Q.Our bright, energetic, 5-year-old son gets glowing reviews from his teachers for his attentive learning and his good behavior -- but he doesn't get many from us. I am worn down by the constant struggle, with him and with myself.
He says that a small, bad-tempered person lives in his head and makes him say hurtful things. We also have a new baby and an older son with perfect behavior, which makes us ask the 5-year-old, "Why can't you act like your brother?"
Whatever the reason for his behavior, this boy opposes, resists or complains at every opportunity. It doesn't matter what I offer; the answer is "no."
"Do you want a hot dog for lunch?"
But if I'm serving chicken for dinner that night, he will ask for a hot dog.
He'll fuss about anything, even if I'm telling him how important it is to cross the street at the crosswalk or asking him to choose which flavor he wants in his ice cream cone.
I hate the way I let him push my buttons, but I don't know how to respond to so much opposition and negativity and neither does my husband. We are in constant conflict with our son, which is affecting his self-esteem.
How can we let him express himself and still deal with the small, bad-tempered person inside his head?
A.Even a royal prince shouldn't be treated like a prince.
Catering to a child may seem like an act of love, but in fact, it can do a great deal of harm.
Children need limits to feel safe and they will push and push until they get them. Your son won't stop challenging you until he knows just where he stands and how far he can go.
With a perfect brother and a new baby around, he also may need extra attention from you and his dad, but try to give it to him when he's being good, so he will want to be a little better. If you give most of your attention to him when he's bad, he will act up even more. And please don't compare him with his brother. That has never been a winning strategy.
It's time for you and your husband to treat your son the way his teachers do. A good teacher doesn't let her students express themselves in whatever way they choose, nor does she change her lesson plan because one of them doesn't like it. The teacher runs the show at school, and you and your husband should run it at home.
If you ask your son how he thinks his bedtime story will end, you're not giving him a yes-or-no choice; you're letting him use his imagination. But if you ask him what he wants for lunch -- and then let him change his order over and over again -- you are setting up a power struggle and you're also making extra work for yourself. You run a family kitchen, not a food court at the mall.
It's much better to say, "Wow, this is Hot Dog Day!" And when he says he wants macaroni and cheese instead, simply say -- in sympathy, not anger -- "I'm sorry, sweetheart. This is either Hot Dog Day or Nothing Day."
Your new approach may make your son pitch a fit the first time and even skip lunch entirely, but he won't starve if he misses a meal or two. Just don't give in and don't give him more than a piece of fruit for a mid-afternoon snack. He should be hungry enough to eat the chicken that night. Or the next.
Basically, his behavior should improve when you stop taking your son so seriously. He's smart and he needs to express himself, but he's only 5 years old; he doesn't know nearly as much as you do -- and he doesn't pay the mortgage.
To read some good backup material, look for "ScreamFree Parenting" by Hal Edward Runkel (Oakmont, $16.95); "Loving Your Child Is Not Enough" by Nancy Samalin with Martha Moraghan Jablow (Penguin, $12.95) and especially "The Answer Is NO" by Cynthia Whitham (Perspective, $13.95).
Questions? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.