If you could have just one thing for your children, what would it be? We’re thinking that 999 out of 1000 parents would respond, “I just want my kids to be happy.” What does that mean? Do you want your kids to be happy all day every day for the rest of their lives? Well, I think most people realize that that is impossible. So, what do parents mean when they say they want their kids to be happy? I think that parents mean that they want their children to be happy most of the time. If that’s the case, when is it going to be acceptable to a parent that the child be unhappy? Gee, that’s a hard one. Parents really don’t like to see kids unhappy ever. Uh oh, back to that 100% happiness wish for our children, right?A very difficult, but necessary developmental step for a parent is to realize that no matter what you do, you simply cannot make sure that your child is happy all the time. However, if you teach your child how the world works, you will have the best chance that your child will be happy a great deal of the time.
Well, that’s very easily said, but how do I do that?!? You must begin with your knowledge of the world. One thing you probably already know is that when you take care of your things, they last longer, and when you don’t, they break. That’s easy enough to teach. Just give him something and show him how to take care of it. If he does it, he’ll still have it. If he doesn’t, it will break and he won’t have it. HE WILL BE UNHAPPY. Don’t buy him a new one! When you break your stuff, no one buys you a new one, you have to go get it yourself, that’s how the world works. Let him be unhappy for a little while. He will remember that unhappiness and take better care of the next thing you give him. If he learns how to take care of his things, he will have lots of things and he will be happy about that.
Another thing you probably know about the world is that when you are late, you miss things. How do you teach that to a child? Tell them how long they have to get ready to go to something fun. Give them a little warning when about half the time is left. If they are ready on time, take them to do something fun. If they are not, don’t go. THEY WILL BE UNHAPPY. Don’t take them anyhow. When you’re late for the bus, it doesn’t come back and get you, that’s not how the world works. Let them be unhappy for a little while. They will remember the unhappiness and try harder to be on time the next time you offer to take them somewhere fun. If they learn how to get to fun things on time, they will attend lots of fun things and they will be happy about that.
Catch our drift? The world is full of unpleasant little experiences like when your stuff breaks or you miss the bus or you lose your wallet or you get stuck in traffic or your boss calls an emergency meeting right when you were getting ready to leave. Teach your children about as many of those unpleasant little things as you can by reconstructing those events in the safety and security of your home. They will be upset temporarily, but you’re right there to comfort them and you can give them another chance at whatever it was within a few hours or days. They won’t be unhappy very long and as much as they can learn about how to be successful in the world, that’s how happy they will be as adults.
If I still don’t have you convinced, I have a story about a client I worked with some time ago. There was a little boy, 11 years old, who tried to kill himself because his dad said he couldn’t go to a school dance. What I discovered is that mom and dad got divorced when the boy was only 2 and mom left the boy with dad. Dad felt so terribly guilty about his son not having a mom that he let the boy do anything he wanted to do … until this dance. This boy was 11 years old and it was the first time in his life that he heard the word, “no.” He had absolutely no idea how to cope with getting “no” for an answer and he was so distressed that he tried to kill himself.
My treatment plan for this young man included exactly one goal, to teach him how the world works. The world tells you, “no” a lot! What we did is plan to tell this young man, “no” to anything he asked for that he did not absolutely need. The first thing he asked for was paper and a pencil. We told him, “no.” He immediately began a tantrum that lasted for 4 hours and required 5 adults to supervise because he tried to kill himself, throw things, hit people, and break things. Eventually he became exhausted and asked to go to his room to lie down. We told him, “no” and began the whole blasted thing over again. His face turned red, he screamed, he yelled, he kicked, he cursed, he threatened, he knocked stuff over, and then he cried. He cried and cried and cried. He curled up into a little tiny ball on the floor and he cried until I thought his ribs would break. I tell you it almost killed me to see that. He fell asleep on the floor and we carried him to his room.
