Q: My 5-year-old is the youngest of my three children. Her older boy/girl twin siblings clearly outshine her athletically. They’re already very skilled at wakeboarding and snow skiing, for example. I think my youngest has decided that because she doesn’t measure up to her siblings, she will simply give up. All she wants to do is hang out with me. (I’m not athletic, either, but everyone in the family except this one child is physically active.)
Furthermore, she is disrespectful to anyone who tries to interest her in trying something new. She ignores the person, acting as if they weren’t even there. When I suggest activities, she becomes whiny and makes everyone miserable. I don't know where to begin to start with helping her, but something has to change before we all go crazy!
A: You're obviously "psychologizing" your daughter’s behavior and responding more to your interpretation than to what she is actually doing — a common tendency in today’s parenting culture, actually. From my ironically nonpsychological perspective, the problem is not that because she can’t keep up with her older siblings she has just decided to give up; the problem is that she’s often rude and disrespectful. She completely tunes out people who are talking to her, for example.
You think you need to "help" her; I think you need to discipline her. However unwittingly, despite your good intentions, you're making excuses for and therefore enabling her misbehavior.
Her rehabilitation begins with treating people with respect. I recommend that you put her on my celebrated "Three Strikes, You’re Out!" program. She receives a strike whenever she is disrespectful or whines. When she is disrespectful toward others or whines disruptively, she receives a strike. Each of the first two strikes of the day result in 15 minutes of time-out. The third strike of the day results in her spending the remainder of the day in her room and going to bed immediately after supper.
The second phase of her rehabilitation involves a change in your behavior. Stop "suggesting" activities to her. Find something you would like to do with her and tell her, declaratively, "This is what I’ve decided you and I are doing today." If she objects, tell her she has no choice in the matter. The activities in question should not involve her siblings and should not be things they already excel at. That will prevent unfavorable comparisons.
I’m talking about mother-daughter things. Start slow. Take walks through parks or on nature trails, for example. Graduate from there to leisurely bike rides. The key is finding activities she can enjoy without having to compete.
By the way, there’s an "odd duck" child in nearly every family. The challenge, always, is helping the child find a pond in which she feels comfortable swimming.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions at his website, www.parentguru.com.