The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever and What to Do About It

by Katharine Reynolds Lewis 

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Author’s Note

THIS BOOK CONTAINS BOTH SCENES I observed and scenes that I re-created through interviews with people who were present and documentary evidence, when available. I am present in some way in the scenes I reported in person. Whenever someone’s emotion is described, I interviewed that person after the fact to ask what they were feeling at the moment.

I am immensely grateful to the educators, parents, and children who welcomed me into their classrooms and homes to observe and learn. I have changed some names and identifying details.

Part 1
The Problem

1
Introduction

CAMILA CULLEN’S EVENINGS WERE BEGINNING to feel like torture. Like an endless game of whack-a-mole.

She tried to ignore the muffled thumps as she read a book in bed. Then a door burst open. She looked up. Through the open door of her bedroom, she saw a slight figure dash out of the room across the hall and run upstairs.

Mariana. Probably headed to the attic playroom to grab some toys.

Camila checked her watch. 10:00 p.m. She sighed.

I wonder what time she will fall asleep. How many nights can she keep this up?

Mariana, age seven, and her younger brother, four-year-old Alejandro, had been “partying at bedtime,” as they called it, for days. The pair seemed to be in open revolt, and Camila, forty-one, finally got tired of fighting it. She and her husband, Colin, forty-two, had tried everything they could think of to bring peace to the family’s evenings. They played soft music. They lay down beside their offspring. They threatened and pleaded. Nothing worked consistently to get the children to sleep.

Testy from sleep deprivation, Camila and Colin had squabbled with each other over how to handle bedtime. Defeated, the parents decided to stop nagging, threatening, or wheedling—just for a week—to see what would happen.

Bedtime became chaos. Mariana and Alejandro would rile each other up, laughing and running around like crazy. After each late night, the mornings dragged out later and later. The family twice pulled into their Washington, DC, public charter school noticeably tardy. The tired-out kids simply couldn’t get out the door on time.

Camila felt hopeless. She wondered if they should put the children in separate bedrooms. Alejandro went to sleep more willingly. He was always the first to say he was tired of the party and climb into bed. But Mariana could play with toys, build structures, or just dance around the room until 11:00 p.m. some nights. It was the fall of 2015, and the school year stretched ahead of the family ominously.

With them in the same room, no sooner had Camila kissed and tucked in one child than the other popped out of bed to get water or a stuffed animal or with some other excuse.

“I’m exhausted,” she told me in a phone interview. “I cannot do anything because I’m spending all my time putting them to bed.”

THE CULLENS ARE TWO OF the parents you’ll meet in this book, but they are far from alone. In fact, stories like theirs are so common that they have effectively redefined normal. Parents increasingly struggle with kids who can’t seem to control their behavior or emotional response. Government data confirm this. A sweeping study by the National Institute of Mental Health revealed that one in two children will develop a mood or behavioral disorder or a substance addiction before age eighteen. Extensive research I present in Chapter 2 shows that this represents an actual change in children, not just a rise in diagnosis.

So if you look around and see misbehaving, undisciplined children everywhere, it’s not your imagination. Children today are fundamentally different from past generations. They truly have less self-control.

Simply put, we face a crisis of self-regulation.

I hope the cutting-edge research and stories of real families in this book will transform your view of discipline—and give you examples of both what to do and what not to do. By the conclusion, you’ll see how the Cullens pushed through their bedtime frustration with persistence that paid off. After they absorbed and implemented the key principles in this book, they turned bedtime into a peaceful family ritual.

This book makes the case that when adults crack down on bad behavior, they undermine the development of the very traits that children need to become self-disciplined and productive members of society. Tactics such as time-outs and rewards for behavior you want may seem to help in the short run. But I’ll show how they actually hold children back by undermining their self-regulation, one of the bedrock skills for success in school, in college, in the workplace, and beyond.

It’s entirely understandable that when children misbehave, adults feel an urge to squash the unwanted behavior. We should resist that impulse. It’s exactly the opposite of what’s needed.

Instead, pay attention. View the child’s actions as a clue to a puzzle that can only be solved with the child’s engaged cooperation and as an opportunity to help that child develop an important skill. It’s easy to forget that just as children need practice to learn how to ride a bike, tie their shoes, and do math, they must try and fail and try again when it comes to managing their own behavior.

