Since last Thursday I have been stewing about the Dr. Phil episode I happened to catch. It appears that my disappointment and concern about the show is not going to just melt away so I guess it’s time to blog.
Just the title of the show, Brat Proof Your Child, had me angry before it began. Truth be told I stopped watching Dr. Phil long ago because I think he gives one size fits all (and sometimes scary) parenting advice. But when I heard this title on the commercial teaser I responded like a highway accident gawker. I knew I would be disappointed and inflamed but I just couldn’t look away.
Dr. Phil’s guest on this day was author Betsy Brown Braun. Ms. Braun has written a book entitled You’re Not the Boss of Me and together she and Dr. Phil proceeded to explain to their audience how to “brat proof” children.
I found the majority of the show distasteful but let’s narrow my concerns to just two topics.
- “one size fits all” parenting advice
- pushing power and control instead of firm, fair, loving competence and authority
“One Size Fits All” Parenting Advice
In my opinion, one of the scariest things about Dr. Phil is that he suggests “one size fits all” parenting advice. This is concerning for all parents watching but can really confuse the issue and cause negative parenting in the case of adoptive families.
The bottom line is that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to parenting. Let me give an example. Dr. Phil and his guest Ms Braun suggested that a parent should NEVER give attention to a child’s “bratty” behavior. When referring to disrespectful talk Ms. Braun stated,
“You don’t want to give your kids one ounce of attention for being disrespectful. That just fuels the fire and makes it worse,” she explains. “Don’t acknowledge, don’t pay attention, walk away, because your child gets the message, ‘This isn’t going to work with me.’”
First, what is the definition bratty” or “disrespectful?” The video they showed prior to this quote was of a very out of control and emotionally upset child. Most times a child’s behavior signals a need and ignoring the child means ignoring the need. Children who have waited in orphanages or abusive or neglectful birth homes have not had the benefit of repeated cycles of met need which produce brain based skills like self regulation, trust, cause and effect thinking and more. These are the very skills we need to be “respectful.” Ignoring the child that is struggling in these skill areas is not only NOT going to produce the desired result, but it is missing an opportunity to turn the cycle of need to completion and work on building those skills. Simply put, our kids’ internal alarms ring more easily, more often, and more intensely than the typical child and they require a nurturing loving adult to firmly, fairly and respectfully meet their needs, even the tricky ones.
I assume Dr. Phil would argue that on his show they are talking about typical kids and not kids with special needs, but if that is the case he should clearly state this so as not to be misunderstood. And again, I don’t think even a typical child benefits from being ignored when their temper tantrum, raging, or “disrespect” has crossed from merely unhappy to completely dysregulated.
To prove that I recognize Dr. Phil’s does suggest some things that are well advised let me give an example. This is a Dr. Phil quote from the same show,
“I think If your child has their ears open and can listen and you can have a rational conversation with them then you do it. if your child is in crisis and they’re screaming and they’re stressed the learning quotient has gone practically to zero.”
This point is absolutely true. We know that when a child’s internal alarm is ringing it is almost impossible for them to learn. This is why at HOTMS we encourage parents to pull the child close first, help them to regulate, and save talking or teaching moments for a time after the “crisis” is over and the child has regulated. My question for Dr. Phil is this, how is a child going to “learn” the point the ignoring parent is trying to make if they are already in melt down? And if they are not in full melt down ignoring a child often accelerates them into a dysregulated state thus again making learning impossible.
Dr. Phil, parenting is not a one size fits all deal. Be careful to clearly state when techniques you recommend would be counterproductive to children with special needs like those who spent the beginning of their life in less than optimal conditions, and please be careful not to confuse parents with contradicting statements and techniques.
Pushing power and control instead of firm, fair, loving competence and authority:
I know many people like Dr. Phil’s down home Texas flavor and his quit witted answers but when it comes to parenting these miss the mark for me. Sometimes I think they are downright disrespectful to children. This “brat proofing” show was no exception. Again, just the title seemed disrespectful to me.
Take this dialogue from the show into consideration:
Guest Bestsy Brown Braun: “Children are not born brats. We enable that behavior. We certainly smooth the pathway for them to get to be brats. So the difference between disciplining your child and brat-proofing him is huge; because discipline happens when we have a brat; brat-proofing your child is what you do so you don’t need to discipline,” Betsy replies.
Dr. Phil: “We need to talk about both, because there are a lot of brats in this country,”
Not only is Dr. Phil’s answer disrespectful to our children, but Braun’s comment and Dr. Phil’s response suggest what I consider to be a gross misunderstanding of the word “discipline.” The origins of the word “discipline” come from the word “disciple.” Discipline in its purest form means guidance and teaching, not punitive punishment. Braun suggests (and Dr. Phil agrees by comment) that discipline is what you do for “brats” and that “brat proofing” is what you do to prevent a brat. At Heart of the Matter Seminars we maintain that discipline is what you do every moment of every interaction with your child as you guide them along the way. We all need firm fair and loving discipline (guidance).
It is true that there are children, who because they have not received messages of competency from their parents, push for control and power while seeking security. This is often a huge problem for parents working with children who were adopted at older ages. But these children don’t need to be “brat proofed” they need to be firmly, fairly, and lovingly sent strong messages of parental competency so that they do not feel the need to continue to control their environment.
In theory Dr. Phil agrees with me. One of his famous parenting quips is that you “can’t let the tail wag the dog,” indicating that he knows it is important for the parent to show competency. Unfortunately Dr. Phil and his guest come across as folks who want to “tame” the child for the peace and benefit of the parents. At Heart of the Matter we want parents to show competency (or not let the tail wag the dog) in order to breed security and trust in their child.
I think the thing that bothers me the most is that so many parents, including adoptive parents, are listening to Dr. Phil. During the recent Russian adoption scandal I saw Dr. Phil interviewed on several networks giving his thoughts on the actions of the mother who had sent her child back to Russia. Dr. Phil was appropriately horrified at this woman’s actions. And at that time offered no concerning statements or parenting advice. Still it concerned me that he was interviewed as an “expert” in adoptive parenting when clearly so many of of his parenting ideas are questionable given the research on children who began their lives in less than optimal care.