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John Rosemond is America's most widely-read parenting authority! He is a best-selling author, columnist, speaker, and family psychologist.

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Yada-yada discipline doesn't work with aggressive children

In a recent article on co-sleeping (the peculiar New Age practice of sleeping with one’s child or children to facilitate “bonding”), I made the following comment: “...even the generally limp-wristed American Academy of Pediatrics has come out against it.” A number of people, including a pediatrician, have asked what I meant by that, so I will explain.

In my estimation, the American Academy of Pediatrics has a recent history of taking very “soft” stands on parenting issues, if they take a stand at all. They have fallen, for example, for AAP member T. Berry Brazelton’s toilet training propaganda concerning “readiness signs.” This cut-from-whole-cloth mythology has transformed something that was once done fairly quickly and with no fanfare before a child turned two into something that for many parents winds up taking three to six months and involves more stress than our great-grandmothers could have imagined. For this act of professional nepotism alone, the AAP ought to be ashamed of itself. Newspapers will not give me enough space to rant about the AAP’s scientific carelessness concerning attention deficit disorder and its various behavior disorder offspring.

When it comes to discipline, the AAP is beyond soft. In the July 2006 issue of AAP News, Senior Editor Carla Kemp wrote a column titled “Behavior Management 101: Beyond time-out” in which she shared advice from various behavioral pediatricians on managing aggression in young children. The title intrigued me because I had never seen any AAP publication recommend a discipline that was “beyond time-out.” Turns out the AAP and I hardly agree on the definition of “beyond.”

One recommendation for handling a child who aggresses against other children is to tell the child the rule (no biting), redirect (ask, “Are your feet for kicking or walking?”), promote empathy (ask, “How do you think Johnny felt when you kicked him?”), and role play by helping the child act out what to do the next time he finds himself in the same situation. Hello? This is an example of what I call “Yada-Yada Discipline”—the attempt to talk and cajole a child out of misbehaving. It is generally ineffective, but as regards aggressive children, it’s the equivalent of trying to stop a charging elephant with a fly swatter.

Another pediatrician favored using a system where the offending child receives a mark on his hand every time the parent or teacher sees him doing something appropriate. When the child has a certain number of marks, he gets a treat. The problem with this is that aggressive children quickly figure out that the way to keep getting treated (no pun intended) as special cases is to keep hurting other children.

But before using positive reinforcement, says this same pediatric “expert,” it’s important to try to figure out what is causing the aggression. I know the answer to that. Aggressive children possess, by varying degrees, an entitlement mentality: They believe that what they want, they deserve to have; the ends justify the means; and no one has a right to deny them or stand in their way. Only powerful discipline that is truly “beyond time-out” will dislodge that mentality from a child.

A social worker was quoted in Kemp’s column as recommending that aggressive children be sent to a cozy corner with quiet games and stuffed animals to play with until he regains control, at which point the caregiver is to give “tons of praise.” Hello? A child who hits another child gets to go to the day care equivalent of Cozumel?

The problem here is that pediatricians are the first people most parents go to with discipline problems. In fact, most pediatricians these days are dealing with more questions about behavioral issues than medical issues. Unfortunately, they are probably more apt to give bad advice than good advice. But I don’t fault them. After all, they receive very little competent training in either medical school or their residencies in child behavior and child development. I fault the AAP for making a bad situation even worse.

“So, Mr. Smarty-Pants Parenting Expert,” the AAP might retort, “how would you recommend dealing with aggressive children?”

Unfortunately, I’m out of space, but I’ll take on that very question next week, at which time I’ll relate true stories of aggressive children who were cured in no time at all with truly “beyond time-out.”

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