Can you imagine sending your child to time-out because they couldn’t ride their bike all the way to the stop sign and back? Of course not. First, it simply doesn’t work. It’s not as though a time-out is going to improve their balance or coordination. Second, you’d be throwing away a prime opportunity to engage your child in a constructive moment, a teaching moment. So when you factor in what you might call the opportunity cost of punishment, it’s not just that traditional discipline really doesn’t work—it moves you away from the goal.

There’s another way. A growing number of parents, educators, and psychologists are finding success with research-backed models of discipline that share three common threads: connection, communication, and capability. They are restoring order to turbulent families, giving disruptive children control over themselves, and even eliminating symptoms of attention and anxiety disorders in some kids.

This book tells the stories of this nascent movement, the champions of which aren’t even fully aware of the shared building blocks in their methods or of the growing body of science that supports their results. The first part, chapters 1 to 4, explains why we face a crisis of self-regulation and lays out the scientific discoveries that underpin this assertion. The second part, chapters 5 to 9, describes the three key steps shared by all the successful discipline models I’ve studied and takes readers inside four of these models as adults teach children to self-regulate. The conclusion, chapters 10 and 11, gives practical advice for adopting these techniques and changing old habits.

You will learn facts that may surprise you. You’ll discover how social media and family schedules have contributed to children failing to launch. You’ll learn that there is zero association between the time moms and dads spend with their school-age children and the kids’ behavior or academic performance. You’ll meet parents who achieved domestic harmony by treating their home as a learning lab, not a shrine to perfection.

By the end of the book, I hope you will respond to unwanted behavior in a child not with alarm but with eagerness. Rather than seeing misbehavior as a problem, my goal is for you to see it as an expected and totally normal part of how modern kids develop—and a chance to practice the tools I’ll explain in the pages ahead.

I FIRST STARTED PUZZLING OVER the question of how contemporary kids respond to discipline when my middle child entered kindergarten in 2009.

One warm, early fall day, I volunteered for recess duty at the school. From my post near the blacktop, I saw some older boys playing wildly, sending kickballs flying around the playground and narrowly missing a group of little kindergartners at play. I warned them to take the rough play away from the younger children. They paused and looked over at me. I walked closer to repeat my instructions while making direct eye contact.

They simply ignored me. They resumed their dangerous rough play.

I live in a solidly middle-class community in a quiet, leafy Maryland suburb of Washington, DC—similar to the upstate New York area where I was raised. Back then, kids in the schoolyard would never have ignored a parent’s instructions. As I compared notes with other parents, I heard similar stories in all walks of life. Children ignoring lifeguards at the neighborhood pool. New kindergarteners unable to sit still or keep their hands to themselves. Something seemed to have changed dramatically without our even realizing it. As fascinating as it is to ask why children have changed, the first thing I needed to know was: What now? How can I get these boys to play safely? I needed discipline strategies different from the ones my parents and teachers used.

The experience my husband and I had with our children confirmed this insight. As a child, I was a typical good girl, eager to excel in school and please adults, often found reading quietly in my bedroom. Our oldest daughter, Samantha, now twenty-five, shares a similar temperament. Our two younger kids are entirely different creatures. Natural extroverts, they burst into a room with the barely contained energy of a pair of puppy dogs. I could understand them being wiggly at mealtimes when they were two or three. But even at age eight or nine, they’d sit still at dinner for just a few minutes before jumping out of their seats to play with our dog or come to me for a hug.

My journal notes from when my youngest daughter was three and a half are full of frustration at her refusal to dress after a bath, brush her teeth, go to bed on time, or even put on her shoes to walk out the door for school. My middle child, now fourteen, has often flatly refused to attend religious school or another scheduled activity. When my similarly high-energy and headstrong husband was young, a raised hand or stern look from his mother got him back in line. Some critics argue that parents today have gone soft; the solution, they say, is to be strict and in charge. But the command-and-control method of discipline never resonated with me, and I’ll show in this book why it isn’t best for today’s children.

