On Psychology

Jewish World Review May 30, 2000 / 25 Iyar, 5760

Dr. Wade Horn

Single moms should not natter at misbehaving children

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- Q: I am a single mother and need some "dad" advice as I have worn out all the "mom" advice I have come across. I have two children, a 4 1/2-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son.

Recently, my daughter has become willful and stubborn. Almost everything has become a power struggle with her. I know she is jealous of her brother and the attention he requires. I try my best to dole out equal numbers of hugs and kisses, but that hasn't helped.

Her pre-kindergarten teacher and I have had two meetings exploring ways to improve this situation, but to no avail. I am at my wits' end.

I love my daughter dearly, but she is driving me up a wall. I feel bad that I'm constantly having to get onto her. I even let some of her actions slide because I don't want to start a battle. What else can I do?

A: It is not uncommon for single mothers to experience difficulty disciplining their children for two reasons. First, common sense tells us that it is harder monitoring and controlling the behavior of children when there is only one adult set of eyes and ears in the home compared with when there are two. When it comes to keeping children under control, it's good to have a teammate.

The second reason may raise a few eyebrows. Research consistently shows that children tend to respond quicker and with fewer reminders to the instructions and commands of fathers than they do to those of mothers.

The reason for this, according to noted University of Virginia researcher E. Mavis Hetherington -- a female researcher, I hasten to point out (whew!) -- is that mothers tend to "natter" at their children. By nattering she means throwing out a series of commands without consistent follow through.

When instructing a child to pick up their toys, for example, mothers are more likely than fathers to issue a series of instructions like, "It's time to pick up your toys...You need to start picking up your toys...Why aren't you picking up your toys...If you don't start picking up your toys right now, you're really going to be in trouble." Fathers, according to Dr. Hetherington, are far less likely than mothers to natter at their children.

Bill Cosby, my favorite parenting advice expert, once described it this way. When he was a young child, he had trouble staying in his bed at night. He recalled that his mother used to come into his room and go over the hundred reasons why staying in his bed at night was a good idea. He would nod knowingly and then get out of the bed anyway.

His father had a different approach. His father would walk in his bedroom, point to the bed and in a forceful voice, emphasizing each word, command, "STAY IN THE BED!" After that, little Bill Cosby was more likely to stay in bed than not.

This illustrates another reasons why, according to Dr. Hetherington, children comply more readily to the commands of their fathers than to those of their mothers: Children see fathers as more powerful and more threatening than mothers.

Finally, mothers tend to be more process-oriented and fathers more outcome-oriented. Moms, for example, are more likely to be concerned about how their children feel about picking up their toys; dads just want the toys picked up.


I am not suggesting that mothers cannot exert excellent control over their children. Of course they can; many do. Nor am I recommending that fathers rely on threats to keep their children in line. To the contrary, an important part of discipline for both mothers and fathers is heavy doses of love, affection and positive attention to appropriate behavior.

But to be effective at keeping young children's behavior under control, parents must fight the urge to natter at them, set clear rules and expectations for behavior, and be willing to follow through with a negative consequence when it is warranted.

This, it seems, is where you are going wrong. You believe (correctly) that your daughter is jealous of the attention you must give to your son. You also state that you feel bad having to discipline your daughter almost constantly; hence, you let some of her actions "slide."

Letting some of her actions slide, however, is the worse thing you can do. Rule No. 1 in the book of effective discipline is this: Inconsistent discipline in the face of rule-breaking only escalates the rule-breaking.

What you need to do is establish a clear set of household rules and expectations for behavior, as well as the consequences that will follow rule infractions -- a short time-out, for example, for instances of non-compliance to a specific instruction.

Then you need to consistently and calmly apply the consequences each time a household rule is violated. In other words, you need to be sure you are not nattering at your daughter rather than disciplining her.

But this is not where the story ends. You need to continue to give your daughter lots of hugs and kisses when she is being good. Making an extra-special effort to shower your daughter with praise when, for example, she does what you ask the first time will help speed progress along.

When it comes to child discipline, the name of the game is to combine lots of positive attention and love with clear rules and a willingness to consistently follow through with negative consequences for rule infractions. This is easier with two parents, but certainly not impossible for one.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 2000, Dr. Wade F. Horn