Q: My nine-year-old son is always “ready to run” — so he keeps me and my husband running as well! He can act so impulsively that I don’t know where he is from one moment to the next. He also has a need to be continually recognized, to the extent that I sometimes think he would have been better off as an only child. Do you have any general ideas that can help us work better with him?
A: Certain children seem to experience excitement when breaking the rules and find enjoyment in continually changing the structure of the daily schedule that you are attempting to create. There is a reason why Curious George is everyone’s favorite character: He is so impulsive that he always gets into trouble, but in the end he is the hero and everyone loves him.
In real life, however, such impulsive behavior is generally not tolerated. In fact, it is a blessing that your son is not an only child! Getting along with and accommodating others is best learned by growing up with all types of siblings, and this life experience will only help your son.
Impulsive children often feel the need to be recognized and take center-stage. This attribute is more often seen in males than in females, hence the term “male ego,” which reflects the need that many men possess to be recognized and feel important in society at-large. These individuals may feel innately insecure, and seem to need the adrenaline rush resulting from their impulsivity.
What’s needed is for this feeling to be replicated, albeit less intensely, through a positive-reinforcement system. This idea is applicable to smokers who attempt to quit smoking. Some use nicotine patches to help wean themselves away from their addiction, as their bodies have become accustomed to the sensation of nicotine. Once a need has been established — either positive or negative — one needs to work with the reality of its existence.
Most impulsive children do want to please their parents (at least at a young age) and will be willing to participate in some form of positive reinforcement plan that gives them a redeemable payoff. Though it will clearly not be as exciting as some other activities, the payoff of some type of desired reward, combined with achieving parental satisfaction, can be very gratifying to a child.
An impulsive child needs to see the consequences of his actions spelled out for him. Though nothing may seem to faze the child, he still needs to hear the words from the parent and for the parent to make definite eye contact with him. Having this information will not necessarily lead to changed behavior, as adrenaline rush is a powerful thing, but chinuch is the art of imparting knowledge and attempting to find vessels in which it can be received. This can be achieved by “ethical” story-telling, or acting out the problematic behavior, and problem-solving for possible responses.
Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt”l, gives a source that explains, from a spiritual perspective, the differences between men and women. Male existence is a physical one, as they are born from afar v’eifer — from dust and ashes. Due to this reality, they need to constantly prove that they are indeed “something.”
Women, on the other hand, generally have less of that need, as they know they were created from a spiritual being — from the rib of Adam after he had been given a neshamah. Thus, they do not feel the need to prove themselves.
If a child, however, has a need to be recognized by others, whether a boy or a girl, a parent or teacher cannot ignore it. The wise teacher has, for example, specific “board monitors” and “chazzanim” to help the student (and themselves), and this idea can be replicated in the home.
Certain impulsive children have poor social skills and need cues from adults to help them realize how they affect the environment around them. Role-playing using appropriate eye contact helps the impulsive child better focus on appropriate behavior and responsiveness to others.
Belief in the child and in the child’s ultimate ability to exhibit self-control is one of the most precious self-esteem builders that a parent can give to a child. B’hatzlachah!