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Practical Advice for Parenting Powerful Kids (Part 2 of 2)

Practical Advice for Parenting Powerful Kids (Part 2 of 2)

Psychologist Dr. Kevin Leman helps parents understand how your child manipulates, craves attention, and ultimately, how you can reduce the amount of power your child has over your home. (Part 2 of 2)

Original Air Date: November 19, 2013



Dr. Kevin Leman: You have to understand that all kids want attention. The question is: Does the child get attention positively or negatively? Once they get negative attention, then they’ll escalate to be a powerful child. So the powerful child again, says, “I only count life when I win, control, when I dominate.” The attention-getter says, “I only count life when I’m noticed.” 

End of Excerpt 

John Fuller: Well, getting to the heart of the really complex parenting matter, that’s Dr. Kevin Leman on today’s Focus on the Family and we’ve jumped right in again with some great content, pulling from his book ParentingYourPowerfulChild and his many, many years as a psychologist and an author and speaker. Jim Daly’s our host. Jim, this is such fundamentally good stuff. There’s always something great to take from Kevin and apply in my own life as a parent with my kids. 

Jim Daly: Well, that’s it. If you have kids at home, Dr. Kevin Leman is the man to go to because he has such great wisdom and it’s rooted right there in Biblical principle and it helps all of us as parents kinda reset the compass about what are we trying to achieve here as parents. Even last time, John, we talked about the types of manipulation that children bring into the home. Dr. Leman said that that starts at about 18 months. That was profound, you know, just how these little guys and girls will rebuke the parents when they’re trying to feed them or whatever it might be. And it was wonderful. Dr. Kevin Leman, welcome back to Focus on the Family. 


Kevin: Yeah, thank you. You know, potty training. A kid will sense that when they start to be toilet-trained that the parent – if the parent overreacts to that. Okay? Hey parents, eating, sleeping and going potty. Okay? There’s not a person in this room here at Focus on the Family that hasn’t gone potty today. 


Let’s start with that. But did anybody receive an M&M for going? 

John: Not yet, but it’s not too late! 

Kevin: That’s the kind of lunacy we build in, you know? So eating and sleeping and going potty, these natural things, many times we focus on these things. They become power struggles. The kid sees, “Oh, they’re big on that.” You’ll see a kid who’s toilet-trained regress, to use a psychological term, okay, to just gain attention and make the parent pay attention to me. So at 18 months, Jim, yes, they’re powerful. But at 12 months, when you’re trying to put a Pamper on a kid that doesn’t want a Pamper on him, notice how this kid can wiggle like a black bass about to leap out of a pond. I mean, they’re almost flying. 

Jim: That is great. Hey, we’ve also invited a group of moms to join us in the studio. I’m hoping you’ll have questions, ladies, in a little while to address to Dr. Kevin Leman. You each have received a copy of the book. And John, I wanna say that for our listeners, for donation of any amount, we will give them a copy of the book, ParentingYourPowerfulChild. We believe in content, Kevin. It is really good. 

Kevin: Jim, it was out one week and on the best-seller list. 

Jim: That is great! 

Kevin: And I knew that would happen because parents realize that these kids are powerful and they’re control issues. And so it really – it pits us against – everything we’ve been taught as kids is focused on traditional authoritarian-rooted discipline. And now we’re saying, “Hey, don’t swing over to where the rest of the world went with permissive, but stay in this authoritative area.” And that’s a tough call for all of us. 

Jim: Well, let me ask you this basic question. I think this is the question: why do kids misbehave? 

Kevin: Kids misbehave for basic reasons. Number one is attention-getting. Number two is power. Number three is revenge. You don’t wanna see the revengeful kid. ‘Cause these are the kids that are in juvenile detention. These are the kids that are incarcerated early in life. If you have a right to hurt me in a democratic society, what right do I have to hurt other people? 

If you bring up a kid in “Ripoff-ville,” Pennsylvania. And in “Ripoff-ville”, everybody’s a thief. There’s not an honest person in the entire town. And then you bring them to Fantasy World, Colorado where everyone is honest. There’s not a dishonest person in the whole town. How will a kid behave when he comes in a new environment? When he sees a wristwatch someplace that someone left in a restroom, will he stick it in his pocket or return it? He’ll stick it in his pocket. Why? Because he’s learned. 

So every kid has a screenplay, so to speak, okay? And the firstborn looks up and sees adults. The second-born looks up and sees “Little Miss Goody Two-Shoes”, which sets up a lot of second children to go in a different direction. Okay? The third one figures out, “Hmm, that role’s taken, that role’s taken. Oh! This role isn’t taken: the procrastinator. I’m gonna be the little badger-like person that they’re gonna have to push and shove and pull to get to do anything. I’m gonna see what they’re made of.” 