When my kids’ defiance first cropped up, I used time-outs, counting to three, sticker charts, and whatever methods I could find in the parenting books in a vain attempt to get them to do what I wanted. One new technique might extinguish bad behavior for a few weeks, but before long a fresh problem would crop up. At one point, I endured a stretch when every single day ended with me or a child in tears over bedtime.

As a mother, I needed a better way—something that would honor my desire to respect my kids as individuals but keep the family from descending into total chaos. As a journalist with two decades’ experience gathering facts and analyzing problems, I burned to understand why so many parents were having the same difficulties. None of the responses to misbehavior I saw around me—whether squelching, “tiger” parenting, or bubble-wrapping children—seemed to reliably produce capable, confident adults. I wondered why parenting seems so much harder nowadays, even though parents of my generation devote more time and energy to our children than at any point in modern history, according to time use researchers.

I called on my early training as a physics undergraduate at Harvard to examine, with a critical eye, hundreds of research studies on what the latest science could tell us about this broad societal problem. I started interviewing parents and educators about what seemed to work. Then, in July 2015, Mother Jones magazine published my first round of reporting about new discipline techniques. Within days of appearing on MotherJones.com, the article became the site’s most-read story ever, with more than 4 million views, 790,000 Facebook shares, 6,000 tweets, and 980 comments.

To my shock, I seemed to have struck a raw cultural nerve. I realized that millions of people were facing the same fears, confronting the same problems, and also looking for solutions. Parents and teachers around the world told me that the piece changed their approach with children. It made its way into conference sessions and university curricula and attracted interest in Sweden and Germany.

Galvanized by this response, I embarked on a cross-country quest, shadowing families and classroom teachers in ten different states. I visited homes in Vermont where children were cheerfully taking responsibility for household chores. In Maine, I observed a revolutionary new model for rehabilitating the most troubled kids in homes, schools, psychiatric wards, and even youth prisons that reduced discipline problems by 70 percent or more. I learned about brain function from leading neuroscientists and agreed to let them test my connection to my daughter with a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. I watched Santa Fe meditation teachers offer mindfulness tools to anxious children. I traveled to inner-city classrooms in Baltimore and Columbus where the rowdiest children quieted the instant they heard a harmonica.

I sought out the real-life stories behind the rising rates of youth anxiety, depression, behavioral disorders, and substance abuse. I looked for experts to challenge my growing conviction that kids today are simply unable to manage their behavior, thoughts, or emotions the way they could in generations past. Traveling everywhere from Texas and Wisconsin to Massachusetts, I spoke with dozens of parents, educators, psychologists, and other professionals who care about kids to learn what helps children thrive. I took parenting education classes and tested their recommendations on my own children, eventually becoming a certified parent educator.

As I interviewed parent after parent who only wanted the very best for their children, the most common question I heard was, “How do we get the kids to do what we want?” It took five years of research for me to understand that, somewhat tragically, we all are asking the wrong question. The right question is, “Why can’t the kids do what we want?”

The following chapter explains why.

2
An Epidemic of Misbehavior

ON A CHILLY WINTER DAY in 2003, two Russian psychologists, Elena Smirnova and Olga Gudareva, opened the doors to a Moscow kindergarten. They greeted the teachers and walked to the play area of the building. Then they began work on a simple experiment. They pulled one child aside and told them to stand perfectly still, timing how long they could maintain the pose. Next, they asked them to play a role—to pretend to be a sentry guarding a palace—and timed the child again.

The study replicated a famous experiment from 1948 in which the Russian psychologist Z. V. Manuilenko demonstrated that children can control themselves better when they’re playing pretend. Over many months, Smirnova and Gudareva repeated the process with all the children and also observed the kids’ play unfolding naturally. Back at their lab, they crunched the numbers, breaking down the data according to age, from four to seven years old. They discovered that they had succeeded in replicating the results of their predecessor. In each age group, the average length of time children could keep the pose increased when they were standing still as part of a game.

But their second finding was more interesting: the children they observed were less mature than the ones in the 1948 study—or, at least, their play habits were. For example, only a few of the kids were assigning specific roles and interacting with their classmates in an imaginary scenario—behaviors that Manuilenko had observed as common six decades earlier. “Contemporary preschoolers mostly demonstrated an immature ability to pretend play,” Smirnova told me in an email interview. She knows about play. She’s director of Moscow State University’s Toy and Game Center and the author of twenty books, including a textbook on child psychology.

