Q: My 11-year-old son cuts corners on everything. If he does a chore, he'll leave the cleaning products behind. If his bed is hard to make, he hides the sheet in the closet and throws the blanket over the bed. Concerning his schoolwork, he doesn't bother studying for tests — he figures he'll gets A's, anyway. We're now seeing this in his soccer practices, where he literally has started cutting corners. How can we get a handle on this bad habit?
A: Because it’s not blatant, as in blatant disrespect or disobedience, this sort of problem can be difficult to get a handle on. Today’s parents believe in "parenting technology" — that for every behavior problem, there's a solution. The fact is that parents cannot solve all of the possible problems a child may develop. They can’t solve any of those problems, in fact. It doesn’t matter what the problem is, parents can only put pressure, in the form of consequences of one sort or another, on a child in hope that the pressure will motivate the child to solve it. Some children give in to the pressure, some don’t. Sometimes, a child doesn’t solve a problem until he's in a state of crisis because of it, and the crisis in question may not occur until he’s well into adulthood.
When parents use consequences in the mistaken belief that there is a magic consequence that will solve the problem in question, they miss the point and are possibly setting themselves up to fail. The purpose of consequences is simply to demonstrate that in the real world, bad behavior causes bad things to happen, sooner or later. Hopefully, the child will get it and solve the problem.
If, however, the child doesn't solve the problem, that doesn't necessarily mean the consequence was not the right one to use. That belief often causes parents to try one consequence after another in a rather chaotic attempt to find the one that will turn the proverbial wheel. Perhaps the consequence in question was insufficient — it didn’t apply enough pressure. On the other hand, it may well be that the consequence was sufficient, but the child wasn’t ready.
Having delivered the necessary disclaimer, my recommendation is that you focus on one problem area and one only. Don’t bite off more than you can chew by attempting to solve the chore, school and soccer problems in one fell swoop.
Start with chores. Make a list of the specific things he does to cut corners where chores are concerned. Suspend a privilege or package of privileges until he’s solved the problem and has had no relapses for a month. Mind you, his rehabilitation may take four weeks; then again, it may take four months or four years. Be ready to hang in there and continue imposing the consequence(s) until he gets it. And be ready to accept that you are not the appointed agents of change concerning this problem. The appointed agent of change may not enter his life until he’s 45 years old. We’ve all seen that happen, haven’t we?
Here’s what I call the Hang in There Principle: If a child does wrong things, and the child's parents do right things, and the child keeps on doing wrong things, then the child's parents simply should keep on doing the right things.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website at www.rosemond.com.