Jim: How do you as a parent though, identify that in your children? Do you have to parent differently which each of those styles or those types? 

Kevin: Well, I think you do functionally. I mean, why should two kids go to bed at same time? Unless they’re identical twins or fraternal twins. But what do we do? What do we do as convenience? “All right, everyone listen up! I want everybody in bed now.” Now why do you do that, Dad? Because you want to fool around with the missus. Tell the truth. You want the kids out of the way. 


I mean, the state of Colorado or Pennsylvania or Texas is gonna treat your kid different. Don’t be afraid to treat your kids differently. Here’s the question: does God treat us differently? Why did he give identical twins different fingerprints? They have the same DNA. They’re genetically the same person. Why’d he do that? To help the FBI? Or the Royal Mounted Police? No. 

Jim: Kevin, I need to clarify something because last time and today, we’re talking about – even in the open about how far a parent should go to try to help a child succeed and to not allow that child to fail. What I’m hearing you say is that you really need to take that underpinning away from the child. If they fail, they fail. And there’s a Biblical principle related to that. 

Kevin: Sure there is. 

Jim: You talked last time, in fact, about the spoiled child. And when you start to take those privileges away to help strengthen the character of that child, do you think in many ways, the Lord is doing that with us at times as adults? 

Kevin: Sure. How many times have we – I mean – I’ve got a little book I wrote in 57 days. And the publisher said, “Leman, this book must’ve been in your heart.” It was in my heart. It was called the WayoftheWise. But my favorite chapter is “Lord, You’re the Potter, I’m the clay, but I do have a few suggestions”. And I think that’s what all of us as people of faith struggle with, is “Lord, your will, not mine.” But let’s face it. As a parent, these are your kids. Here’s the question for all the mommies with us today: do you know what’s best for your kid? Proverbs 22:6. Train up a child, not train down your child, in a way he should go. That doesn’t mean the way you think he should go. That’s the kicker for most of us. It’s the way God would have your kid go. So for parents who have a compliant firstborn, “Little Miss Goody Two-Shoes”, honor society, “Oh, she’s such a lovely daughter to have around. And then have you met her little sister, Attila?” 


Now here’s the problem. You gotta love these kids. It’s like the kindergarten teacher on the first day of school. The little kid walks in. You know there’s something different about this kid. You notice the attaché case in his hand. And inside of his attaché case he’s got a book, you know James Michener’s Hawaii. He’s 5 years old! You know? I’m gonna take a wild guess and say, this kid’s gonna do okay in school. This kindergarten teacher, two minutes later, is greeted by a little kid that comes in and says, “Is this the kindergarten?” And the other kid says, “I think he’s inquiring as whether or not he’s in the right place or not.” Well, if you look at those backgrounds of those kids, they came out of completely different homes. 

Parents, if you’ve got a kid who’s a reader, don’t worry about their education. That’s the best advice I can give you. Reading is the key. Teach kids where? At your knee. You know that’s what Deuteronomy reminds us to do as parents. So when you train up kids, you wanna train them up with a lot of vitamin E, which is “Encouragement”, but they need Vitamin N, too, which is “No”. 

Jim: You refer to training down. For those that are just joining us, talk about training down versus training up. What does that mean practically? 

Kevin: “You know if bird had your brain, he’d fly sideways. What is wrong with you? That is the dumbest thing I ever heard of.” You know if doctor says to you, Jim, “Hey Jim, you reacted to the medication.” That’s not good, Jim. But if he says, “You responded to the medication,” That’s very good. I think as parents, we need to remember you wanna try to respond to kids rather than just react to them. They’re kids. They’re dumb as mud. Now if you don’t believe that, if you’re offended by that statement, please call your insurance agent this week and ask ‘em this question, “Why do I pay so much money for my 16 – 17-year-old daughter or son to drive the car?” Your insurance agent will say something to the effect of, “Because they’re dumb as mud.” 

Jim: ‘Cause they drive too fast. 

Kevin: So we do train them. And thy rod and thy staff, they what? They comfort me. But there’s times when a little sheep says, “No, I’m not moving.” What’s the good shepherd do? He takes the rod, gives them a little shot in the tail, moves them along. The rod was used to separate the wool on the sheep to see if there were any little critters on the sheep that shouldn’t be there. But what have we done within the church? We’ve sort of overdone the rod part and forgot the part about comfort. These are kids. We’re the psychological blankie for our kids. And you gotta understand that each kid sees life differently. In many ways, you have to be a different parent in many ways to different kids. 