And the third finding of the research stopped Smirnova in her tracks. She found a dramatic drop in self-control from fifty-five years earlier. While pretending to be sentries, the modern four- to five-year-olds could hold the pose for only one-third of the time their counterparts did in 1948. The six- to seven-year-old group could stand still for three minutes on average, compared with twelve minutes for the children observed in the 1940s.

That means that first- and second-graders of the early Cold War era could stay still four times as long as modern kids.

It may seem trivial to be concerned about child’s play. Aren’t there more pressing dangers confronting modern children?

But play isn’t minor at all. For decades, child development researchers have amassed evidence that play is a crucial building block in children’s growth, helping them develop abstract thought, self-control, social cooperation, and other essential skills. For example, kids begin to move beyond a concrete mind-set when they play pretend. When a child holds up a forked stick and declares, pretending it’s a gun, “Bang bang! You’re dead!” that’s abstract thought.

Games also help kids develop self-regulation. Both the inherent fun and the social pressure to keep a game going give children strong incentives to control their actions. If a child pushes and shoves, their peers may refuse to play with them again, or they may hit back. This reaction gives the disruptive child a powerful reason to override the urge to lash out—stronger motivation than if an adult intervened. By practicing self-control in play, they gain greater impulse control in other areas of life.

These are the reasons that the changes Smirnova observed in how kindergarten kids were playing in 2003 caused her deep concern. You may wonder whether these developments represented a side effect of communism, or perhaps a sign of the unraveling Soviet society. Yet in the United States as well, researchers have documented an erosion in children’s ability to self-regulate.

Jean Twenge first grew interested in whether we’re better off emotionally than previous generations during her graduate studies at the University of Michigan in the 1990s. A tomboy as a child, she’d started out researching gender roles, which were (and still are) changing dramatically. She became fascinated by mental illness in women. One day she was in Professor Susan Nolen-Hoeksema’s office discussing her quest for a dissertation topic. Nolen-Hoeksema suggested looking at change in depression over time.

“I have this memory of her pulling these articles out of her drawer, saying, ‘There’s all this good evidence on depression going up,’” recalled Twenge, who decided to focus her thesis on anxiety and neuroticism. “And sure enough, that’s what I found.” She published a paper showing that college students and children in 1993 reported substantially more anxiety and neuroticism than the same groups in 1952.

But wait. Couldn’t it be that modern doctors are just more aware of mental health and better able to screen and diagnose for anxiety and depression?

Twenge had to verify that her results were real. To do this, she compared answers to the questions that related to impulsivity, depression, anxiety, and attention problems on four psychological surveys given to a total of 6.9 million high school and college-aged Americans in the 1980s, and to the same age group again two decades later. Since she was looking at symptoms, not the prevalence of disorders, her results couldn’t be skewed by different diagnostic practices or better awareness.

The results troubled her: there had been dramatic increases in depressive symptoms and distractibility over the past twenty years. For example, in one study she found that three times as many teens had trouble sleeping and thinking clearly in the period 2012–2014 as compared to 1982–1984. She also found a steady increase in college students’ rebelliousness. Now a psychology professor at San Diego State University, Twenge continues to rack up evidence that something has changed dramatically in our culture and is making young people today significantly more anxious, depressed, neurotic, and narcissistic than their counterparts three or four decades earlier.

Why is this societal shift happening? It’s impossible to know for sure, but Twenge shared some well-supported theories.

“We can’t ever prove that one thing causes it, or anything causes it. You can’t randomly assign people to grow up in different generations,” she said. “We know that focusing on money, fame, and image is correlated with anxiety and depression.”

Mass media, reality television, and celebrity culture became more pervasive over the same time period in which she found depression and anxiety rising. These cultural influences all drive young people to focus externally when figuring out their goals and desires, instead of looking inside themselves to ask: Who am I? What fills me with passion? What feeds my curiosity and desire to learn? People who focus externally—who are “extrinsically motivated,” in psychology lingo—tend to have lower levels of happiness and life satisfaction. It’s better to be intrinsically motivated, to follow your own internal drives and interests.

