- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2008

Should I punish my boys ages 12, 9 and 8 when they speak very meanly to one another? They say things like, “You’re stupid,” “You’re a baby,” “I wish you weren’t my brother” and “I hate you.” Other than this, they are very good boys who do well in school. Their teachers say they are exceptionally kind and respectful to other students.

Should I punish them when they disrespect one another or just send them away where I can’t hear them (which is what I’ve been doing)?

A: If the disrespect they sometimes show to one another were part of a broader pattern of misbehavior that included belligerence toward adults, demands for instant gratification, disobedience and problems at school, I definitely would recommend an assertive course of action. In the absence of other problems, however, I would let this one go.

When parents get involved in sibling conflict, they almost always identify one child as villain and the other as victim. The villain receives punishment of one sort or another, which increases his determination to “get back” at the victim. The victim is rewarded for victim behavior, which causes him to look for more opportunities to lure his sibling into a clash. In other words, parent involvement in sibling conflict almost always makes the problem worse.

At most, I would tell the boys that when their squabbling causes your head to throb, you will sit both (or all three) of the perpetrators in chairs in separate rooms for one half-hour, during which time they would do well to contemplate how they can help bring about world peace.

Q: I am working with my son on anger management when he is being disciplined. Is it OK to reward him with things like picking a family movie when he is successful at expressing his anger or frustration in an acceptable way?

A: I would not recommend it. Rewarding a child for demonstrating good self-control actually can exacerbate the problem. The child may intuitively realize he only receives a reward because he usually does not control his anger. As a result, he lets fly with nine outbursts of anger when disciplined to be rewarded with going to the movies with a friend when, on the 10th occasion, he controls himself.

I have said it before, but it bears repeating: Behavior modification does not work on human beings. Quite often, perhaps more often than not, it simply teaches them how to manipulate other people. When your son demonstrates good self-control, you might (but then again, you might not) see fit to tell him later, during a calm moment, that you were pleased. I would not, under any circumstances, make a big deal of behavior that is expected.

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

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