The next day, at breakfast, he saw another boy ask for an orange and we told the other boy, “yes.” He asked for an orange and was told, “no.” The tantrum began again and he had to be removed from the cafeteria for his own safety and the safety of the children around him. He was taken to a quiet room and he paced briefly and then he asked why we were being so mean to him. We told him it was because we cared about him and we had to teach him a very important lesson about the world. He asked what that lesson was. We told him that we had to teach him that sometimes when you ask for things, the answer is, “no.” He calmed down and was taken back to the cafeteria where he received a large and nutritious breakfast that did not include an orange. He didn’t ask for anything else until 6 p.m. that evening when he asked if he could play a video game. Other boys were playing video games and we told him, “no.” An amazing thing happened. He didn’t throw a fit. Instead, he asked if he could go in and watch the other boys play. For that, we told him, “yes,” to reward the fact that he had not thrown a fit. Not 10 minutes later, he again asked to play and he was told, “no.” He got up without a word and went to his room.
He came back out about 15 minutes later and it was clear he had been crying, but no mention of it was made. He approached me and said, “Listen, I know you’re probably going to say no, but I’m wondering if you could explain this to me a little more.” That was something that we knew he needed and so we said, “Of course, what do you want to know?” We then had a long discussion about how the world works and how sometimes things were unfair and how you don’t always get what you want. His next question was, “But how do you stand it?” We said that it takes practice, but you get used to it. A huge smile broke out across his face and he started laughing. He then asked for an orange. I said, “no.” He asked for a pencil. I said, “no.” He asked if he could sit in the chair in which he was already seated and I said, “no.” He got up and asked if he could stand, to which, I replied, through laughter, “no.” He asked if he could wear his shoes and he took them off when I said, “no.” By this time we were both cracking up hysterically and others started to watch.
One of the boys heard him ask if he could jump up and down. When I said, “no,” the other boy asked if he could jump up and down and I said, “yes.” The second boy began jumping up and down. A third boy asked if he, too, could jump up and down and was granted permission and began jumping. Soon, all 15 boys on the male adolescent unit of a psychiatric hospital were jumping up and down but the one that we kept telling, “no.” For the next 15 minutes or so, our boy would ask for something and be told, “no.” The other boys would immediately ask for that same thing and be told, “yes.” The other boys were having quite a bit of sport with our boy, but he wasn’t getting upset. Eventually, the other boys started feeling uncomfortable and guilty without a word on my part. They asked why I was being so mean.
Our boy piped up with the answer, “She’s not being mean, I gotta learn this or I’ll never be happy.” I immediately had them all go get their shoes on so we could go out and play to celebrate. I had to have them leave just so I could collect myself and keep from breaking into uncontrollable tears of joy.
Our story is not yet over. We loosened up on this little guy to give him the chance to learn about unexpected “no” answers. Once he figured out we were going to tell him “no” to everything, it was no longer a learning experience. We started to tell him “yes” sometimes and “no” at other times. He started to throw tantrums again, but they were short and fairly low intensity. In 3 days, the tantrums disappeared completely. However, he had learned a new skill, persistence. He would simply ask for something repeatedly. We’d tell him “no,” he’d take it well, and he’d ask again about 5 minutes later. No matter how many times we said, “no,” he didn’t throw a fit, but he did keep asking.
Well, we knew that persistence is a good thing, but that we had to teach him how not to be obnoxious or people would start really disliking him. We made him a deal. It was 3 days before Christmas and we told him that if he would limit his requests for any one particular thing to 3 times a day, we’d let him have a pass to go home for Christmas with his dad.
Day one was fine. He played with it and purposely asked for everything exactly 3 times, right in a row. Day two was good. He basically went on about his business and seemed to have largely forgotten his troubles. He played with the other boys and had no incidents. On day number three he tested us. He very carefully asked 4 different staff members for the same thing. We had anticipated this might happen and we had a record of his requests. That night I sat down with him and showed him the request log. He knew darn well what was on there, he did it on purpose. He said, “I’m not going home for Christmas, am I?” I said, “no.” He went to his room and he cried.
Meanwhile, on the unit, the other boys were decking the halls with Christmas drawings they had made. He came out of his room and asked if he could help. We told him, “yes,” and in no time, he was smiling and laughing and joking. We told him we were very proud of him and thought it was about time to discharge him. He beamed very proudly and he said, “Yeah, this was tough, but I guess I needed it.”
He went home a happy and proud young man and spent a good December 26th with his dad and he was discharged not long after that.