ROSEMOND: Behavior can be changed at any age

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Q. I always have heard that a child’s character and personality are pretty well set by the time he or she is 5 or 6 years old, and that any dysfunctional behavior patterns the child still exhibits at that age will be almost impossible to change. Is that right?

A. Your question reminded me of the adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” That’s actually not true. It’s quite possible to teach an old dog, or in this case an older child, new “tricks,” new behaviors. In both cases, however, the older the dog or child, the more difficult it’s going to be for either to unlearn old behavior patterns. That’s why I so frequently stress the importance of establishing functional disciplinary foundations by age 3. The earlier those disciplinary understandings are in place, the better for child and parent. Conversely, the longer misbehavior is allowed to develop, the more difficult it’s going to be to correct.

Temperament and personality are interchangeable terms referring to general attributes such as extroversion vs. introversion. Most researchers feel that those qualities are inherent and relatively fixed, but keep in mind that humans adapt to new circumstances and contingencies more easily and successfully than any other macroscopic species. For example, an introvert can learn to be more socially outgoing, but he probably will always say he’s fundamentally shy.

The bottom line is that neither personality nor behavior are fixed by age 5 or 6, but modifying the former will require cooperation on the part of the child as well as a good deal more of everyone’s perseverance and patience.

Q. We are thinking of giving allowances to our boys, ages 7 and 4. My husband, however, believes we should make the 4-year-old wait until he is 7. I say give allowances to both of them, but give the younger child a smaller amount. What say you?

A. In the first place, allowances should not be a gift. They should represent independence and responsibility for the child in some fiscal area. For example, a 4-year-old receives $3 a week with which to purchase his own playthings. From that point on, his parents only purchase playthings for him for his birthday and special holidays.

If the issue is managed in that manner, the age of the child does not have to be an issue. Two children of different ages can be started on allowances of different amounts. Or, it simply can be understood that allowances kick in at a certain age.

My wife and I presented each of our two kids with the responsibility of an allowance on their 13th birthdays. From that point on, each child had to purchase his or her own discretionary clothing and fund any recreation that did not include at least one other family member.

So, we would purchase Amy a new winter jacket from a discount store, but if she did not like our choice, then she had to make up the difference out of her monthly allowance. If Eric wanted to go to a rock concert with his buddies, he paid for his ticket and anything he bought at the venue. If he invited his rockophile dad to go along, then I paid for everything. (We went to lots of rock concerts together.)

The system worked almost flawlessly, and in the process both kids learned not only the value of a dollar, but also to plan ahead, delay gratification and set functional priorities. Needless to say, their money management skills have served them well as adults.

* Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).

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