The Secret of Parenting: How to Be in Charge of Today's Kids--from Toddlers to Preteens--Without Threats or Punishment

The Secret of Parenting: How to Be in Charge of Today's Kids--from Toddlers to Preteens--Without Threats or Punishment

by Anthony E. Wolf

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Essential advice from the author of the bestselling Get Out Of My Life

Today's children--from toddlers to preteens--challenge their parents in ways that would have been unthinkable a generation ago, notes Anthony E. Wolf, and parents are often uncertain about how to cope.

In his new book, Wolf presents a fresh perspective on this less pleasant behavior

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Essential advice from the author of the bestselling Get Out Of My Life

Today's children--from toddlers to preteens--challenge their parents in ways that would have been unthinkable a generation ago, notes Anthony E. Wolf, and parents are often uncertain about how to cope.

In his new book, Wolf presents a fresh perspective on this less pleasant behavior and a surprisingly simple method for dealing with it. He argues that punishments and rewards don't work and may even be counterproductive. Instead, parents must act swiftly and decisively following Wolf's easy but powerful technique. Using numerous examples of effective and ineffective parent-child interactions, he offers practical advice on a wide range of basic issues, from tantrums and back talk, to getting kids off to school in the morning and eliminating sibling fights.

Humorous and easy to use, The Secret of Parenting is guaranteed to dramatically increase the joy parents get from raising their children.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Dr. Wolf has the best ear of anyone listening to kids today.” —Pamela Abrams, editor in chief of Child, on Why did you have to get a divorce?
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this eminently practical and often humorous volume, Wolf outlines a system for putting the brakes on such unpleasant behavior as whining, temper tantrums and sibling rivalry. Beginning with a firm stance against harsh punishment ("Parents have great power with their children, separate from any leverage based on fear. They just need to learn how to use what they have"), he explains the difference between what he terms the "baby self" and the "mature self" and demonstrates how to deal with "baby self" behavior calmly, firmly and consistently. Using an abundance of realistically scripted examples, he covers a laundry list of topics, such as "No--How to Say It," "Picking Up Rooms" and "I Won't/You Can't Make Me." His commonsensical, non-reactive approach to discipline will resonate with any parent struggling to curb misbehavior in their children. Peppered throughout with the author's own whimsical cartoons and wry asides (after describing a theoretical child's angelic response to a disciplinary tactic, for instance, he notes "there is an unconfirmed story that on March 18, 1977, a child from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, responded in this manner"), this book distills Wolf's 30 years of wisdom and experience as a clinical psychologist. It could easily be subtitled Parenting 101. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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The Secret of Parenting

How to Be in Charge of Today's Kids â" from Toddlers to Preteens â" Without Threats or Punishment

By Anthony E. Wolf

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2000 Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-9855-0


Baby-Self Basics

Seven-year-old Steven comes home from school. He opens the door, takes off his coat, and, not a foot away from a coat hook that conveniently sits on the wall directly next to the door, drops his coat on the floor.

"Steven, how many times do I have to tell you to hang up your coat?" says his mother exasperatedly as she enters the room to greet him.

"I don't know. A lot?" mumbles Steven as he then, with great effort, hangs up his coat.

The next day when Steven comes home from school, he enters the house and immediately takes off his coat. On this particular day, his mother, who only the day before had yelled at him for not hanging up his coat, happens to be standing right by the door.

"Hi, Mom," says a happy Steven as he simultaneously drops his coat on the floor.

How many times will Steven's mother have to tell him to hang up his coat before he learns? Many. Since he's now in second grade, a rough calculation of years left in school times the number of days a year he will come home and drop his coat on the floor comes to ten times about two hundred, which is many, many times.

However, the rest of this story has an odd twist. Steven has a cubby at school and in that cubby is a coat hook. Every day, without anybody saying anything to him, Steven neatly hangs his coat on the coat hook in his cubby. Not all second graders regularly hang up their coats in school, but many who never hang up their coats at home do it at school without a second thought.

