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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Disrespect or Disobedience? A Matter of Perspective

This morning I received an e-mail from someone who writes about nannying. She very nicely sent along some of her work, and hoped I might mention it on this blog. I am going to talk about it, but I won’t cite my source, because I can’t agree with most of what she said.

The material I was sent discussed problematic child behavior that nannies might have to deal with and listed a number of issues like disobedience, tantrum-throwing, and lying. I certainly agree that these can be problems if they occur frequently (but breathes there a child who has never done any of these things?). My concern is not that my correspondent pointed out these problems, but that she classed them as matters of disrespect to the nanny.

From early life, children behave toward others with what would be appalling disrespect if it were done by an adult. (I don’t know about you, but if one of my friends stuck a finger up my nose, I would definitely take umbrage.) One of the jobs of adult caregivers is to guide children toward empathic responses that will lead them to be respectful of others’ feelings.

This is a job that is better done by adults who see it as the job it is, rather than focusing on whether they have personally been disrespected. One of my real concerns with the nanny material I was sent is that by using the term disrespect to categorize disobedience and other problematic behaviors, it encourages child care providers to perceive child behaviors as personally significant, rather than as goals in the task of child guidance. When we see ourselves as being disrespected, we are likely to be angry and resentful; when we are angry and resentful, we don’t think clearly; when we don’t think clearly, we can’t bring all our knowledge and ability to bear on what we want to accomplish.

Don’t misunderstand me. Although I know that disobedience and so on are common foibles of childhood, I would not for a moment say they are unimportant or suggest that they may all be ignored. On the contrary, it’s because I think child guidance is so important that I don’t want it to be confused with separate issues like a nanny’s sense that she gets the respect she deserves.

Disobedience and other problem behaviors are significant issues in several ways. One is that they are strongly related to health and safety concerns. Children who frequently disobey home rules (“don’t jump on the bed”) can’t be trusted to stop at the corner before crossing a street, or to keep their hands away from sharp knives in the kitchen. We owe it to children to train them in reasonable obedience to reasonable rules, for their safety as well as for our adult convenience (our needs do count in this equation sometimes, too). However, a sensible approach to obedience recognizes that young children may forget or misunderstand directions, and some older children may act on impulse or take risks when they need attention. Their disobedience, although it needs to be worked on, should be understood in terms of their developmental stage or individual characteristics, not in terms of their wish to annoy a particular adult, or their lack of esteem for that adult.

My correspondent included lying and tantrum-throwing among “disrespectful” behaviors, and of course if our adult friends do these things to us we rightly interpret their attitudes toward us as less than respectful. With reference to children’s lying, let me suggest several interpretations that may be more fruitful than assuming they are disrespectful. Depending on the child’s age and situation, here are some possibilities: the child may be frightened of some consequences of his own or other people’s actions; the child may have misunderstood events or information; the child may be telling a story about imagined events; the child may not remember events or understand the question. If the child has reasons to be frightened, those reasons need to be explored for the child’s own sake. If none of these possibilities seems to apply, but the child is persistently untruthful, it’s important to investigate whether the behavior is an aspect of emotional disturbance.

Interpreting tantrum behavior also needs to be done in the context of the child’s developmental age. Toddlers who do not yet talk well are likely to have tantrums as a result of frustration about unsuccessful communication. Punishing them for this behavior simply increases the frustration level and decreases their ability to handle problems in a more mature way (which will not be very mature in the best of circumstances). Older children may have learned to have tantrums to “get their own way” when adults have rushed to placate them when they make a scene-- but they may also behave in this way when overwhelmed by frustration. When older children have tantrums, it might be useful to explore whether marital problems are leading the parents to be less responsive or positive than usual; whether the child is overscheduled with school, lessons, and sports; whether divorced parents are scheduling visits that are too long or too unpredictable for the child’s comfort; whether the relationship with the nanny feels tenuous to the child (e.g., parent threatens to fire nanny, nanny mutters about quitting). In none of these cases is the tantrum an expression of personal disrespect for the nanny.

In high-quality child care settings, staff are provided with what is called “reflective supervision” to help them focus on problematic interactions with children as tasks to be done, rather than personal wars to be won. Ideally, nannies too would be provided with that kind of help, but very few of them, if any, are supported in this way. We certainly don’t need for nannies to be told that childhood problems are personal disrespect—potentially making matters worse rather than better.

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