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I recently had a conversation with my friend Roy about a parenting situation that is pretty common. We both thought this might be something others would appreciate so he graciously agreed to let me put it up here for you to read.

The premise is this: our kids often resort to punishing us in one form or another when things aren’t to their liking. It might be passive rebellion, withholding love, defiance, a lack of cooperation or a generally poor disposition… but in some form they make us “pay” for not bending to their desires.

Maybe you haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing this but I know from my countless conversations with parents, this is a common situation. So here is my dialog with Roy. We’d both love to know your opinion, your advice, and even what you would have done different.

Discipline Me And I’ll Punish You

ROY:

Brent, I have an issue with my daughter and I need some advice. My daughter, age 10, was internationally adopted at age 3. She was almost four at the time.

She is/was a special needs child. It is this condition that we believe was the reason for her abandonment and ultimately her placement with us. Most people are unaware that she has ANY condition.

That’s her history; now let’s get to the difficult stuff. She HAS to have been a ‘first-born’, because her personality is just like my first-born. She is stubborn, independent, bossy, always right, knows everything, very strong-willed… You get the picture?

Don’t get me wrong… I ADORE her! I have since she first raised her arms to me to hold her. She holds my heart in her hands, and she isn’t afraid to squeeze it! From the time she came home she has spent most evenings in my lap watching TV or reading with us. It is difficult to understand the depth of love I have for this child. I love ALL my children, but for some reason, she is extra special. I think it is due to the fact that she is the one that demonstrated to me in a visible way what we are to our Father. She’s the visible Gospel, and I treasure that awakening she brought about. She knows all this, and on occasion will use it as a tool to control me. She’s never been a very affectionate child, but she likes to be held and have the attention of others. She just doesn’t initiate a hug or anything very often. She will, however, come and ask to sit with me very often.

She is home-schooled, along with the other four children. My first-born is in college, so he’s out of the school picture. Simply because she is on the front lines, my wife is the primary disciplinarian of the girls. I get involved if it’s serious and still an issue when I get home, or if I am there when something is going on that I need to address. While we don’t hesitate to provide a physical correction, if needed, I have never been the one to deliver that to any of my girls. I may be wrong on this one, but my thought is that I do not want to teach my girls that it’s okay for a man, whoever he is, to abuse them. That may be a stretch, but I don’t think that’s the issue, however, I may be completely wrong.

Anyway, a month ago, my daughter was working with her Mother on some school work and totally lost it. The work was frustrating, she was just back from her surgery, she was tired, etc. She just didn’t want to do the work anymore and went into full breakdown mode. It escalated from the whining to all out tantrum to the point that she was sent to her room. She would not go. She was loud, and would not do anything her mother asked her to do. My wife tried, unsuccessfully, to move her physically to her room and in the process, my daughter hit and scratched her. So she called me at work. I could hear the tension in her voice and the wailing in the background. I had her put my daughter on the phone and in my most stern voice that I could use at work made it clear to her that she would do as she was told and we would discuss it when I got home. She complied, and order was restored.

When I got home I went to her room and got on the floor with her. She was cold and stiff and still very angry. (Remember, this is over NOTHING…just frustration at having to do her school work, which she usually does pleasantly, every day.) My plan was to have a calm discussion about how we’re expected to behave, and that hitting her mother was never tolerated. That didn’t happen. There was no way she would have a calm or reasonable discussion. Most of her responses were along the lines that parents live to be mean to their children and that we somehow derive pleasure from that. And of course we got the tired line of how great life would be if she had stayed in China with her mother, the saint. So, with the anger still there, and no chance of a meaningful conversation, I went into full disciplinarian mode and simply stated to her that I would not tolerate this behavior and she would NOT ever hit her mother again, and that I would enforce that.

