November 2009

Forgiving Bozo

Oh, did I do a boneheaded thing today…

One of the reasons I love having a boy is that he loves to roughhouse. My girls crave affection, but they prefer the tender, snuggly type. That’s great stuff, but sometimes a dad just needs to play rough. And that’s where my son makes a perfect playmate at times. We rumble on the floor, he tackles me, and we play-fight with swords, sticks and fists. Sometimes I chase him all over the house, fireman-carry him to the bed, and throw him like a discarded sack of potatoes. He LOVES it.

Well, today we got home from church and I could tell he was just asking for some rough stuff, so I picked him up and play-slammed him on the floor. He beamed; so far so good. Then he got on his belly and begged me to shove him with my leg down our hardwood floor. We’ve done it a thousand times and he loves it. So I got into it, got ready to shove him, and wheeeeee!!! He glided down the floor…face-first, right into the open metal door of our puppy’s cage. I cringed when I saw it–hoping he would just laugh it off, as he often does with injuries sustained in our rough play.

But this one hurt. He immediately winced and began crying hysterically. I responded by immediately apologizing, trying to console him. He would have none of it. He was irate–and rightly so. He started hitting me, pushing me away; in a few seconds, he worked himself up into a pretty good lather. He ran into his room and onto his bed. This is usually a sign that he wants to be left alone. I respect his wishes.

He cried for a good 10 minutes. I checked in on him after a few, asking him if he still needed some time. He nodded. When I came back after five more minutes, he was calm and accepted my entrance. I grabbed him, hugged him super tight, and apologized about a hundred times. Before long, we were cuddling and joking. I took him to Starbucks and let him have anything he wanted (sans caffeine, of course); heck, I felt like I needed to make amends.

My son has got a pretty nasty scrape next to his nose that he’ll have for a few days. But he also showed a pretty hearty sense of forgiveness. And that warms my heart like nobody’s business.

The Daycare Channel

Parents who thought their preschoolers were spending time in home-based day cares, taking naps, eating healthy snacks and learning to play nicely with others may be surprised to discover they are sitting as many as two hours a day in front of a TV, according to a study published Monday.

When added to the two to three hours many parents already admit to allowing at home, preschoolers in child care may be spending more than a third of the about 12 hours they are awake each day in front of the electronic baby sitter, said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle and a researcher at the University of Washington.
That’s double the TV time he found in a previous study based on parental reports of home viewing, according to findings published Monday in the journal Pediatrics. The study is the first to look at TV watching in child care in more than 20 years.
These data reopen the question of how healthy daycare is for many of our children. I’ve already discussed how detrimental TV watching is to child development, so I’m not going to retackle that issue today. Rather, I’m going to challenge the whole idea of daycare in today’s culture.
I’ve always been a proponent of daycare for families who have no choice: if you’re going to starve or lose your home with only one parent working, by all means, maintain a dual-income family. However–and I know I’ll catch heat for this–I just don’t see how daycare providers could do a better job of parenting a child than that child’s parent(s). For those families who do not absolutely need to maintain dual incomes, I believe it is best for one parent to stay home with children.
Some parents argue that anyone can take care of a child’s creaturely needs: feeding, dressing, hygiene, etc. On the surface, this is true. But on a deeper level, it is bogus. Compare to an adult’s creaturely needs, such as sex. Could another woman come in and feed and dress a man? Of course! Would it be OK with a spouse to farm out the responsibility to meet that need? Of course not!
The comparison is important, because meeting a child’s basic needs involves a high degree of intimacy. Feeding, bathing, dressing a child offers many opportunities for connection, teaching, and affection. Ideally, parents perceive those moments as opportunities to be claimed and relished, not farmed out to others.
If necessity forces you to place your child in daycare, make sure you pick nursery stafford which is not only safe, but that the child’s schedule is designed to foster the basic needs of children: activity, exercise, creative play, rest/downtime, solid nutrition, moderate stimulation of the full range of senses, and a mixture between social engagement and solitary time.
I challenge those families who are a financial condition where two incomes are not necessary to meet the family’s basic needs (impressive homes, expensive cars, lavish vacations, and a summer home are NOT basic needs) to consider having one parent stay home with the child for a majority of the day. Of course, parents and children need breaks from each other, but the child’s most important need is his/her parent’s presence.

Almost There!

An update on my book…

Desperately Seeking Parents is now at the publisher, going through an editing review. After that, I will begin working with the graphic arts department to determine front and back cover artwork. We are wrestling with a few major changes as well, including the title. One of the other options is No More Wimpy Parents.

Dr. David Stein, my good friend and mentor, has graciously agreed to write the foreword for the book. He is the bestselling author of Unraveling The ADD/ADHD Fiasco and Ritalin is Not the Answer.

