The Out-of- the-Box Child

Q: My 14-year-old son is so different from his father that my husband just can’t relate to him. My husband is super conventional and always careful to follow rules. My son, on the other hand, is definitely out of the box. It’s not that he intentionally misbehaves. It’s just that he doesn’t seem to get that all the rules apply also to him. Just one example: He violated the curfew at sleep-away camp because he was out walking someone’s dog! And he is not fazed in the least by the annoyance of the adults around him at his laissez-faire attitude.

My husband feels that I am too soft on him, and that if I would just be harder, then he would “shape up.” But I don’t see that this is true, because when he does receive punishments for not conforming to the rules, he doesn’t seem to change.

Things can get difficult when he is late for minyan and the yeshivah gives him a monetary knas. He knows that we’ll end up giving him the money — as the other option is him staying home from yeshivah, which he would like, but we wouldn’t! Sometimes I give him household chores to do after we pay a knas so that he will experience some consequence and not feel that it’s a total “free ride.” Some of his Rebbeim work very well with him, but others lose patience. Any thoughts on this?

A: Certain parents and teachers feel that children will only “learn from their mistakes,” and they stress this form of student “self education.” An example of this might be allowing the child to suffer the results from coming late: A ride might leave without him, or he might lose the trust of a friend. Though definite “punishments” do work with many children — and adults — are they irritating enough to this particular child to motivate him to change?

The natural consequences arising from their actions don’t seem to faze certain types of children. Whom are we referring to? There are three types of children who seem to disregard natural consequences.

The non-conventional child who marches to his own drum is one such child. He will find an alternative plan to achieve his desired ends, and he won’t get too ruffled by a need to tailor himself to the existing environment.

The second type of child is the one with low self-esteem. This child has limited expectations and is not surprised that he has no snack again. He doesn’t expect things to change or greatly improve. It’s not that he is disregarding his teacher or parent when making the same mistakes over and over again, but his mind is preoccupied with his self-image and how he fits — or doesn’t fit — into the world around him.

The third child is the one who might be a little too imaginative and day-dreamy, and doesn’t focus so easily. An ADD child might fit into this category. Such children manage to avoid feelings of being severely embarrassed when caught not following the rules because they “didn’t hear you anyway.”

When one accepts that the method of reward and punishment is not effective for all children, it goes a long way to relieve the feelings of frustration and disappointment when these children don’t respond as anticipated.

Some children are more readily motivated by positive reinforcement, as this can improve their self-esteem. Such children (and adults) would choose a desirable reward, and even abandon their pleasant day-dreams for a possible desired outcome, within the framework of a positive-reinforcement system. These children, however, still need to be shown the consequences of their actions in order for them to learn how our world operates. It’s important to bear in mind that these consequences may not necessarily change their behavior (as we see on a daily basis with the child who continually gets negative consequences but continues in the same path).

What is more effective instead is using motivational techniques to work on each one of these particular children’s behavioral challenges. A parent needs to work on problem-solving with such a child to find ways of completing possibly undesirable tasks and limitations in ways of pleasantness and satisfaction.