That was a month ago. The only thing she has spoken to me since that time has been hateful. She ignores me the rest of the time. She will not come tell me goodnight like the others. She does not sit with me. I usually go check on them before I go to bed each night. She used to stay awake waiting for me. Now she plays like she’s asleep and doesn’t allow me to touch her. For the past week, I’ve given her what she wants. I don’t try to hug her. I don’t force her to talk to me or anything. It has had no effect and it’s killing me. I want my daughter back, and I don’t know how to do it. I can roll over and beg her and probably get things back to some sort of normal, but I don’t want to enforce the behavior of using affection as currency or as some sort of prize that can be withheld or given to accomplish some other desire of hers. I’m struggling with the old issue of: is this institutional behavior? Or simple first-born childish theatrics?

She knows it’s hurting me, and she’s right, it is, but I can’t allow her to manipulate me. Can you imagine what kind of marriage she’d have if she takes this into that relationship. I’m an adult, with six other children…. I’m supposed to KNOW it all by now. Right?

Thank you so very much for indulging me. I wanted advice from someone who is on my side of the fence, if you know what I mean. Our pastor is very supportive, but he has no adoption related experience. There is only one other internationally-adopting family in our church, and they are much younger than us and turn to us for guidance and support, so you are a very welcome and appreciated help!

Abdication Has Consequences

BRENT:

Roy, you said: “and that I would enforce that.

How? You’ve missed years of opportunity to enforce discipline (you say your wife has done it, and you are reluctant unless you have too), and painfully, it’s coming back now to bite you. The idea that as a father, physically disciplining your daughter is somehow conveying male-to-female abuse is well… absurd. No one questions that their are fathers that abuse kids. But too often we throw the baby out with bath water because of the pressure of political correctness, modern humanistic parenting ideas or the fear of being accused of something (even by our own kids).

It’s a shame that good parents are stigmatized as “abusers” when they discipline physically… the criticism usually coming from people who either don’t have kids, or have AWFUL kids (but at least they aren’t abused!). When you look at around today at the general behavior of kids of all ages, and realize they are a product of modern, liberal, humanistic parenting techniques (read that as “minus God” and “minus the Bible”), I have only one common question to ask America: HOW’S THAT WORKING OUT FOR YOU?

Note: yes, I know there are parents who have raised good kids without ever having used physical discipline of any type but this is by FAR (far, far, far) the exception, not the norm.

The idea you are teaching “abuse” when a father appropriately disciplines a daughter is simply nonsense (I would say you are teaching weakness and encouraging manipulative behavior instead). Sorry to be so blunt, but it deserves that kind of description. You need to toss that idea into the liberal parenting abyss. Do you not believe that if that was true, God would have instructed us accordingly rather than clearly teaching us the opposite? That is a nonsense idea brought on by worldly psychobabble… the father is to lead the home and with the children, discipline (of which their is no one-size-fits-all) is a major part of that. The Bible, common sense and eons of successful parents know that both physical and non-physical discipline is an effective and loving way to raise respectful, healthy and successful kids.

Your daughter has already figured out that Dad can blow hot air, but there’s no fire behind it. She is now PUNISHING you and given her personality, is going to let you know in no uncertain terms that SHE is in charge, not you. Even if she feigns compliance on a surface level, she’ll make you pay the price at the deepest level by withholding love. She SEES, she KNOWS how deeply this hurts you, and she is using it to extract vengeance.

Man to man… on one hand, you’ve lost valuable ground and RESPECT by abdicating your disciplinary role primarily to your wife (a husband should lead by example; Mom and Dad both should be equally and appropriately involved in discipline; a united front). It has been more comfortable to hand that off to your wife, but that easy choice now has tough consequences.

The really hard part is: what to do now?

At 10 years old, the good news she is still young enough for you to a admit your bad decision to fore-go the disciplinary role, and completely change things. But you cannot be cowardly or procrastinate. You’ve got 2-4 years until she will either resent your weakness and willingness to manipulated… or respect your courage to change and find the strength to be the man-leader in the house. From what you’ve described, she is going to “punish” you even more if you “man up”. YOU HAVE TO IGNORE IT and be unaffected by it.