If all goes well, the finalized book could be on the shelves sometime in winter–perhaps before March of 2010.

How to Deal With a Pest

The recent surge in school anti-bullying measures might be helping, but I’m still witnessing a steady stream of children who are complaining of pests and bullies in the classroom. One of the struggles in dealing with children who deal with pests and bullies is determining whether the child is truly experiencing something intolerable or that child is simply a wimp and needs to grow a spine (or at least some thicker skin).

Parents can help their children deal with classroom pests by getting them to think rationally.

This is what I teach kids:

First, ask yourself if what the pest/bully is doing is a BIG DEAL or a LITTLE DEAL.



Threatening to hurt


Repeated hateful, cruel names/words

Spreading serious, harmful rumors


Little names like “chicken”

Making a face

Being stingy or not sharing


Cheating at a game or off of a test/homework

If the pest/bully is doing something that is a BIG DEAL, then it is OK to tell a teacher or another grown-up.

If the pest/bully is doing something that is a LITTLE DEAL, then it is important to either ignore the pest/bully or just take care of it yourself.

What does taking care of it yourself mean? First, try being assertive. Look at the pest/bully in the eyes and say firmly, “STOP IT!” If he does it again, say louder but not screaming, “I said STOP IT; knock it off!” Make sure your body looks serious. A great many pests/bullies will stop from this. Those that don’t will require adult intervention–go ahead and tell school personnel.

If the school doesn’t do anything about it and the pest continues to bother you, you may just have to live with it. Some pestering isn’t going to kill you. Life frequently involves coping with chronic pestering.

Remember, I’m not talking about being bullied. If a child is being bullied and the school doesn’t put a stop to it, then the child has a right to punch that kid in the nose–hard enough to stop the bully in his tracks. That’s the way some playground conflicts need to be resolved. Adults need to get the heck out of the way and let it happen.

Parents in Charge: “The Child Whisperers”

We got a new puppy a few weeks ago and we are doing the whirlwind tour of puppy training books, videos, and TV shows. The most striking we have encountered is Cesar Millan, aka “The Dog Whisperer”. He really is tremendously knowledgeable about dogs; even more impressive is his knowledge of animal behavior. I have learned quite a bit about dogs, but have also been reminded some general behavior training principles that also pertain to human behavior.

One of his key maxims is establishing a calm dominant relationship with a puppy. The corollary to this is rewarding only calm submissive behavior. The biggest problem with dog owners, he says, is inadvertently rewarding excitable or challenging behavior.

The same can be said for parents. For any discipline to work, a parent must establish a dominant relationship with the child. This does not the same as being domineering and does not need to be (in fact should not be) done in an hostile, aggressive manner. However, children need a clear, consistent message from the parent that the parent is in charge and will reward only appropriate, respectful behavior.

If he can train previously misbehaving and out of control dogs—which have far less developed frontal lobes than human children—how much more possible it is to train children to submit to parents and control their behavior!

All parents could learn a thing or two from the Dog Whisperer. Maybe I need to change my title from Clinical Psychologist to “Child Whisperer.”

The Pencil is Mightier Than the Sword?

An 11-year-old student was recently expelled from school after he jabbed another student in the kneecap with a pencil. School administrators initially suspended him for 10 days, but the school board trumped their decision after categorizing the pencil as a weapon.

Since the tragedy of Columbine, the fears of school boards and administrators have been roused across the nation. The safety of all students was catapulted to their number one priority, with an understandable trend toward protection at all costs. “No-tolerance” policies were borne from their understandable paranoia and protective impulses.

But have some of these impulses gone too far?

On the one hand, I strongly believe in school discipline. Too many schools sweep serious bullying incidents under the rug. Some ignore incidents of sexual harassment that would get any adult fired, if not sued. So I support significant consequences for assaulting a peer.

On the other hand, there were apparently no reports of prior violent incidents with this child. He and another peer were jawing back and forth and the kid just poked him on the kneecap. No blood flowed; no ER visit was necessary. It was by all accounts a relatively minor incident. The kid didn’t bring a machete to class; to categorize his pencil as a weapon suggests that all children are wielding potentially dangerous weapons every day in school. If this is the case, school administrators could be sued for allowing deadly weapons in their schools. Of course, that would be insane.

The other variable that caught my interest was the father of the assailant claiming that the child has ADHD and that that was a primary cause of the incident. That’s where I roll my eyes.

OK, the kid had some mainstream mental health professional or pediatrician diagnose him with a baloney disorder. I know that is par for the course for children who struggle with attention and impulsivity. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. What gets me is when parents excuse their child’s behavior with the diagnosis: “The ADHD did it.”

