Perfecting the Perilous Parenting Pendulum

I was watching an episode of the AMC show “Mad Men” earlier this week and found a perfect example of the type of parent whose discipline is weak because of his own childhood experience of discipline. The show’s main character, Donald Draper, works hard and provides well for his family, but he doesn’t interact much with his children when he is home. In one episode, his stay-at-home wife begins to resent his unwillingness to discipline their son, who clearly needs some “tweaking.”

But Don Draper simply will not express anger toward his son. While I sometimes sense an initial swell of anger boiling under the surface, he is quite adept at subduing and suppressing it. He seems to always retain the loving, supportive, and gracious father persona that he desperately wishes to be. The problem isn’t that he is all of those things; the problem is that he is only those things. When his son desperately needs a firm, angry (but in control) father, he only witnesses a caring, concerned father.

Late in the episode, Don finally does lose his temper when his son ignores his mother’s commands at the dinner table. He hurls his son’s toy across the room, shattering it into pieces. He then walks out of the room and while looking at his wife says, “There, are you happy now?” Mrs. Draper follows him upstairs and tries to convince the husband that her son needs a spanking. She even says, “You wouldn’t be the man you are without your dad spanking you.” He then admits to her, “He used to beat the #$&* out of me. The only thing that did was make me fantasize for years about murdering him.”

Here we see what I call the “parenting pendulum. In order to avoid becoming a monster like his father, he pushes to the other extreme by becoming too permissive. His initial impulse is honorable, but he neglects one of his son’s important needs in the process.

A high percentage of the permissive parents I work with admit that they had extremely domineering, authoritarian parents. They commit to never being like their fathers and so err on the side of caution. Our work focuses on teaching the parents how neither extreme serves their children well and how an assertive, authoritative parenting style bolsters the family hierarchy, which is critical for healthy child development.

Think about your own pendulums. Where did your parents go wrong and how are you compensating for it by pushing your parenting to the opposite end of the spectrum? Consider the possibility that you can come to the middle and not have to worry about copying your parents’ mistakes. You can be in charge, firm, and in control without being an abusive, unloving control freak.

Want Some Cheese With that Whine?

Raise your hand if you love to hear your children whine when they don’t get what they want! No, no takers?

There is almost nothing more aggravating to me than the mind-piercing timbre of a good whine. I think there is a part of the brain that receives whining and turns the sound into a toxic substance that then initiates the violent emotional center of the brain. Or at least it feels like that…

I know it may sound picky, but whining is against the rules in any Parent in Charge home. Almost all children three and above should be expected to speak requests or disagreements without a whiny voice. If they start to whine, it is imperative that the parent not reinforce the behavior by paying attention to the child, except to give the child a Time Out.

Remember that the following are all reinforcing to a child: yelling, giving reminders not to whine, lecturing about whining, mocking the child’s whining voice (one of my favorite pastimes), asking “Want some cheese with that?”, and giving in to the child’s request/demand in spite of the whine. These should all be strictly verboten for the Parent in Charge.

If your child has a pattern of whining, have a short meeting where you clearly state the new rule: “Whining is not acceptable and is against the rules. It is not respectful. You may not whine when asking for something or when you don’t like something. If you are upset, you may use your words to tell us.”

And most importantly, whenever your previously whining child speaks sans whine, praise her for her appropriate, grown-up sounding voice! Remember, positive reinforcement teaches and solidifies new behaviors far faster than punishment or negative reinforcement.

When Kids Go Nuclear…

by Dr. Dathan Paterno
“I’m going to kill myself!” Those have to be just about the most terrifying words that a parent can hear from their child. Variations on a theme include:
“I wish I were dead.” “I wish I had never been born.” “Why don’t you just kill me?” “I am going to kill my brother/sister!”
Today, children are suspended from school for saying such intemperate things—or even drawing pictures that depict violent fantasies. They have to go through a mental health assessment to determine whether they are safe to return from school. Most of this is nonsense, since children are prone to “go nuclear” with their language when they are upset and are not being heard with conventional language.
The fact is that the vast majority of children who say these things do not actually wish to commit suicide or otherwise die, wish they had never been born, or wish to murder someone. While this kind of language does require immediate and sincere attention, the fortunate fact is that very few children who make these kinds of statements actually follow through on them.
Please do not think I am so naïve to believe that no child is truly suicidal or does not wish to bring one of these darkest realities to fruition. I have witnessed a good many children attempt suicide; I know first-hand that some children go to that darkest of places. However, even many of those children’s attempts to act out their pitch-black fantasies would have been averted if the adults in their lives had paid close attention to the signs that their children put in their line of vision.
If your child says something like that, it is critical that you avoid acting based on emotionality. The instinctual part of you is highly emotional, protective, and defensive. Tell that part of you to take a back seat for a moment. The first thing you should do is presume that there is a good reason why Junior has elevated the language to the nuclear stage and that if you listen carefully, you and the child can figure it out. “I want to kill myself” is usually a highly creative and effective metaphor for “I am really miserable and I need you understand. When I just say ‘I’m sad’, you don’t listen or understand, so I have to talk suicide for you to really get it!”
Here’s a good response: “Wow, it sounds like you’re trying to get me to see just how upset you are about something. Can you tell me how bad you really feel and what it is about?”
Most of the time, your child will walk right into that open door and will express his/her angry, confused, sad, frustrated, hopeless, or overwhelmed feelings. You can then validate the feelings the child has; what parent can’t understand fright, sadness, anger, overwhelm, and confusion? If you can validate your child’s feelings, then he or she will feel heard and understood, removing the need to use metaphor to describe the pain. Essentially, if a lower level of communication does the trick, the child will not need to resort to more intense metaphor.
Pay attention, parents. Your child is speaking to you. If you do not listen, you will invite your child to raise the ante, or in some cases, go nuclear.

Dr. Paterno is available for appearances, speaking engagements and lectures. For information, please contact ImaginePublicity at or