If you do not immediately make changes and take the next 2-4 years to reinforce your commitment to those changes, your daughter is likely to cause you MUCH grief as a teenager. She has 10 years or more of youth left knowing she can bully you emotionally, and punish you. Until the Lord gets a hold of her heart, it may be a rough road (even still, you’ll have challenges; Christianity is not a magic “perfect kid therapy”).

At a minimum, if I were in your shoes I would sit her down and say, “Daughter, I can see now that I was wrong for all these years leaving the disciplining to your mother. You have become an emotional bully, and you believe you can PUNISH me for laying down the law. You cannot. The only person you are hurting is yourself by neglecting our relationship. I love you. I’m your Dad. BUT I’m your Dad FIRST… not your buddy. I’m your parent, not your pal. So you can ignore me and punish me with your silent treatment as long as you want. You’re only hurting yourself because I will not allow it to affect me. You will not control and manipulate the relationships in this family by emotionally punishing us. You will show your mother and I respect or suffer the consequences. And let me be VERY clear about what happened: if you EVER hit, bite, scratch or physically strike back at me or your mother again, you will have painful consequences to deal with.”

Then you have to be “man enough” to actually do it. Don’t make idle ultimatums.

You’ve really got to do everything possible to build your role AND RESPECT level as the leader and disciplinarian of your home, support and assisting your wife, not leaving the parenting to her. You’ve got a couple of years with your daughter before the hormones kick in and Brother, hear me on this; you ain’t seen nothing yet IF you don’t begin to address the “emotional bullying” and defiance you are getting a glimpse of now.

You have a running chance if you and your wife buck up, present a united front, and have a strong “parental spine”. Also remember,  I am  responding to a complicated family issue based on one email… so if my response is off target, my apologies.

Too Late to Correct Parenting Mistakes?

ROY:

Brent, Thanks for the reply. You’ve given me quite a bit to consider, and I appreciate your bluntness.

I intend to put your words into action, I just wish I had considered such things earlier. It’s hard to accept the term ‘abdicated’. It may be true, but it’s difficult to accept. I’ll not argue that point, but accept it, because I wanted your biblical wisdom and advice, and I value it. My goal is to raise Godly children into Godly adults with humility and consideration and compassion for others.

I’ll say it again, I think that’s a difficult goal for the firstborn. My bio firstborn has an almost identical personality. At its core, it’s a selfish, ‘me’, attitude.

So, what I did was completely wrong. After another week of her punishment, I could take it no longer, and I tried to talk to my daughter. What I did was give in and now that she’s won, she’s back to her old self again, and I’m ashamed of how I accomplished it. What she deserves is punishment for the initial incident AND for the month+ of attitude she gave me. Perhaps it’s not too late to sit her down and make that idea clear to her?

Thanks for the advice. I truly appreciate it, and would welcome any other that you have to offer.

Use A Parable To Get Your Point Across

BRENT:

I applaud you for listening and considering my thoughts. Most of the time I get a “how dare you…” even though THEY asked ME for my opinion. I don’t claim to be “right” about everything, I just answer the best way I know how, and then it’s up to you to decide what, if any, of my advice is good advice.

“Back to her old self”… yes, this is the modus operandi of her type of personality, and unfortunately, you just reinforced what she knows: Dad won’t stand up to me and if he attempts to, I’ll punish him and outlast him.

The fact that she is “normal” again, simply proves the point: “give me my way, and I’ll reward you with my love; treat me wrong, and I’ll punish you by withholding it”.