ADHD can’t make a child stab someone with a pencil. Believing that a disorder incapacitates a child’s decision-making skills serves only to excuse that parent from training the child properly. All children can be trained to make far better decisions most of the time. I have seen it time and again—in my own practice and from other like-minded mental health professionals who do not buy into the ADHD excuse.

That is what my book Desperately Seeking Parents is all about: how parents can improve their leadership and training skills, enough to effect change with the most difficult children. Even those who would otherwise be diagnosed with imaginary mental illnesses.

The Paterno Expressway

I know we’re in a recession, but I’m requesting $14 Billion in funding from the state coffers to create a new interstate highway. I want to prove that I can get people to drive the speed limit. Here’s how.

After posting the speed limit, there will be one “highway officer” (not police) monitoring every mile of the highway. They will act both as emergency officers in case of an accident and as traffic officers. But instead of pulling people over for speeding, they will pull people over for obeying the limit.

Imagine it: you see the siren, but it has a brighter flashing light. You eagerly pull over and the officer hands you a citation saying “Great job obeying the speed limit; keep up the good work!” Along with it is a $20 Starbucks card, a coupon for a free oil change, or a voucher for a reduction of your car insurance. You drive away happy and proud.

Guess what? You would be far more likely to drive the speed limit the Paterno Expressway because this kind of reward would be frequent. Why? Because positive reinforcement always holds more power to change behavior than does punishment—especially intermittent punishment. Intermittent punishment is exactly what most police use to enforce the speed limit. Police have better things to do, so there are few of them on the highway. And when they do catch a speeder, they are punished. But realistically, how often does that happen? We all know that about 99% of speeders and episodes of speeding go unpunished.

And what about the speeders? For them, the highway officers would have advanced scanning technology so they could immediately notice and catch all speeders; they would immediately give them a fine for $500. If the speeder refused to pull over, the fine would triple and the driver would lose his license for 6 months. That would be quite a deterrent.

Paterno Expressway would also be far fewer accidents; those accidents that did occur would have far fewer fatalities, since speeding would be so rare.

My point is that parenting should emphasize positive reinforcement a great deal more than punishment. Punishment can only temporarily reduce certain behaviors. While punishment is important, it will never help a child learn new behavior patterns. It is up to positive reinforcement to do that.

So instead of emphasizing punishment for bad behavior, shift your focus to rewarding positive behavior. With younger children, rewards should almost exclusively be social: hugs, kisses, high-fives, verbal praise, noticing the child, offering attention, and anything else your child likes from you. As your child gets older, social rewards remain important, but privileges gain in importance. This becomes even more pronounced during the adolescent years.

Guess what…we adults still need positive reinforcement. Parents can model this for one another in their marriages by giving each other positive reinforcement. Try it!

The New “PK’s”

I’ve never estimated how many times I have heard friends who are parents tell me they are afraid to bring their children around me because they presume I would reflexively judge them and their children. It’s as if I walk around with a notebook labeled “Ways Other Parents Stink”. I usually laugh heartily at my friends who make comments like this around me, assuring them that I have better things to do than judge other parents. Really.

The irony is that when I am in public with my children, I am the one who is anxious. Now, I know darn well how silly it is to worry about how others perceive me and my children, but the truth is that I have a goofy fantasy that everyone else is judging MY parenting. After all, the fantasy goes, people are walking around with THEIR notebook labeled, “Ways Dr. Paterno Can’t Even Raise His Own Kids Right—Why Should We Listen to Him?”

My poor kids. It must be tough having a child psychologist as a parent.

I took my new puppy to the office this past weekend for the first time—mostly as a trial run for a couple hours to see how she would respond. When I walked out of the office to find a good patch of grass for puppy to relieve herself, a friendly looking couple approached, joined by their gorgeous Airedale. As soon as they neared us, my dog went berserk with frenetic excitement. She behaved as if she had just consumed 14,000 cups of coffee.

I was a bit embarrassed, even while I knew I shouldn’t be. Puppies behave like puppies, after all. I struck up some conversation with the couple, who seemed genuinely interested in my puppy. Within a couple minutes, I had learned that they were in charge of the Park District obedience training class. Immediately, I became self-conscious.

What if they saw how ignorant I was with my puppy? What if they noticed how clueless I was in getting her to calm down and be reasonable? What if they thought I was a terrible dog owner? The thoughts raced. I was not happy.

Then it hit me. This must mirror how others feel when they learn what I do, especially after they find that I have written a book on parenting! I understood how a person could develop such a rich, albeit irrational, fantasy.

Luckily, my kids are generally pretty great. Roughly translated, they are just as obnoxious, demanding, goofy, and ridiculous as any other kid is. They are also very respectful, kind, considerate, and obedient. So if any of you sees me out in public with my children, know that I’m not taking judgmental notes about you in my notebook. Just make sure you hide yours; it would make me very anxious.