TTUAC: Bad Attitudes Are a Disease

To Train Up A Child, chapter 13, part 3

Today we finish the chapter on “attitude training.”

WHY IS EVERYBODY ALWAYS PICKING ON ME?

While I teach a Bible class, my two daughters help baby-sit a house full of children under five (five children under five is a house full). One of the mothers returned to find her three-year-old daughter whining of being mistreated by a little fellow under two. They all confirmed that the stumbling toddler had in fact provoked a class-A-altercation without sufficient provocation. The older and physically superior little girl just sat on the floor and “turned the other cheek”—only to have it walloped also. In her presence, the mother pitied the little girl and spoke critically of the little boy.

My daughters watched the situation carefully, and on several occasions observed him assaulting her. But, as the nursery workers cracked down on the assailant, he ceased his misdemeanors. [Most attacks were the result of his stumbling while practicing his walking.]

The bright and otherwise sweet little girl is very obedient, but she has developed a habit of practicing emotional weakness in order to get her way. She whines about everything and seems to suffer out of proportion to her happy lot in life. The young mother has cultured this tendency.

During the succeeding weeks, the mother would greet her daughter with a sympathetic inquiry as to her suffering at the hands of the twenty-four-inch nursery stalker. The nursery workers became aware that the “victim” always gave an evil report. They made it a point to watch closely, and were sure that on the occasions when there was no conflict with the alleged assailant, the little girl still gave a report of being attacked. They observed her playing happily until the mother arrived, at which time she would jump up and run into the arms of her sympathetic mother with whining tales of abuse.

As the talk escalated and the stumbling tot’s infamy grew, the mother more carefully questioned her daughter. It was becoming clear that the emotionally weak girl thrived on playing the role of the abused.

One night the baby sitters observed the little girl telling the boy, “Hit me. Go on, hit me.” When she finally persuaded him to reach out and strike her on the head, she would go to the workers crying of being struck. This was repeated on several occasions. Then when the protective mother arrived, the little girl had a tale of abuse to again make her the center of her mother’s sympathy.

On one occasion, when the little fellow was in the other room, the girl fell down crying of being struck by him. When the mother arrived and those in charge told her that her daughter lied about being abused, she again took up for the child and denied that her daughter could lie.

I rejoice to say that this mother has one of the best learning attitudes of anyone I have ever met. When confronted, the mother realized she was making provision for her daughter to grow up breaking the ninth commandment: (“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Exodus 20:16). She also realized she was cultivating a sour disposition in her little girl. She repented and immediately began working on it. The child’s attitude showed quick improvement.

The main point of this story appears to be that children can and will lie about being abused, and cultivate a sour attitude of victimhood. Coming right after Michael’s insistence that being “roughed up” by one’s peers is character-building and that parents should avoid always coming to their children’s defense, this passage helps to establish some rather toxic parental conceptions.

Yes, sometimes children do what is described in this passage, and yes, parental actions can contribute. But a healthy parenting manual instructs parents on how to handle this sort of thing without focusing like a laser on the fact that the child is lying. Why the child is lying matters too. The focus should be on teaching the child healthy skills and establishing positive patterns, but in this passage Michael does not actually describe how the mother “began working on it.” Parents are not provided with tools in this passage, they are merely instructed that their children may lie about being bullied or abused.

BAD ATTITUDE

Bad attitude is pure bad. For as a child “thinketh in his heart, so is he (Prov. 23: 7).” “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life (Prov. 4:23).” If a child shows the least displeasure in response to a command or duty, it should be addressed as disobedience. If a child sticks out his lip, you should focus your training on his bad attitude. The wrong slant of the shoulders reveals a bad frame of mind. Consider this a sign to instruct, train or discipline. A cheerful, compliant spirit is the norm. Anything else is a sign of trouble.

To those whose families have always been out of control, these goals seem ridiculous. To some who contemplate such designs on their family, this seems like an overbearing, unrealistic goal. Granted, if some families simply raised their standards to demand of their children this quality of obedience, it would be overbearing. But, when approached as a revamping of the entire family, it no longer seems unreasonable. Sulking, pouting, whining, complaining, begging and the like, should become an eradicated disease.

This is not just an idealistic goal for which we generally aim, while secretly entertaining a willingness to settle for far less; it is the daily experience of many families, including our own. Like a well cared for garden, weeds do come up that must be dealt with; but they are never given a chance to seed. Problems do arise; but the training base we have described provides the certainty of a thriving garden of children.

If Michael’s insistence that parents must break children’s wills, with a heavy application of the rod, is the worst aspect of his teachings, his insistence that any attitude other than a “cheerful, compliant spirit” is unacceptable has got to be the second worst.

I was going to ask if adults are always cheerful, and point at that adults, like children, have trying days or experience circumstances that may lead to feeling less-than-cheerful, but then I realized that Michael would probably argue that this, too, is a problem. In some fundamentalist and evangelical circles, any emotion other than cheerfulness is considered a problem—how could you be anything less than cheerful, after all, when you have Jesus as your savior? This entire system is a problem!

It’s okay to be upset, or annoyed, or to have a bad mood, whether you’re a child or an adult. These things happen. Sometimes these things are perfectly healthy and other times they indicate a problem, serving as evidence of situations that need changing. Perhaps a job or a relationship has become toxic, or perhaps there is a mental health issue worthy of therapy or medication. Oftentimes what is needed is self care. There are also plenty of feelings in between cheerfulness and a bad mood, but Michael seems unaware of that.

Yes, children need to be taught healthy tools for handling their emotions. They are not born with these tools. But Michael doesn’t want to provide children with these tools. Instead, he wants to shut down their emotions until they have only one mode—cheerful compliance. If they carry this one mode into adulthood, they put themselves in a position to be taken advantage of. If they reach adulthood and discover other modes, they will do so with no tools.

Let me touch on some of the things I do with my four-year-old daughter Sally.

First, I’ve found that Sally often turns to whining when she tries and fails to get my attention to ask me something, or when I respond without giving her my full attention. When I respond to her coming to me by giving her my full attention and discussing whatever it is with her, she is much less likely to whine and much more likely to simply make a case and then think of various options or alternatives.

Second, I don’t censure Sally for bad moods but rather only for what she does while in a bad mood. In other words, I teach her that lashing out at others while angry or upset is wrong. Her emotions are hers, but they should not serve as an excuse for hurting those around her.

Third, I’ve also told Sally that in my own experience a bad mood can ruin an otherwise good day, and that taking a break—a nap, or just laying down, or being alone—can help reset things and make me feel better. Again, I try to think long term—this isn’t just about today, it’s about giving her healthy tools for handling these things when she’s an adult and on her own.

Fourth, if Sally is upset or in a bad mood there is generally a cause. Very frequently at her age, a bad mood stems from not being able to get something buckled, or open, or closed, or even not being able to read a word. Being four is hard! In these cases, I try to help address that root cause, which often means sitting alongside her and helping her do whatever she was trying unsuccessfully to do. Sometimes, too, it means giving her some time separate from her little brother (whom she usually adores, but let’s face it, sometimes little brothers can get in the way).

All of this is missing from Michael’s treatment of the issue. Michael’s position is simple: the beatings will continue until the morale improves. This is not only unhelpful and unhealthy, it is also emotionally stunting and abusive.

I know I’ve been mainly analytical here, but this is highly personal too, because I remember what it felt to be on the receiving end of this. I remember being punished for setting the table with a frown rather than setting the table with a smile. I remember feeling absolutely stifled.  I quickly learned that I only had the luxury of feeling those emotions when I was alone, in my room or out in the fields around the house. There and there alone I could be free.

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