If it were my daughter, I would sit her down, and tell her a story, like Samuel did with King David concerning Bathsheba:

“Hey, daughter… I need your opinion about something. One of my friends at work has a daughter about your age. You wouldn’t believe what she did. Her parents took her out one night this week to eat and on the way home she wanted to stop by Walmart and buy a toy. They told her ‘no, its too late’ and she got mad. She sat in the back seat and stabbed holes in the seat with a pencil because she was mad. When her parents saw it they disciplined her and grounded her. Then she got mad and wouldn’t talk to them for a week. Now they don’t know what to say to her. Since she’s about your age, I thought I’d see what you think they should say…”

I would tell the story in such a way, with a light-hearted casual way that your daughter does not pick up on the “parable”. When she tells you what how ugly the girl in the story is (and give her plenty of rope to hang the girl!), then you get serious and tell her that the story was really about her and the only way you could get her to understand is to tell in her in a “story” about someone else.

Even if she totally FAILS to get the point, I would still plainly communicate to her: THE GIG IS UP

– You are manipulating our relationship
– You are withholding love to get your way
– You are being disobedient and disrespectful
– I will not allow this any longer; if you want to withhold love, then you are the one losing out on love

I would NOT go back and punish her for the past event; I would just point out, describe and expose her behavior and let her know that you will never allow it again. Admit your fault for allowing it; admit your fault for not being more of a “parent” (discipline) and less her “buddy”.

Be sure you talk to your wife and you are both on the same plan. If your daughter is typical in her personality, she’ll try to pit you and your wife against each other.

ROY:

Wow! You know her so well. It’s as if you had lived with her.

I’ll tell you what, I have the most trouble comprehending the way she can withdraw from any attention from anyone and seem to be perfectly fine with it. As if she requires no love from anyone!

When we first brought her home, she said exactly what she had been coached to say, “Hello Mama. Hello Father.” Nothing more. She uttered not another word until we were home in the US. Not a single word. Virtually emotionless, except she appeared to be quite sad. We thought at the time she was grieving, and perhaps she was, but she was also telling us exactly who she thought was in charge… and it’s been a constant battle for control ever since. Of course we recognized that since that was exactly the same behavior we got from our firstborn.

Let Your Child Know What to Expect From Now On

BRENT:

Your daughter is “perfectly fine with it” (receiving no attention) as long as she perceives there is a chance it will accomplish its task. When she knows that “it WON’T WORK”, she’ll stop… or more likely, try another tactic. However, just a “talk” from you isn’t going to convince her of anything. Deep down she’ll instinctively think “yeah whatever… we’ll just see about this…” She’ll punish you for the simple act of challenging her… be prepared for it.

She has already been reinforced that you’ll give in, so she’ll thoroughly test that out. Be prepared. If she withdraws, you’ll just have to deal with it and don’t give in, no matter HOW LONG she does it. Tell yourself a million times a day “I’m her PARENT first… my job is to raise her, not be her buddy (first)”.

While she does it, remind her that she is giving up TIME that you could be enjoying your relationship. AND, until she repents, you don’t give her attention when SHE WANTS IT. As soon as she starts her “punishment” of you by withdrawing, then you have to withdraw anything that feels good or rewards her manipulation as opposed to jumping on every little tidbit of attention she might throw your way (when it gets her something she wants).

This will be hard for you, but you can’t normalize the situation until she repents for withdrawing… she needs to know that life is on HER PARENTS TERMS, not hers. I would say something like this to her:

“Sweetheart, you can’t have it both ways. You cannot punish your parents when it suits your purpose, and then expect us to be waiting around whenever you decide you want a little attention, or YOU want something. Sorry… whenever you decide to apologize and being loving, we’ll join you. Furthermore, the longer you choose to behave this way, the longer your punishment is going to be whenever you finally decide to stop. We are not only going to IGNORE your manipulation, when you are done with it, there will be consequences to face. How bad those consequences are is up to you and depends on how long you keep up this bad behavior…”

It is a too common event that parents don’t PARENT adopted kids because of all this psychobabble about separation issues and loss (yes, there are some real considerations about separate, but as a whole it is completely overblown and baseless as is a lot of the liberal ideas today about what is “wrong” with kids). Love them, discipline them, parent them. What you saw from your daughter on the trip home was the root of her personality: I don’t like this, so I’m going to withdraw and not give any “reward”, only punishment. It’s a systemic character trait originating in human sinfulness that says “when I’m not happy, people will be punished, AND, if it ends up getting me my way, all the better.” It’s not a separation issue or something to be excused because she is adopted.