More recently, the advent of social media is a likely culprit behind rising mental illness, as studies emerge connecting personal electronics use to social disconnection and blunted empathy. One experiment found that when preteens participated in an outdoor education program without access to screens for just five days, they scored higher on emotional intelligence. Multiple studies have found that the more time people spend on Facebook, Instagram, and the like, the more likely they are to feel depressed.

CELIA DURRANT, FORTY-SEVEN, SEEMED ALL blond curls and Southern drawl as she described her befuddlement with her teen daughters’ peer group and social media use. She has observed the full spectrum of online adolescence in the upscale Dallas suburb where she lives with her children Kaya, sixteen, Alex, fourteen, and Olivia, twelve, and her husband, Bobby Ahern. His children, London, fourteen, Violet, twelve, and Edison, ten, divide their time between Dallas and their mother’s home in Houston. I followed Durrant home from work on a sunny spring day, and we walked together up the driveway to her five-bedroom Craftsman home, set in a lush landscape of trees, bushes, and a private pool.

“The two older girls are quite popular, and I think that adds to anxiety, that they are scared to death they are missing out on something if they don’t have the phone with them,” Durrant said, noting that both Kaya and London see therapists for anxiety. “I’m a very laid-back mom. I’m pretty open. All of our kids just do their stuff. I don’t ever have to get on them about homework. It’s not an environment of stress. I truly believe it has to do with this social media, never unplugging, the stress of the social part of it.”

Over a recent spring break, her girls noticed “snaps” coming daily from the accounts of their friends who were traveling in Europe—but the snaps weren’t photos of European scenes. In an act of adolescent friendship peculiar to the social media age, the traveling teens had given their friends their Snapchat logins and asked them to blast out a picture each day to all their contacts so that they wouldn’t lose their Snapchat streaks while on vacation. Snapchat creates a “streak” when two friends have sent each other snaps for at least three consecutive days.

Durrant introduced me to Kaya, Olivia, London, and London’s friend Dvora, who was visiting Dallas for a weekend sleepover. Three poodle-mix dogs barked excitedly at our feet. Durrant pointed out the family chickens through the glass door, all named after famous women: Marilyn, Rosie, and Eleanor. A fourth chicken, Beyoncé, had recently died. The older girls and I walked to the kitchen, taking seats around a heavy wooden table with ten chairs.

Looking at their Snapchat accounts, I saw long columns of names, many labeled with a number next to a flame emoji. The number tells how many days in a row the account holder and the listed person have exchanged snaps.

“If you have a streak with someone, even someone you barely know at your school, you have to open it and close it every day. They may have a hundred on there that they have to open and close,” Durrant said. “It’s like a job.”

The girls didn’t seem burdened by the work. Kaya showed me the screen on Snapchat displaying her friends’ “stories,” a collection of recent videos and photos they had posted. The screen was divided between updated stories that she hadn’t viewed yet and stories she’d already seen. Kaya selected about a dozen names.

“Basically, you can tap all these and that means you’re going to watch them consecutively. It plays them, you tap until you go through them,” she said. As the updates began to play, she tapped them quickly, forcing each one to advance before the preset time of five seconds—too fast to look at any of the images.

“I don’t like looking at these people because I don’t care about them. I need to unfollow these people,” she said. “Basically, you just tap and you can look at them or, like me, just don’t.”

I watched the blur of faces and settings. Then a flash of skin. “Was that a topless photo?” I asked.

“She’s a fitness guru, and she’s always talking about her fitness routine,” Kaya said. She pulled up the account to show me a trim young woman in a sports bra and leggings, reclining on a lounge chair. “She’s really annoying. She’s always boasting about her body.”

“Why don’t you drop her?” Durrant asked.

“I need to unfriend her, but I keep forgetting,” said Kaya, explaining that perhaps 40 percent of her Snapchat friends are people she follows but doesn’t know, either celebrities like Kim Kardashian or social media celebs like this woman.

I turned to London’s phone. The screen was slightly cracked. She began tapping through a similar row of names, opening snaps from her friends as quickly as a telegraph operator. “I am too lazy to answer people, so I’ll click on all of them and open all of them,” she explained.

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