Last night as I was watching one of my favorite shows, it shall remain nameless to protect the innocent, one of the characters was introducing his 6 year-old son to his date and her family. Let me set the scene.

The imaginary child character was wild and unruly. He was thoroughly enjoying his screaming, laughing loudly, and running up and down the hallways. He was bumping into people all over the place. Everyone was looking at him, but Dad was doing nothing to stop him. The child went wherever he wanted while shouting, “I hate you, you’re ugly, you’re stupid, you’re a butt” and Dad didn’t say or do a thing!

The way this imaginary child was being portrayed it was obvious that he’d never experienced any enforcement of a rule or a boundary. Dad didn’t blink, he just sighed and blandly called his name, “Sam. Sam. Get back here Sam. Sam. Sam.”

Then Sam found a stack of napkins and began throwing them, one by one, off the balcony down to the main floor. It looked like snow was falling. Again Dad simply said, “Sam. Sam. Get back here Sam. Sam. Sam.” When Sam didn’t come back, dad released a huge sigh and dejectedly said, “Oh, he’ll be back.”

Before I go any further let me say, if this were a real child, and not a TV character, I would immediately advise Dad to talk to Sam about his feelings. I’d suggest that Dad make sure there was plenty of one-on-one time with his son long before he ever introduced him to a new person in his life. I would remind Dad to watch and honor his son’s reaction and behavior when he meets the new woman, too.  

But since this situation is being played out on an imaginary character, and this is an article, not a study in wild children, I’m going to move past my normal advice and focus on one aspect of the TV situation only. So here we go.

When Dad said, “Oh, he’ll be back” how did Dad know his son would be back? He knew, because he had seen on many occasions, that his son’s energy would increase when he behaved like that, it was as if his son was feeding off the situation. Sam knows that Dad never takes action and never tries to stop him. Sam knows that all Dad ever does is call his name.

The sad thing is Dad wonders why his son doesn’t listen? Dad is defeated and his bland tone of voice sends Sam the same message over and over again, “You win, I give up, do what you want.”

The faces of the people watching seem to say, “Do something, spank him, grab him—just do something—make it stop!”

Here’s what’s so interesting. Sam wants it to stop, too. Yes, you read that correctly.

Sam is doing all of this to find out where his dad’s boundaries are.

Sam has no bottom line, no set rules, no clear boundaries, so he keeps increasing his bad behavior to see if he’s reached the bottom line yet.

Sam is thinking like a child, not an adult. He unconsciously needs to know where the rules are.

Sam wants to know what happens when he acts badly, but no one is telling him. Sam decided that his behavior must be okay since he’s allowed to get away with it. Sam has a deep need to know, “How bad do I have to be before Dad loves me enough to stop me?” I know that seems amazing, but it’s true.

Remember children don’t think like we do. Their brains are still being turned on, so to speak. They don’t have full access to logical thinking yet. That center of the brain isn’t activated until around age 7. Even after it’s activated a child still doesn’t fully think like an adult, that doesn’t begin to happen until around age 18. That’s why parents are freaked out, and rightfully so, by the choices tweens, teens and first year college students make. Childhood is all about learning from choices and consequences, children haven’t achieved mastery, yet. Now, back to Sam.

In order for Sam’s behavior to change I think our TV Dad needs to be very clear about some things. Dad needs to let Sam know:

• I am your parent and it’s my job to teach you about behavior and not let you run wild.

• I won’t switch from doing nothing to yelling at you either. I will be using a quiet, firm, loving, responsive type of parenting.

• We’ll talk about what the rules and boundaries are in this family, and I’ll be enforcing them.

• You need to know that I love you enough to enforce the rules and boundaries each and every time you misbehave.

• I will speak to you in an age appropriate way. I will no longer be saying things like “that’s not appropriate, and leaving it at that. Appropriate is an adult word. I will explain why I’m upset and explain what will need to happen to fix the problem.

• From now on you will need clean up your messes and apologize when you offend or hurt another.

• I will do my job of keeping you safe and helping you grow into the person I know you can be.

• I will let you know that I have faith in your ability to change.

• Each time I correct you, I will also make sure you know that I love you.

 • I will never abandon you like that again.

That’s what I think Sam’s dad should do. What do you think?

Once Dad understands what he needs to do, he needs to enforce it. How to Turn a Mistake into a Lesson has ideas to help Sam’s dad and you.

Sharon Silver is the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding and The Authentic Parent Series. Go to proactiveparenting.net to download two free chapters from her book and learn about other Proactive Parenting programs. Find Sharon on Twitter and Facebook.