I use this story because it's a simple example of a phenomenon that is true of all children, all adults, everybody. Each of us has two separate and distinct modes of operating — in essence two separate selves.

One of them is mostly an at-home self and I call it the baby self This self and how it acts is defined by two overlapping and overwhelming characteristics: the baby self must be fed and fed now, and it has zero tolerance for any form of stress. The baby self feeds itself by indulging, collapsing, relaxing, unwinding — soaking up all the good stuff. A perfect meal for the baby self would consist of lounging on the couch, eating Doritos, with headphones blocking out any unwanted interruption. The baby self gets stressed when it has to do something that it doesn't feel like doing at any given moment. Being asked to take out the trash while it's lounging on the couch would qualify as major stress. This zero tolerance is often the part of the baby self that parents understand the least, and it's also the part that causes the most trouble. Baby selves can be nice and lovable, but when they're asked to tolerate any form of stress, they can get very cranky and crabby.

The other mode, which I call the mature self, exists mainly in the world outside the home. Unlike its baby-self counterpart, the mature self is willing to work, will tolerate stress, has patience, has self-control, and can and is willing to delay gratification. It will work toward a goal. Steven's mature self hangs up his coat at school.

These separate modes come and go during the course of a day, very much like the changing of gears. You can actually feel the switch. Take me, after a hard day at the office. Let's say I've come home from a very stressful day during which I was able to hold it together completely. Throughout the day, I was patient, mature, and professional — at all times. When I arrive home, even as I open the front door, I can feel the energy draining out of my body. I stagger into the house, stumble forward, barely able to make it to the couch, where I collapse, hardly able to move or talk. If I'm lucky, the remote control for the TV is within arm's length. If it is not, I may need assistance.

Couples know this phenomenon. Perhaps one family member has been home for the whole day and has not talked to another adult during that time. When his or her partner, who maybe has talked to too many adults during the day, arrives home, he or she is not as eager to launch immediately into a conversation as the one who has been isolated at home all day.

"You would not believe what happened with the man who was supposed to come and fix the refrigerator leak ..."

But the partner, now fully in baby-self mode, does not want to hear about it. Listening requires patience and patience is just another form of stress. What many couples, in fact, learn to do is to give the one just coming home a certain amount of down time, in effect giving that person's baby self some time before initiating a conversation with the mature self.

"Now tell me about your day."

All baby selves are the same, with no variation from person to person over the course of a lifetime. The mature self grows, gradually taking over more of the day-to-day functioning, ultimately coming to control the where and when of our baby selves. But baby selves never change.

We All Need Our Baby Selves

When my children were little, I loved them very much, of course, but I also remember how I loved them best of all when they were asleep. They were so cute. Anyone who has young children knows that moment when they are finally in bed and asleep. At last it is your time — your own baby-self time. At last you can do what you feel like doing. Understandably, when you at last have a chance to be by yourself and relax, you consider it an intrusion when a small pajamaed figure quietly shuffles into the room.

"Can Grandma Edith who died see me in my room?"

"No. Go to bed."

"But I can hear her breathing."

"You can't hear her breathing. GO TO BED."

"You come with me."


A striking example of children's need for enough baby-self time can be seen in a well-known phenomenon with foster children. Many of these children join a new family and are quite well-behaved for the first month or two. But then, for no apparent reason, they start acting badly. The "honeymoon period" ends and the true test of the foster placement begins. Will the foster parents hang in there with the children who are going to give them trouble, or, as often happens, will they call the agency and request that the children be placed with another family?

The well-behaved foster children who suddenly turn unruly are a common occurrence, but from one perspective it doesn't make sense, because the laws of psychology say that if a behavior is rewarded it will continue. If the children were behaving well and, as a result, were getting a lot of positive feedback from their foster parents, why wouldn't they continue to be good? The answer is that the mature self may have been getting lots of positive feedback for being good, but the baby self was starving. Being on good behavior meant operating in the mature mode. This is very much like being a guest in the home. That kind of behavior, especially if you are a child, can only be sustained for so long. Eventually the needs of the baby self take over.

