligence, however, is a mistake.  As I explained to my daughter, while I may be slower to learn now than I was 30 years ago, I still know infinitely more than she does based upon those 30 years of experience, both in terms of hard facts and life knowledge.  My last words to her were that, as she grows older, she should never confuse my slow learning ability, which is a product of age, with a lack of intelligence.

Surprisingly, rather than appearing hostile, my little bookworm seemed rather impressed by this speech.  We’ll see how it goes as time goes by — but she certainly now has more insight than I did into the difference between age and wisdom, on the one hand, and youth and memory, on the other hand.