You won't be offended, will you, if this psychiatrist compares our children to dogs?
Denis Donovan wants parents to know that "if you visit a dog training club, you'll see there is every kind of dog there from mutts to very, very expensive dogs. And the expectations of the trainers, even with highly inbred species, is that every single one of these dogs can learn every single thing in all of their courses. Now, we don't have that expectation of children."
Also, dog trainers "feel it's very important to recognize the dog's temperament, but then not to assume that it's cast in concrete--or cast in neurons," he added in an interview.
So, "even if your kid is 4, and beyond those famous three years, if we can expect it of dogs, we can expect it of the world's most astounding, multitasking, parallel-processing supercomputer--the brain of a kid."
So we see that Donovan seems a bit unconventional for a child and adolescent psychiatrist. (He is medical director of the Children's Center for Developmental Psychiatry in St. Petersburg, Fla.) In this era of psychopharmaceuticals for children--especially Ritalin and Adderall--Donovan is in the opposite camp.
He writes in his new book: "If you want to actually solve your child's problems, you would be far wiser to forget about all the new findings and fancy technology and return to the basics of a realistic understanding of parent-child communication issues and how and why children behave and experience the world. That is where the vast majority of solutions lie." The book, "What Did I Just Say!?!" (Henry Holt, $23), is written by Donovan and his wife, Deborah McIntyre, a child therapist.
Oftentimes--very, very often, Donovan said--children who qualify for a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder or oppositional defiant disorder don't need prescriptions. Rather, their parents need to bone up on how to talk to them.
"The vast majority of problems that get diagnosed and eventually mistreated are actually within parents' grasp. These are things that parents can actually resolve if they understand what's going on," he said.
He gives the example of a mother in a toy store who wants her 4-year-old to stop pushing boxes around. He doesn't stop. She says, "Do you want a spanking?" Again, "Do you want a spanking?" Then she hits him on the rear. As soon as the pain passes, the boy starts reaching again. The mother yells, "What did I just say?" Equally ineffective are "Can't you behave?" (The child thinks, I could if I wanted to.) "Are you going to stop it?" (No.) If you say "That's not polite," it doesn't translate to "Don't do that" for young children.
And the advice to say something like, "We don't hit in this family" is fascinating, Donovan said, because a child will deduce that he did hit, and he knows he is a member of the family. What you want to say is, "Stop that. Don't hit."
"Conventional language is so transparent that nobody hears what they're saying," Donovan said.
Parents repeat themselves, then parents yell.
"That promotes what we call parent deafness," Donovan said. "As does saying something two, three, four, five times." Instead, parents should expect children to follow directions the first time. If children don't, there should be a "nonangry consequence," such as a matter-of-fact "No computer tonight."
"It's amazing how the hearing of children improves," Donovan said.
The solution to this kind of hot air is simple, the authors said. "Just don't use questions, negative questions, and empty statements. Say clearly what you mean and mean exactly what you say." Consistency is essential. Without it, parents are inviting disorder.
"It doesn't make any sense at all to set off on a wild goose chase for mythical brain disorders when parents have it within their power to use structure, rules and boundaries" to shape children's behavior, the authors write.
He's a psychiatrist, so of course what he sees are troubled families. That would explain the spineless parents. Right?
"Many parents don't seem to realize that, like it or not, they really are in charge," the authors observe.
Ineffectual, inconsistent--and gasbags. That couldn't be us.