Dear Kid Whisperer,
I have a 6-year old who likes to destroy things. She has ruined a coffee table (sanding down the edges with a pencil), ruined a carpet (scissors), and ruined a wall (markers). We have talked to her over and over, trying to find out why she’s doing it. She says she doesn’t know. Is she needing more attention? Is she angry? We want to find the root cause of this behavior so we can stop it. We are starting to lose our patience with her at times. What do you think? -Jaime, New Albany, Ohio
Your kid started doing this because she is little and doesn’t have much real control over her environment, so she is trying to adapt and control her environment to see what she can control. Translation: she wants to see what the coffee table, carpet, and wall will look like if she messes them up real, real bad.
Your investigations into her psyche are making things worse because she is learning that another thing she can control in her environment with this destructive behavior is YOU. Not only can she change the color of the walls, she can change the color of your face. Because you are trying to do amateur psychoanalysis on your kid instead of stopping the behaviors from working for her, you are turning a normal negative behavior into a situation where you are teaching your kid that being destructive and manipulative can give her a huge amount of control over people. This is a horribly unhealthy lesson to accidentally teach, so stop it.
Instead, you can spend your time teaching your kid that destroying stuff doesn’t get her anything good: it won’t get her attention and it won’t get her control over the actions and emotions of an adult. In addition, you will teach her that destroying property will make her life harder and worse (just like in real life). Here’s how I would do this.
Kid Whisperer: (seeing a poorly drawn Pokémon character scribbled on the wall with permanent marker): Oh, boy. This is a rough situation. I am going to go into the other room and work some things out. Yikes. Don’t concern yourself with anything just yet.
Kid: Wait. What? What is going to happen?
Kid Whisperer: I’m not sure. You’ll just have to find out, I guess.
(Kid Whisperer takes the markers and walks to another room. He comes back 20 minutes later.)
Kid Whisperer: Oh, boy. I just talked to my friend the handyman. The bad news is that he said the cost for making a wall area look like new after it has been drawn on with permanent marker is $100. Now I checked and it looks like you have only $20 of allowance saved. He needs the money today, so I will loan you the extra money and you can give me your allowance until this is paid off. We will talk about my interest rates later.
Kid: YOU CAN’T DO THIS!!! I HAVE RIGHTS!!! I WILL CALL CHILDREN’S SERVICES AND YOU WILL BE INCARCERATED!!!! WHAT IN THE WORLD IS AN INTEREST RATE?!!?!?
Kid Whisperer: I hear that. Anywho, my friend is coming this afternoon to fix the wall.
Doing things this way allows you to keep this normal childhood experimentation what it is: a behavior that can be taken care of simply and easily if you are willing to allow your kid to suffer the consequences of her actions instead of teaching her that destructive and manipulative behaviors get people what they want.