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So we have 2 young boys, aged 8 and 6. The 8 year old is very smart for his age, he's intuitive, figures out how things work, and knows how to get what he wants. The 6 year old however is more impulsive, but creative. He's not quite as switched on, but is still young and energetic, and they are very attached to each other. Almost everything they do, they do together.

I am new to the situation, and have only known the three of them for a year, but their view of me is caring, thoughtful, and fair. Their mother has been on her own for quite some time, so it's understandable that some behavior has been overlooked, or gone unmanaged simply due to the overall workload she's had with raising two boys. Now that I'm in the picture, I have tried to be a little more hands on and guide the boys in the right direction. I have seen this has already started to take hold, because the boys are now already telling the truth about anything that happens, whereas it would originally be a full 30 minute detective's episode piecing things together to figure out the truth.

The issue we are facing now is habitual/impulsive desire control. We are constantly waking up in the middle of the night to catch the boys either trying to play games or watching TV, any time between 2 and 4am. This is a common occurrence, and I've dealt with it firstly by telling them what they are doing is wrong, because we have (in order of occurrence):

  • Spoken to them about breaking the rules (not listening/not thinking)
  • Spoken to them about taking something that isn't theirs (similar to if I played their Pokémon game and deleted all their Pokémon)
  • Spoken to them about the desire to do the right thing and earn rewards, vs doing the wrong thing and getting consequences
  • Reminded them of all of this regularly (any time they ask when we have already told them they've been banned for doing something wrong; before bed; when other people come to visit/look after them while we're away)
  • Told them (specifically the 8 year old) that we know what's good for them, and they still need to learn, so they need to listen and think about what we say
  • Finally completely disabled access to the TV and console so that they need a code to log in, and unplugging the aerial (they already know how to turn the tv on without the controller or if it's unplugged from the power).

This has all gone one for months now, to the point where we have decided that they need to earn their privileges back (do enough things right, do chores, etc) which should only take a week, or even less, so long as they think about it (which again, we are constantly reminding them). But we are yet to see any consistent change of behavior. The same situation applies to the 6 yo with pens - he will take the ink out and squeeze it out, spreading it on things (carpet, clothes, bedding, himself), so we have reached the point that pens are now banned from the house.

They do have plenty to do, they have a yard to run around in, bikes to ride, toys to play with, pencils to draw and color with, books to read, so it's not from a lack of things to do that they are doing this (I believe), they are always coming up with games to play, with or without toys, playing together or separately, coming up with their own activities, etc.

At this point we are at a loss of what we should be doing. Have we not done enough, have gone too far, should we just keep going and wait for the ideas we are trying to teach to finally click for the boys, or just give up and try a different tack?

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I don't know you, so this may be off the mark, but could it be that breaking the rules, drawing on the carpet etc, is the thing that finally gets your attention, and interrupts whatever chores you've been doing?

Children need our attention, and will usually do what it takes to fulfil that need. To avoid undesirable behaviour, it is preferable to make sure they have our attention without having to go to such extremes. If you sit down with your child when they are using the pens, they will be less likely to use it on the furniture. Be attentive to early prompts for your attention, so that there is never a need for them to escalate.

In Sweden, there's this oft cited excerpt from the novel Doktor Glas by Hjalmar Söderberg, which roughly translates:

One wants to be loved. For lack thereof, admired. For lack thereof, feared. For lack thereof, despised and loathed. One wants to instill in man some kind of feeling. The soul shuns the void, and wants contact at any price.

I think this holds especially true for children.

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  • This is true, and fair. It is something I've considered and it may be a contributing factor since I am currently not living with the children or my partner (but that will shortly change). I do however spend the time I do have with them, talking to them, and taking them out to play on the park or going swimming, or to archery. So it might simply be the apparent lack of attention between these events?
    – Ben
    Oct 26 '20 at 7:55
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    I don't know specifically that you'll need to make up for the time you're not with them. Perhaps there is such an effect, too. I was thinking more of the time you're actually with them. When you're there, they'll want your attention. Not just quality time going to activities, but in everyday life. It's always easier to attend to the early cues than when they're screaming for attention later on.
    – dxh
    Oct 26 '20 at 8:14
  • I also think kids never intend to do wrong. Thus, when they're berated or punished for something, they'll always feel misunderstood and/or unfairly treated. I think a typical scenario might be (again, I don't know if this applies specifically to you) that the child asks for you to come look at something, but you're busy. They then demand your attention in a more destructive manner, and then they get it, in the form of a punishment. Which will leave them feeling frustrated and powerless. Make sure that first act of requesting your attention in a desirable way pays off, or they'll never learn it
    – dxh
    Oct 26 '20 at 8:31
  • thankyou for your input! I believe this is definitely part of the issue, but not the whole issue. We do spend time with the boys, but I believe we need to do some things that actually attract their focus, rather than just "going to the park" and the like. And they have had a lot to get used to over the past few months, but they have adapted well - the issue is just when it comes to video games.
    – Ben
    Dec 1 '20 at 3:10

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