Jim: Well, and you’re touching on something that I think we should pull out, and that is that willful defiance, that willful disobedience versus just childish irresponsibility. Is there a distinction there? Let me give you an example: a child that spills milk and is just clumsy. Some parents will get on that child to be less clumsy. 

Kevin: Yeah. 

Jim: And aggressively, but it may just be that child can’t function well.

Kevin: Yeah, the milk or the orange juice topples. “What did you – didn’t I just tell you to be careful, what is wrong with you? I’m telling you!” There’s your typical reaction. You’re frustrated. You know when the milk spills, the orange juice spills, we don’t need a – a berating lecture. We need a rag. And aren’t you glad that Almighty God has this wonderful rag, that He just wipes things clean when we say, “Father, I’ve fallen short again.”

“Is that you, Leman, again?” 

“Yeah, it’s me. Just call me a tow truck, get me out of this ditch.” 

“It’s on its way, fat boy.” 


And I think if we have that, if we look at ourselves and realize that we don’t have life’s – all of life’s answers in our back pocket. And there’s times when you look at your son or your daughter and you say, “Honey, I don’t know, but let’s talk about this some more.” If you don’t dialogue with your kid – if your 16-year-old says they want to go to a rock concert. Here’s a perfect example. Okay, what are most parents say? “Hey, I will not spend our hard-earned money to send you to hear some goof ball singing a song nobody can understand.” Okay? Now there’s your traditional parent.

The parent I’d like to create says, “Oh, who’s performing? Who?” Now, I’m here to tell ya, Jim and John, you will not know the name of this group, whoever it is. But, “Do you have a CD of them? I’d love to hear it. Hey, come jump in the car with me, I gotta go down to the Circle K anyway. Come on with me and put CD in.” As soon as the kid puts the CD in, say, “Turn it up more. Louder.” And talk about it. Now am I saying, let your kid go to everything that comes down the pike? No. But if you don’t dialogue with that kid, he or she is gonna become a “slam-clicker”, which means they come home from school, they slam their door, they click it shut, and then they begin to text like a woodpecker that’s got ADHD to all their buddies. 


Jim: That’s good advice. You’re listening to Focus on the Family. We’re talking with Dr. Kevin Leman, author of the book, ParentingYourPowerfulChild. We also have 30 or so guests here in the studio: women and moms who I’m ready to open up the mics and have you all ask some questions of Dr. Leman. So let’s do that. Let’s go to the first question. 

Audience Member: Dr. Leman, thank you for being here. And so I have a 17-year-old son, firstborn. I think he’s full of potential, but he is just failing in classes, and, and it’s so hard not to nag on him, “Do the homework. Do this. Do that.” And so I hear your advice about kind of let him feel the consequences, but I’m scared because this is his life that could be affected by the poor grades.

Kevin: Well, first of all, that’s a great question. Thank you for it. You know, if that’s my son, I’m probably gonna have somebody else do this rather than myself. I’m probably gonna have someone at school do it. But I’m gonna suggest to them that they sit down with him and say, “You know, I’m concerned about your grades. I see that you have much more potential than what you’ve shown here. I just want to share this with you for what it’s worth. Someday very soon, someone’s gonna look at an 8 by 11 piece of paper or a computer screen. And it’s gonna have some numbers on it, and some grades on it, and maybe some test scores. And they’re gonna make some assumptions about you based solely on what’s on that page. We live in a very competitive society. Talk to anybody who is out in business and doing well, works for a corporation. I’ve got news for you, honey. They’re looking over their shoulder. It’s called down-sizing. So this is your life. I don’t want to run your life. You need to make these decisions. Something tells me that you don’t measure up. You don’t do better because you feel pressure that if you did better you’d always have to do better.” And I understand that. But that firstborn who doesn’t measure up, many times doesn’t measure up out of fear that “If I succeed, I’ll always have to succeed.” And that’s fearful.

Jim: Let’s go to the next question.

Courtney: My name is Courtney, and I have five children – four boys and then a little girl. My fourth son is about to turn eight. And there are no consequences that affect him, literally. He is so powerful – I expect that he’ll be president of the United States. He won’t take no for answer. He doesn’t need sleep, and as long as everything’s going his way, he’s great. You know, he’s a wonderfully, beautiful-hearted child, but when something goes wrong or I say no, it is the end of the world. And he is not embarrassed to scream, throw himself on the floor at Walmart. I have left him places. He has no problem with that. He says, “That’s okay. I’ll just find a new family.” I can’t find a consequence that is strong enough for this powerful child. And as a parent it’s – I’m at the end of my rope.

