Parenting questions answered

Q: Our 3-year-old daughter has a bad habit of making a complete mess of her room whenever we confine her there for misbehavior. She has very few accessible toys, but will take shoes out of the closet, books off the shelf, and clothes out of her chest of drawers, and throw them all over the place. When she’s finished, it looks as if a tornado blew through. She isn’t throwing a tantrum, mind you. She’s just passing the time by making a creative mess. Is she too young to be told that she can’t come out of there until everything is picked up and put back where it belongs? Should I give her a time limit? Or is there a better way of dealing with this?

A: This ransacking sure sounds like a form of tantrum to me. I have to believe that although she isn’t screaming, that she has discovered a way of protesting her confinement, one that obviously makes you upset. You punish her and she retaliates by punishing you. Isn’t she clever?

Your daughter is most definitely not too young to be told that she can’t come out of her room until every single item is picked up and put back where it belongs. To make this less overwhelming, remove at least two-thirds of what is currently in her room. Remove all the books and toys and most of her shoes and clothing. In other words, make it easier for her to perform the task.

From that point on, when you put her in her room, set a timer for 15 minutes, set it outside her door, and tell her she can come out when the bell rings. Add, “While you’re in here, you can throw everything all around if you want to, but you can’t come out until everything is picked up.”

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When she’s picking up the one-third, put more of her stuff back in there.

When she’s picking up that amount, add in some more and so on until her room is completely restored. By that time, these very quiet but nonetheless rebellious tantrums should have stopped.

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Q: My 15-year-old daughter’s grades have dropped this year. As a consequence, I have taken away most of her privileges. The problem is she spends a few nights a week, including at least one weekend night, at her dad’s, and he will not follow through with any punishment I levy. I feel like anything I do to try and discipline her is meaningless. Do you have any suggestions?

A: I reserve the right to respond to certain questions — and this is one such question — thus: “This is not something you’re going to be able to solve; therefore, you’re just going to have to muddle through it as best you can.” After all, there’s some likelihood that if you and your ex- were able to parent more cooperatively, you’d still be married. You need to accept that in this imperfect situation, the effectiveness of your discipline is limited. I’m not, however, saying that you should not give up the good fight. But when you ground your daughter, do so knowing that she is going to be set free when she’s with her dad. Nonetheless, stay the course with humility and grace. There is some possibility that she will, as an adult, thank you for your efforts. Can you delay that gratification?

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(Family psychologist John Rosemond:

AP-NY-10-13-09 0845EDT