Dear Dr. Ray,
My four-year-old son, Jason, seems to get into far more than his share of trouble. To use a word, he is high-spirited. If I discipline him as much as he seems to need, will I break his spirit? ―Cautious
Your Jason sounds like another little guy I met recently―David. David was the closest thing to perpetual motion I’ve seen in while. Indefatigable, he endlessly tampered with anything within eyesight to see how it could be taken apart or destroyed. He averaged 22.6 questions per hour, wanting the why of everything from the basic laws of physics to his parents’ rules. He was forever pitting his will against grownups’, sometimes to win, sometimes just to see what would happen. Unfortunately, David’s innate spunk coupled with his penchant for rule breaking led him to be the first child ever “expelled” from his preschool. His mother’s question mirrored yours: How do I teach self-control without breaking the will?
To begin, kids who run on high idle, or who constantly challenge, or who buck every rule almost always do need more discipline than their more even-tempered or docile counterparts. Discipline itself does not break spirits. On the contrary, it gives youngsters the self-control necessary to use their inborn energy to its full potential. Of course, your discipline has to be firmer than the average parent’s. You have to work harder at sticking to your guns and following through. Staying calm is a daily challenge. In short, a “high” (euphemism for feisty) spirit tests a parent’s spirit. But, believe it or not, it will make you a better parent. And that leads directly to a better child.
To maintain your parental sanity you need to decide when to discipline and when to let Jason’s exuberance feed itself fully. Start with this guideline: If Jason’s behavior is not hurting anyone, himself included, nor trampling on anyone’s rights, why intervene? Whom or what is Jason harming by squirming through 46 contortionist postures per TV commercial, by asking Grandpa (who really doesn’t mind) fourteen questions per minute, or by singing himself to sleep, however off-key. On the other hand, if the living room couch is Jason’s practice trampoline, or Jason calls Grandpa “dumb head” because he can only guess at twelve of fourteen questions, or sings right through your wishes that he at least be lying in bed by 8:00 P.M., then his actions are infringing upon other’s rights, or are irresponsible, and need to be tempered or stopped. Doing so does not break wills. It provides the guidelines that kids need to put direction to their spiritedness.
A high spirit and self-control are not mutually exclusive characteristics. Indeed, they complement each other well. A child who is born with the first and learns the latter through his parents will maximize both gifts.