Jim: I think we hear that. Let’s hear Dr. Leman’s response.

Kevin: Well, this kid might do well in a courtroom someday as a courtroom attorney, but if this behavior doesn’t change now at age eight, he’s going to be a lousy husband. He’s not going to be a good person to be around, okay. And you see these kids where, if life is sailing on their terms, they’re fine.

Jim: What can she do?

Kevin: Watch it in sports, okay. As soon as something goes wrong and he has a hissy fit, you say things like – you don’t try to make it right, number one. You don’t try to fix it. You say, “I understand. You’re upset. I gotta tell you the truth. It’s not a big thing to me.” Walk away. I would pick this kid up at age eight, I’d put him outside, I’d close the door, and I’d lock the door. I’d make myself a cup of tea, and I’d chill. If you do that with a powerful child like this, he will kick your backdoor like it’s never been kicked before. But I would not open that door until he settled down, okay. And we hear the anguish in your voice, but we also hear that, “Oh, he’s a great kid. He’s this. He’s that.” I got news for ya. You gotta look at that other side, and you gotta understand that this side that’s the bad side, so to speak, has to be corrected or it’s really gonna limit the probability of him being productive as an adult.

Jim: And to be fair, I mean all of us as parents with our children, I think all of our children will have that side that we tend not to want to look at.

Kevin: Oh yeah, but I call it the bread and water treatment, Jim. I think this kid gets nothing if he’s in my home. 

“Mommy, would you, would you get me a glass of milk?” Now this is when things are really fine, he’s great. ”Would you get me a glass of milk?” 

“No, honey, I won’t.” 

“Well you always get me a glass of milk.” 

“Honey, I don’t feel like getting you a glass of milk right now.” I want to create some guilt in this kid. Good guilt that says, “You know what, I’m not happy with the way things are in our home.” And kids of eight understand that. You need to – I call it parental poker. Now some of you may not like that term. If you want to call it parental fish, go right ahead.


But you have four aces. Your kid wouldn’t have underwear, quite frankly, if you didn’t buy it for him, so who’s kiddin’ who? You have all the gold so play these cards now at eight before these kids harden up and hit 12, 13, 14 and then it’s really miserable.

John: To be fair, Jim, there are some circumstances where you might need to get some further advice than what we’re able to offer here.

Kevin: Oh, yes, absolutely.

John: There are children who will be violent, they’ll be very destructive. You probably need some help beyond what you’re hearing from Dr. Leman here. Give us a call, we have counselors here and Focus on the Family is ready to at least help you begin to get some perspective on that. Just call 1-800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.

Kevin: Hey John, with the powerful child, now this is an extremely powerful child that we just heard about. It’s an absolutely incumbent that mom and dad must be on the same page. If they’re not on the same page, the kids, again, will be fed power from you not being on the same page. And what they’re actually saying is I’m angry because you two don’t have your act together.

Jim: That sounds almost too simplistic, Kevin.

Kevin: Well, if you’re going to face the enemy, I can say that with tongue in cheek, you have to be shoulder to shoulder. For anybody who’s ever gone through a blended family situation: I guarantee you, if you’re not shoulder to shoulder on the same page, you will not make it through the second marriage, period. The kids will defeat you. You have brought the Trojan horse in your home. And so kids, they’re kids, they’re immature; they don’t have the maturity of adults. And that’s why as adults, we have to stand up and recognize that we helped create the situation. Well if you use an educational model, like I do, and not a medical model, do you realize there’s some good news here? That we can un-train some of these things. But like John pointed out, you know, with these, some of these kids who are the procrastinating type who just dig in, I mean, they will show you that nothing you do is gonna affect me, but these are the kids you gotta say, “Honey, I understand that. But you’re 15-years-old, you have three more years to serve in this prison, okay? And at 18 you can fly any way you want, but for right now this is what you have to deal with, so if you’re responsible at home, responsible in school, yeah, you’re going to have some perks like driving the car. And if you’re not, that’s never gonna happen.”

Jim: You mention though, often times that more strong-willed parent will have certain dispositions to them. I mean, the accountants, you say the engineers, the black and white thinkers.

Kevin: Where perfection is paid off.

Jim: Now, typically, and you know this from your other books. Typically opposites attract, so, the spouse when you talk about being on the same page – that can be hard. And I know for Jean and I, Jean is a scientifically driven person. I can tend to be a bit more laid back in my parenting.

