There are lots of parenting guides on how to deal with defiant children, but this is probably the only one written by a former defiant child. Joe Newman knows all about the kids that drive parents bonkers. After being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and being put on Ritalin in second grade, he went on to achieve success in business before deciding to make a career out of helping problem kids. He has spent the past 20 years working with teachers, parents, and children on managing behavior problems. His new book, Raising Lions (CreateSpace, $18.99), explains why children today are fiercer than they used to be. I spoke with Newman; here's an edited version of our conversation.
Why did you decide to start working with "not polite" children?
When I was in my late 20s I did some soul-searching. I realized in the years since high school a lot of what I had been doing was damage control for what I had done in school. I thought, "There must be a lot of kids out there like me."
I just walked into an elementary school and said I wanted to volunteer: "I want to work with the kids who drive you crazy." They were ecstatic. Six months later, I applied to work at a summer camp where it was all ADD kids. I told the owner about my experience, and how you have to start from understanding their capacities and gifts, since that's the only place you could build from. He hired me as their crisis intervention person. I learned by doing over the years, watching people who were better than I was.
What kind of trouble did you get into as a kid?
Before I was medicated [with Ritalin], I was getting into fights at school every day. It was mostly the result of my need to constantly push things one step further. One little push led to a bigger push— to a smack, to a harder smack. Next thing I knew I was rolling around in the dirt with another boy.
Throughout my school years I found it nearly impossible to stay in a seat for an hour, or keep myself from yelling out something interesting or funny. I was impulsive and always trying to get attention at school. I once brought in magic "disappearing ink" and squirted it all over my favorite teacher's dress. The "disappearing ink" took a couple of hours to fade away.
I remember in high school I'd bring home all of my books every day fully intending to do all the homework I had. And nine out of 10 times I wouldn't even open a book. If I did open a book, I didn't last more than 15 minutes until I was distracted and onto something else. I only passed my classes because once a month my mother would take my dictation. I'd walk in a loop through the kitchen, the living room, and down the hall while I'd dictate and my mother would type [my essays].
I did a lot of vandalism and stealing in my early teens. I was never arrested because I never got caught; being on the wrestling team reined in a lot of my bad behavior later, because I didn't want to be [kicked] off the team.
You think kids today are different than they were a few decades ago?
Parents have spent a lot of effort building up the self-esteem and confidence of their kids. As a result, kids have a strong fierceness to them; they assert their will, they'll fight for it. They also understand manipulation. They know how to use it, and they're less susceptible to it. They're also less eager to please. I see a lot of kids who are so strong-willed that people don't know what to do with them.
But you think parents also misunderstand that strong-willed nature as inability, and that's dangerous. You're saying that when you were doing things your parents didn't want you to do, it wasn't because you didn't know better. You were being defiant.
As a toddler, I looked at my father as I put my finger in an electrical socket again and again. My father slapped my hand away repeatedly, but I didn't stop until he gave up and carried me away. When I wrote about that in my blog, a woman wrote that clearly my father didn't understand my impulsive behaviors. I thought that was a bizarre thing to say; it was willful behavior on my part. If you treat willful behavior as impulsive behavior, you create a monster. I see a lot of children who feign inability whenever they want to avoid struggle. They develop a whole set of behaviors that allow them to continue to win power struggles. And that's not healthy.
You say parents are too quick to protect their children from failure. Why is that a bad idea?
There's a misunderstanding about the place of struggle in childhood. Society thinks avoiding struggle leads to happiness. But struggling to create and accomplish things is what makes us happy. It's a natural part of life. We need to calmly coach children through the struggle and difficulty, as opposed to taking away that learning moment. Then you raise children who, instead of being afraid of failure, are comfortable with trying.
What should parents do if they feel their children are already defiant and hard to control?
First: Understand what you have power over and what you don't. You work on what you can control, which is primarily access to resources. Set it up so children only have access to what they want—cell phones, TV, nights out—when they are cooperating.
The second thing is to use language that doesn't try to manipulate them, but recognizes their power, so you don't personalize the power struggle. When my daughter was a teenager, we had an agreement that she had to do two hours of homework before she could go out. She wanted to go to an open-mic night, and said, "I did an hour of homework, but it's all I have, and I want to go out." An emotional response on my part would have been to say: "You said you'd do it, you have to do it." Or, "You're lying to me that you only have this much homework." Instead, I said: "You can make the choice. If you decide not to do the work you don't go out. Maybe you want to argue with me for two hours, but at the end of two hours I'll still insist that you do the homework. I really have no control over what you're going to do, aside from the fact that I won't let you out until you do what we've agreed on."
Acknowledge their choices, acknowledge that you don't have power over the things they choose—and let it play out.
You're happy with the fact that kids today are fiercer; in fact, your book blurb says you hate polite kids.
My website does have a blog titled "I hate polite children!" but this is a reference to something a boy I worked with said. While I definitely relate to why the children I work with might "hate polite children" (because they get all the love in school) I don't dislike polite children, I just prefer the fierce ones.
I like a kid who knows his power. Yesterday at school there was a boy who got in trouble in one of the classrooms, and the teacher lost his composure and sent him to a classroom one grade down as a punishment. The boy was like, "Forget it. I'm not going there; you can't make me." He basically called the teacher's bluff. I talked to the teacher later and said, "You never want to set a consequence where they can call your bluff." The kid wanted to hang onto his dignity. I like those kids; they're kids I relate to.
Clarified on 10/29/10: The last two responses given by Joe Newman have been clarified at his request, to better reflect his sentiments.