The best way to deal with it, is to EXPOSE it, and point it out every time she does it, and say “sorry sister, not happening”. It’s pure manipulation on her part. Better to have her deal with this now instead of when she is a wife and mother.

I’ll bet you guys tried to show her all sorts of empathy and attention, and made all sorts offers and suggestions to “cheer her up” on the way home from getting her. This laid the groundwork for her internally when she found out from day one that this technique had the desired effect.

Once she realizes it doesn’t work, she’ll abandon it because her personality is results oriented. But BEWARE: things are going to probably be VERY ROCKY through her teen years… even if you would have parented her differently… doesn’t matter… she displays the traits of someone who has to do everything her way, school of hard knocks, trial and errors, no one is going to tell me I’m not right… this makes for a tumultuous teen phase.

The good news is, once they get through it, if they don’t’ kill you first (insert grin here), they usually rebound and you’ll have a good relationship. But, I’d be lying if I didn’t encourage you to prepare for a very difficult period with her from about 14-19 or so.

There Really Are Happy Endings – Sometimes

ROY – FIVE MONTHS LATER:

Good morning! I thought I’d pass along an update.

It’s been five months since we had our initial conversation, and enough time to see some results. As you predicted it took little time for my daughter to test my resolve. I followed through with precisely what you recommended and I with what I told her would happen. It was very difficult and she was shocked to discover that I would actually do it. Several days later she ‘tested’ me again to see if I would remain consistent, which I was. Since that time, We have not had any of the behavior we had prior to that.

We just returned from picking up our 7th child. A three year old boy. He is only four months younger than his sister we brought home in 2008. We were able to take our daughter with us to the orphanage. We got to spend a day at the orphanage, and it was quite the overwhelming experience.

During this trip I saw a side of my daughter I haven’t seen much. She was wonderful the entire trip. She didn’t complain once. She went along with whatever we were doing happily. Most of all, she was very helpful and compassionate towards our new son, her new brother. They played together, and she helped mom with things she needed to do… it was a pleasure to have her there.

Over the past five months I have seen this my daughter mature more than I could have expected. She is more affectionate to me now and I believe you were dead on about her respect for me. When she discovered what I told her that I love her too much to allow her to become this hateful child, she understood that to some degree, and I think she respects that.

She’s still not the perfect child, but none are. Some seem to be easier to parent that others, but they all come with their challenges! This one has been particularly challenging! I keep comparing her to my first-born, but I now realize that to assign some relevance to birth order is probably absurd.

Now the test will be to see how well she maintains this new attitude when school starts in a couple of weeks. With a new brother in the house, and another one leaving for college, it’s going to be a different dynamic. I am grateful for the child she has become.

Again, thanks so much for your time and Godly advice.

BRENT:

Great news… so happy to hear things are moving in the right direction and working out. Life doesn’t always steer towards “happy endings” but it’s sure nice to get one every now and then.

I’m glad you discovered this “firstborn” stuff is nonsense (as well as any other general categorization of personality). All that is grounded in either anecdotal evidence, wives tales, cultural myths or humanistic thinking.

The fact is, we are all born sinful. We all have character flaws, bad habits and sinful tendencies. Each of our kids are uniquely created by God and we need only to ask God to give us the wisdom to know how to parent each one specifically.

In the end though, our kids grow up to be adults and make their own decisions. We cannot force them to be “good”, whatever that may mean to us. We parent them the best we can, and leave them in God’s capable hands. We need not live in “parental regret” all the time. Do your best and trust God.

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