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I don't know for sure if my 8-year-old son actually enjoys creating conflict, but he does it a lot. I could go on and on with examples, but one in particular prompted me to ask this question.

We were sitting in the car waiting for the bus. His boots were covered in snow. When he put them up on seat in front of him, I asked him not to do that because the seat would get all dirty. A minute later, I noticed his feet on the seat again, and again I asked him not to do that. I moved the seat forward to give him more leg room. A minute later, I noticed his feet on the seat again. At that point, I was irritated, and made it clear to him with my not-quite-yelling-but-stern-tone ("How many times do I have to ask you to blah blah blah..."). I moved the seat all the way forward so he couldn't reach it. He slid down out of his seat and attempted to wipe his boot on it. I don't remember what I said then, but I was hopping mad. He stormed out of the car. Commence terrible day...

I have no idea how to deal with this kind of behavior. When my son is being defiant, I feel like the only tool in my toolbox is reverse psychology. For instance, I don't want him to wipe his feet on the seat, so apparently I need to tell him to wipe his feet on the seat. Obviously this is a terrible solution. I feel totally helpless. What am I supposed to do?

  • "Johnny, I've told you twice now to take your boots off the seat. If I have to tell you a third time then [insert suitable consequence as described below by CreationEdge]". – A E Feb 24 '15 at 16:51
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    In your example you engage with him when he's naughty but not when he isn't. He is controlling the situation - he can provoke a reaction from you by putting his boots on the back of the seat. – DanBeale Mar 2 '15 at 15:23
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Personally, I'd handle a situation like that very much like you did. Trial and error, etc. I think a very important skill to have in life, but especially when parenting, is self-control. When our kids see us lose control, it forms an impression for them that "its ok" to lose control sometimes.

Anyway, the one thing that I know I would have done after the second or third time, is ask the boy why he keeps putting his feet up. The assumption of not having enough leg room was a good guess, and my first thought too, but clearly it was more than that.

I think often kids just "do things" to see what happens. If they do something, and you get mad, they're really just seeing consequences without context. You told him you didn't want him doing it because the seat would get dirty, but you also have to keep in mind that explanation doesn't give him a reason to agree with you or care. I try hard to stay away from 'guilting' my children into behaving properly, but sometimes that is the most efficient/viable method of getting them on the same page (ie, "by doing that, you're making a mess that me or your mom has to clean up now").

I think that making the boy actually think about what he is doing, to the point he has to use language to explain to another human, would be an important step.

Either he has a reason he has come up with for doing it, or he has no reason. If he has a reason, discovering it will help you in your efforts to convince him to not want to do it anymore. Maybe it started out as just being bored, then seeing the reaction it gave you 'entertained' him. Not necessarily a 'ha-ha' entertainment, but a "ooh look what happens when I do this!" That feeling can be quite empowering/intoxicating. Another plausible reason, not sure how big the kid or car was, but I know if your legs are too short for your seat and you're wearing heavy snow boots/pants (plus being caked in snow), the weight could be quite uncomfortable.

TL;DR: Knowledge is power!
Better instruction comes from a better understanding of the root of the problem. I'd ask more questions, from a genuinely curious perspective.

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    +1 for "why are you doing that" -- making my kids self-examine their actions usually results in a grumpy face and sulking (as they realize they're doing something destructive for really no reason at all besides boredom), but it does get them to stop! – Acire Feb 23 '15 at 19:53
  • "As so often in child-raising, the question is why?" This question needs to be answered in order to solve this. Actually, children want to collaborate. (That's because for millions of years non-collaborating children died.) If they don't, it's usually something we parents do that makes them do the wrong thing. – sbi Feb 24 '15 at 9:25
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Your son needs to have direct, measurable consequences for such behavior. Typical punishments include time outs, losing privileges, natural consequences, and logical consequences.

It can be hard to give time outs when in a car, but other consequences can be had. Your son is old enough to understand that current behavior can cause future punishments, so he could receive some logical consequences or loss of privileges.

These examples apply directly to the situation (logical consequences):

  • He's going to have to clean the car seat himself
  • If the cleaning requires buying new cleaning supplies, he may have to pay for them (from current or future allowance/chores).

These are generic examples that could apply to behaviors that don't have direct punishments (loss of privilege and logical consequences):

  • 15 minutes less screen time that night per time you tell him to put his feet down
  • Has to do an undesirable (but reasonable) chore once he gets home
  • Can't go to a friend's house that night

It'll be important to be consistent. When your son is intentionally being disobedient, just for the sake of being obstinate, he'll need to have a consequence appear each time. The consequences should be delivered in an calm, assertive, matter-of-fact tone. "If you put your dirty boots on the back of the seat again, then you're going to have to scrub it tonight."

Initially, you may not see immediate results. If he doesn't have any historical reference to work from, he might not believe you'll follow through, or he might not realize how not fun it is to scrub a car (or whatever punishment he receives).

After you've given out consequences like this once or twice, he should understand that you'll follow through and the consequences are not desirable. However, he may still persist in unwanted behavior. So, you'll have to up the ante on the consequences, while still maintaining your cool exterior.

Going back to the dirty seat, for example, you could increase the consequence in the following ways:

  • He has to clean it and pay for the supplies
  • He also has to clean the rest of the back seat (scrubbing/vacuuming, throwing out garbage)
  • He has to go with you to the store to get the (boring) car cleaning supplies
  • He has to do any/all of these things before he can do any fun activities, like screen time, playing outside, etc.

I also mentioned natural consequences, but they don't come into play easily with active behaviors such as this. An example of a natural consequence for obstinate behavior would be refusing to put his snow boots on, so he has to wear his regular shoes and get cold feet, or he delays leaving until he ends up being late to class.

Lastly, it'll also be important to reward or recognize your son when he goes long periods of time without exhibiting the undesired behaviors. It's important that this feedback is sincere, not forced or condescending. I would also encourage you to give positive reinforcement to your son while he's doing any cleaning/chore punishments. That is, instead of saying things like: "Scrub harder" or "You missed a spot", you can say "You're doing a good job of scrubbing hard" or "You're doing a good job of working on that tough spot. Why don't you let me finish up that spot so you can work on X and be done sooner."

By being encouraging, even during his punishment, you'll help to:

  • Alleviate negative feelings
  • Help boost self-esteem and work ethic
  • Create an environment where he knows he's being observed and supervised, but not micromanaged and commanded
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  • "Your son is old enough to understand that current behavior can cause future punishments" -- not really; children learn this when they're in their 20s. I agree with you though, and upvoted this good post. – DanBeale Mar 2 '15 at 15:23
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    I didn't mean making decisions based on complex consequences of behavior, which are handled by the prefrontal cortex that doesn't finish development until mid-20s. I mean that he's old enough that if you tell him now that he'll have punishment later, he can make the connection, and later understand his punishment was for the earlier behavior. Whereas much younger children can't remember their behavior well enough for delayed consequences to be effective, and generally always need immediate discipline. – user11394 Mar 2 '15 at 16:20
  • As an anecdote: I once challenged a group of 9 year old Webelos to give up pop for a week. When we saw each other between the meeting they brought it up and mentioned they'd had none, and several made it the whole week to the next meeting. (The ones who said they drank some also said they thought about it first.) All of this was for a small, undisclosed treat. I have no reason to believe those guys were dishonest. So, they definitely understood rewards at a long term, and used that to make decisions for a whole week. That showed me that they could also handle less immediate consequences. – user11394 Mar 2 '15 at 16:27

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