It is in the baby-self mode and only the baby-self mode that we, our children — all of us — receive our basic, deep nurturing. I liken this nurturing of the baby self to a boxer who comes back to his corner between rounds, collapses on his stool, gets replenished, which sustenance then allows him to go back into the ring. With children, this deep nurturing feeds the core of the personality, and it is upon this deep nurturing that all else is built. It is the base that allows them to grow and mature and ultimately go out and deal with the world.

When we adults have to do without our baby selves, the stress of everyday life becomes just too much and we cannot cope. We all need a place for our baby selves. But our children, because they are still so young, need it even more.

Who Gets the Baby Self?

An absolute fact of human psychology is that the mere physical presence of a parent brings out the baby self in a child. It's not a conscious decision on the part of a child. It simply happens. If you want to see the classic example of this, take a story all parents know.

Valerie had been over at a friend's house. As soon as her mother arrives to take her home, Valerie starts up.

"Can we go to McDonald's before we go home?"

"No, dear, I'm sorry. I told you we're not going to have time."

"But why, why can't we go?"

"I already told you. There's not enough time."

"But why? You promised. You never do anything I want. Why?"

"Valerie, I didn't promise anything."

"Yes, you did. You did. You're a liar. You promised. You promised!"

Watching this scene unfold, the other child's parent looks on with surprise.

"I don't understand. Valerie was so well-behaved until you showed up. She and Alexa were playing really well together."

Both parents then incorrectly conclude:

"Oh, she must be tired."

Wrong. Had Valerie's mother showed up an hour earlier or an hour later, the same thing would have happened.

Another example:

Have your child or children go to a restaurant with another couple. Videotape the scene. Then take your kids with you to that same restaurant. Videotape this scene. You will then have matched recordings of the mature- and baby-self behavior of your children. And what happens if you and the other couple together accompany your kids to the restaurant? The baby self usually wins.

"Oh, we've never seen this side of your kids before."

Even years later, when adults visit their own parents, maddeningly the baby-self side still comes out.

"I don't understand it. As an adult I've learned to deal with so many difficult people, but when mother starts up, I go crazy."

More accurately, it is not strictly a parent who brings out the baby self in a child. Anyone with whom a child has a strong love attachment, who is involved in regular day-to-day child care, and with whom a child feels totally safe and comfortable, will bring out the baby self. Hence with grandparents from a distant city whom the children see at most a couple times a year, only the mature self makes an appearance. But grandparents who regularly participate in day-to-day child care will see much of the baby self.

The same distinction can even apply with the parents themselves. If both are involved in regular dayto-day child care, both will get the baby self. But if one parent does much of the day-to-day child care and one does little, one gets the baby self, the other the mature self. And there's no question who gets which.

"Luke, stop playing with the lamp switch," says his mother to her seven-year-old son.

"I'm not hurting anything. I'm just experimenting."

"Luke, stop playing with the lamp switch."

"I'm not doing anything. Why do you always yell at me about Stuff?"

"I don't always yell at you."

"Yes, you do. You yell at me about everything."

Meanwhile, Luke's father, who is in the next room reading his newspaper, is disturbed again by the yelling between his wife and son. Disgustedly, he gets up from his chair, goes into the next room, and says:

"Luke, stop playing with the lamp switch."

Whereupon Luke immediately stops. At that point Luke's father turns to his wife and says something that has probably caused a number of divorces:

"Claire, you just aren't tough enough with the kids."

I'll show you what's tough, thinks Luke's mother as she considers reaching for the lamp and throwing it at her husband. And she's right about the injustice of the accusation. Luke's very different responses with his two parents have nothing to do with toughness, and everything to do with the simple fact that his mother gets Luke's baby-self version and his father the mature-self version.

Who gets the baby self has nothing to do with the sex of the parent. I have known families where the mother worked out of the house and most of the day-to-day child care was handled by the father. In those families, the father got the baby self, the mother the mature self.

Which Is the Real Self?

Which of these two versions — the baby self, which parents mainly encounter, or the mature self, which, for the most part, the outside world sees — is the truer indicator of who a child really is and, more important, who this child is going to become as an adult? Let me give a couple of examples.

