Don’t let 6-year-old son make grown-up decisions

July 18, 2011

Q. I am tired of being the Angry Mommy. My 6-year-old son, an only child, is never happy until I get mad and miserable, and this drains me mentally and physically. I don’t even feel like the same person I used to be and then I feel guilty about it.

Although my son is intelligent, has many friends and can be sweet, polite and charming, he also has a lot of energy. He can be impulsive and extremely negative or his behavior can go on a roller-coaster where he fusses about one thing after another all day long. His father’s cousin says that this is a family trait and that some of his relatives complain about everything.

My son has always been a challenging child. I often had to leave toddler play groups because of his behavior. But he coped well when my husband and I separated four years ago, probably because we co-parent. We have the same rules and expectations. We each see him every other day. We give him time alone to calm down. We help him talk about his emotions and we see that he sleeps 10 to 12 hours a day, naps on weekends and eats three healthy meals and at least two (mostly) healthy snacks a day.

For some reason, however, he generally acts better when he’s around our foster children, even though they’re usually younger than he is. But why? If he acts up to get attention, you’d think that the less attention he got, the worse he’d act.

I think that my son may act up because he and I have different temperaments, a problem that can’t be fixed. But if he acts up because he’s bored, I don’t know what more we can do. Our whole lives are structured around our son. We give him ample attention and ample opportunity to make choices; we let him decide what will be fun for him and what he wants to do on the weekends and we make sure he has the right mix of rest and activities. What else can we do?

A. You can do less. Much, much less.

If you rear your child to be a prince, he’ll just turn into a king one day, and then he’s liable to bop you with his scepter when he doesn’t get his way.

At 6, your son is too young and too inexperienced to decide what the family should do on the weekend because he can’t compare an old adventure with one he’s never tried before, and — as he instinctively knows — he’s too young to tell his parents what to do.

Although he may not admit his limitations, even to himself, he knows that a child who isn’t old enough to do his own laundry, cross the street or get a job can’t be expected to take on more responsibility than he can handle. If you depend on him too much and defer to him too often, he’s going to fall apart, complain and be quite negative.

Your son is the future and the hope of your family. He shouldn’t be the center of it until he is old enough and responsible enough to have a family of his own.

You should listen to his ideas and his dreams, of course, but you shouldn’t give him whatever he wants or let him do whatever he wants to do.

You also should make him pay his own consequences. The minute he says that he won’t go to his swim class or to story hour at the library, tell him “That’s great! Now I can read my new book while you take a rest in your room.”

He’ll be surprised and annoyed when you give in so quickly (and when he has to stay in his room) . But if he gets very little attention for being naughty — and much more attention for being good — he’ll act better. Children want to be noticed by their parents more than anything else, and they’ll behave in the way that gets them noticed the most.

The fact that your son acts better when he’s around your foster children merely tells you that he likes it better when you’re tending to several children at once, rather than focusing only on him. A little benign neglect gives children the freedom to think and explore for themselves and your son probably needs a bit more neglect than he’s getting.

Questions? Send them to advice @margueritekelly.com

Live Chat: Kelly will take readers’ questions Thursday at noon at washingtonpost.com/conversations.

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