Kevin: Right.

Jim: How do we get on that same page? How do we say, “Okay, we have to find a middle ground?”

Kevin: Well number one, you don’t act out independent of each other. The two shall become one, which I would point out is one of the funniest things in all of God’s Word. Because women are so…weird.


Jim: That is brave when you’re in a room of 30 women!


Kevin: And men are so strange. But – but just like – just like you, I’m married to “Mrs. Uppington”, the firstborn, the classy one. She likes four-forkers and five-forker restaurants. I loathe those places, I’m a plastic fork person; I’m a hotdog, hamburger person. We couldn’t be more different, but we’re a great team. But with kids, we’ve always been on the same page. And when the kids see that security – see, your kid, whether that kid’s four or 14, likes the mundane. They like the mundane. They like the predictable. If you don’t believe that try tucking in a young kid tonight and leave something out of the routine. The kid turns into Judge Judy. ”Mommy, you forgot to do” whatever.

Jim: That’s so true!

Kevin: Sing a song or tucks this or do that. So, realize that as adults your job is to stay on that same page. And yes, we see life differently. No matter what your occupation, no matter what the major problem, run everything by your wife first.

Jim: Jean is smiling right now.

Kevin: Good!


Jim: Let’s talk, for a moment, about the mom. I mean there may be a mom sitting right here. And if you’re there and in this place, let’s hear from you. But you feel like, “Wow! I have not done it this way, and I’m feeling guilty. What you’re saying is actually making me feel heavy-hearted. How can I turn that corner now? What can I do tonight when I go home and talk to my husband to say, okay, we’ve got to do some things differently.” Anybody in that spot? You feel like that? Okay, there’s some nodding heads right now. Speak to it.

Kevin: Well first of all, there’s a lot of moms that don’t have a support system. There’s a lot of moms listening to us who are single parents who have no one in the bullpen; they have to do it by themselves. And for those, they need to be as consistent as they possibly can be. For those of you who do have that helpmate, it’s really important that that helpmate understands what a job you do. That means you need to get away, you need to go with your girlfriends, you need to have some time alone, you need to go to the women’s retreat at your church. Husband will figure it out. I remember my wife took off for a retreat and left me with the infant, Chrissy and the 18-month old, Holly. They were 18 months apart, and I reassured her everything would be okay – that’s how stupid I was.


It was not okay. I mean, our oldest daughter, Holly, did a – how do I say this, a – a big bah, we called ‘em big bahs and I’m so old, we didn’t have Pampers ladies. We had cloth diapers.

Jim: And they’re not very well fitting.

Kevin: And it was just – I’m not gonna describe it. But it – it was…

Jim: We got the picture!

Kevin: It was – thank you Jim, it was worse than you could imagine. And I picked her up and I ran out the back, through the screen door and took her out in the grass and I – I didn’t have a – a wristband on me that said, “What would Dr. Kevin Leman say?” Or do, so I went to the garden hose.

Jim: Seems practical.

Kevin: Oh gosh, you know what? And I pulled that off and about three days later, Holly, told her mother about the special…

Jim: Bath?

Kevin: Shower that daddy gave her in the back yard.


I got in big-time trouble. 

Jim: That’s nothing what the neighbors said to your wife.

Kevin: Oh gosh. But every man needs to walk in a woman’s shoes. I’m a great proponent of MOPS organization. They’re just wonderful people. And I just like to reassure those mommies that, you know, you don’t have a bunch of people in the grandstand, you know clapping and rising up and calling you blessed, but the work and the time you put with these kids pays off.

Jim: Let’s get another question.

Carmen: Hi Dr. Leman, my name is Carmen, and I’m a first time mom to a 10-month-old. So, I’m sitting here panicking a little bit, wondering how I foster the strengths in the powerful child and get a leg up on the not so positive things before she’s 18 months, and it all really kicks in.


Kevin: Well, crying isn’t fatal, dirt doesn’t kill. You know, with your firstborn, you’re out in a park and you got a little toddler, let’s say, two, two-and-a-half, reaches down picks up a foreign substance, puts it in the kid’s mouth. If you’re a young mom you freak out. ”Oh, honey, call 911! Take her to the hospital, call the doctor! Oh, she’s gonna die!” Six years later, same park, 3-year-old, your third son picks up a filthy cigarette butt – complete with filter – and swallows it before your eyes.


And your husband looks at you and says, “Good roughage, good roughage, don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it.”


And so, you too, you too will come to understand that as you take things in stride, your child takes their cues from you parent.


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