Garrett's mother and father were dreading their first conference of the year with Mrs. Millbrook, the first-grade teacher of their regularly tantruming six-year-old son.

"What's your secret?" bubbled Mrs. Millbrook. "Garrett's such a polite boy, and he's my best helper."

"We're Mr. and Mrs. Anderson."

"Yes, Garrett Anderson. He's one of my shining stars."

"He is?"

Another story:

When fifteen-year-old Danielle was at home with her parents, she was everything you wouldn't want in a daughter. She was self-centered, always gave her parents a hard time when they asked her to do anything, and when she spoke, she did so with a particularly snotty tone. One weekend her parents went away and Danielle stayed at her friend Sara's house for the weekend. Two weeks later Danielle's mother ran into Sara's mother.

"You must be so proud of your Danielle," said Sara's mother.

"Danielle who?" asked Danielle's mother.

But they were, of course, talking about the same child. Sara's mother went on.

"She was so polite, and she offered to help, (which they really do at other people's houses) and you know, she's such an interesting girl. Why, at supper she talked so intelligently about the refugee problems in Southeast Asia."

Returning home, Danielle's mother confronted her daughter.

"Why can't you act that way with us? We're the ones who care about you the most. We're the ones who have sacrificed to give you a good life. Why? Why can't you give us the behavior that we deserve?"

"Because you're mean," replied Danielle, as usual giving her mother the full baby-self treatment.

Which is the real Garrett Anderson; which is the real Danielle? The answer is, absolutely, the mature-self version. The proof comes later. By the end of adolescence, as their children move into young adulthood, parents start to see more and more of the mature self (though perhaps never completely). Not only do their children become nicer, and more respectful to their parents, but they do go out into the world and become good citizens. It does work that way. It is the mature-self version of our child that is the far better indicator of what they really are and who they will become.

So what does this say about the baby-self behavior that parents endure at home for years and years? First, it does not say that you are doing something wrong as a parent, or that there is something wrong with your child. What it says is that this is just the way it is, the natural progression from baby self to mature self when children have no fear of harsh punishment.

Look at it this way: what better place is there than a home for the baby self to rant and rave? If there has to be this place of nurturing, where at times your child can be extremely unpleasant, very babyish and very childish, wouldn't you rather it be your own home rather than out there with the rest of the world?

Being stuck with the baby self at home leads to what is really a double standard for parenting.

I don't like, I don't enjoy, and I want to see as little as possible of the bratty side of the baby self But because I want the baby self in my house and because I am allowing it by not resorting to harsh punishment, I am also accepting that I will get some of the baby self's bratty side.

You do best by having two separate standards of behavior that you will expect from your kids. You then gear your reactions to their behavior accordingly. You will have one standard — a much more demanding code of behavior — when out in the world, away from home and family, and a lesser standard at home.

Even where this double standard is unspoken, today's children know that it exists, and they abide by it, for the most part. It doesn't even present a problem for them, because it fits the reality of what's going on inside them: baby self at home and with parents, mature self away from home and family.

In the Mind of the Baby Self-Nothing Counts

The realm of the baby self is a world of its own, and the wild inconsistencies in what the baby self does and says can be most difficult for parents to comprehend. The degree to which the baby self can be seemingly oblivious to what is going on in the rest of its life leaves parents baffled. But for kids, it's not a problem. The words and actions of the baby self are not based on rational considerations, but on how the baby self feels at this moment, and especially on how it hopes its words and actions will affect its parents. Deeper truths are completely irrelevant to the baby self, and easily denied. The baby self lives only in the moment. Nothing else counts. So when parents try to get across to the baby self the consequences of its actions, the baby self doesn't see the point. That was then, this is now.


Excerpted from The Secret of Parenting by Anthony E. Wolf. Copyright © 2000 Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D., is a practicing clinical psychologist. He has worked with children and adolescents for thirty years and lectures frequently on parenting topics. He lives in Suffield, Connecticut.

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