I don’t remember the first time I was told I had a bad attitude. I asked around, and it turns out that everyone I asked had been told at some point in their lives that they, too, had a bad attitude. This suggests an epidemiological question. Is a bad attitude like a common childhood disease, which everybody has had at some point in their lives, or is this a case of ‘selection bias’ in which I happen to choose to be surrounded by those who either have or have had a bad attitude? I guess if there were some sort of test for it, perhaps there might be an answer to that question. I don’t think I was ever fired from a job for having a bad attitude, but certainly being told this in a declarative way, as if it were a clinical observation made with the wisdom of specialized training and experience, didn’t help me feel closer to my manager or employer. Now self-employed (I guess that answers the question if I ended up staying in
that job those jobs.)
What is a bad attitude? I suspect it is often an expression used as a surrogate for questioning the authority of somebody who thinks that they have authority over you. Does it mean that you are subversive, fomenting revolution? Does it mean that you simply don’t follow directions? I think I have an idea.
Many of the children that I see note that they have been disciplined, kicked out of school, put into detention, or brought to me with the intention of a parent that they be medicated in some way, because of their bad attitude.
I searched Yahoo for “bad attitude.” It returned 7,360,000 results. I liked that it came up with dozens and dozens of t-shirts. Some said simply, ‘bad attitude.’ Apparently, this self-identification is meant for those who would like others to use this trait as a means of identifying them. As in my epidemiological problem stated above, it’s unclear if they mean for others to simply stay away or if they would like to help like-minded folks seek them out. One said that ‘A bad attitude was a terrible thing to waste.’ This implies that it is valuable. ‘A little bad attitude makes for a lot of great hockey.’ Not much of a sports fan, I found this deeply insightful. There were also a lot of posters and coffee mugs. I can’t help but draw some inferences by the preponderance of cats pictured on so many product offerings with a ‘bad attitude’ caption. I have always associated indifference with cats, but essentially they are, after all, predators.
In April of 2009, I published an essay about a disease called pinkeye. I have a 2000-page pediatric textbook in which the index at the back is several hundred pages long. Pinkeye does not appear in the index or in the book. Though accepted as common knowledge, pinkeye is not a disease as understood by medical science. It is a symptom, literally a pink eye, which has attached to it whatever definition a school official feels certain about. It isn’t treatable by me without the crucial diagnostic information to establish a medical cause of this single symptom.
It is a deep truth that no one in the history of attitude ever believes that their own attitude is bad and somehow in need of adjustment. The person making the claim that someone has a bad attitude is assigning a label. Do you like being labeled? We all like the good ones, but the bad ones don’t come off. So permanent are these labels that people remember them their whole lives. I bet you can think of adults you know who have said that they were told they had a great talent...when they were 6.
On my very first day of residency, I was scheduled to attend a welcome meeting in the Pediatric Conference Room. No room number was given, just the time. I was nervous and arrived an hour early. I asked the person at the entrance desk to the hospital where this conference room was. I sat in the empty room and waited. No one ever showed up, so I eventually called the residency office and they told me it was in the other building, where there was a different room with the same name. I ran over there, and arrived sweating and breathless. Without missing a beat, the leader of this meeting said, “You’re expected to show up on time. Lateness is irresponsible and won’t be tolerated.” Luckily, I had the real-life experience to keep my mouth shut and just sit down. (Did he have a bad attitude? Oh my yes. There’s something about doctors with Porsches that says so much.)
What I’m getting at is the label that we can’t wash off. How many hundreds of times can I be early before he decides that I don’t have a problem with lateness? In 3 years I was late to that one meeting. Three years of being early to everything was not enough.
How many times can a bullied child do anything to remove the names that he has been called? Several times a year I have to recommend to a parent to take their child out of school and send the child elsewhere. It’s the only way to wash that child of the names that hurt them so deeply. What happens when the names are assigned by a teacher? That doesn’t go away by switching classes. Sometimes not even switching schools. I have had children go to private school, boarding school, or home school because a single teacher at a single school decided that the child had a bad attitude. They told the other teachers, they told the principal.
If you hear that your child has a bad attitude, the person saying it is a bully. If you are saying it, say it really slowly. Your child with not ever forget any syllable of that label. Go ahead, seal the deal. Call them lazy, ugly, ditzy.
How about stupid?
You didn’t see that dark turn coming? Rather than looking back in amusement, think hard about how you felt when you were told you had a bad attitude. Angry. Maybe defiant, distrustful, vengeful. Or maybe you were depressed, hopeless. Labeling somebody is mean work. When it is done to a child, it is bullying.
When a parent does it to a child, there is no more self-fulfilling an act. The child feels bad that you don’t like something about them. They don’t know what, exactly, because you haven’t told them. You don’t like something they can’t change. How would you—how did you—react? You would be angry, defiant, vengeful, depressed and hopeless. Would this statement of definition about who your parent thought you were make you somehow change for the better? Would you suddenly become optimistic, cooperative, trying twice as hard?
I do indeed see children who are oppositional, defiant, antisocial, and constant conduct problems. They don’t have bad attitudes. They do bad things.
There are 2 distinct lessons here, and these will come up again and again as I discuss discipline in detail.
First, being disciplined for being the way you are is just the same as discrimination. If your child is disorganized and forgetful, for example, no amount of any kind of discipline is going to help. I wrote a series about Claire, who was always called ‘ditzy’ or ‘spacey.’ She believed it about herself. Once her anxiety was diagnosed and treated, she wasn’t that way anymore. Only time will tell if she will overcome the label. Negative labels of any kind are mean. Don’t use them ever, or the throw-away line you said once that your child perceives as your true feelings will crush you when they move—or run—away.
Dr. Wolffe’s Rule 15: The Action Rule. Only discipline a child for actions they are able to correct. Would you discipline your child for having trouble reading or speaking? What if they couldn’t walk? You will lose them just as surely if you discipline them for not liking olives or Aunt Harriet’s meatloaf.
Second, disciplining a child for something you cannot specifically define is abuse. The child perceives it as abuse. Let me be more specific. Picture a parent, just home from an unpleasant day. Tired, angry at the boss who said they had a bad attitude, that parent says something mean to the innocent child at home, maybe to the spouse, too. (Substitute ‘does something’ for ‘says something’ if you need to.) The expression of negative feelings in ways that hurt others is simply abusive. The abused see this as arbitrary and unpredictable. As a result, there’s no good way to protect against it. That leads to very bad and long-lasting feelings.
Dr. Wolffe’s Rule 16: The Definition Rule. Never discipline a child for something you cannot define explicitly. Never for an attitude, a way of walking, a tone of voice. Never for being angry with you. If you want your kid to control her emotions, show her how you control yours.
I saw one of those nanny shows on TV in which the parents were encouraged to give a child a ‘time-out’ because of a bad attitude. I nearly threw up. How can the child fix that? How can the child know what they did wrong? The kid will remember the punishment, but how can he wash the label off?
Here’s what actually happened on video: the parent asked the child to help, the child said, ‘No!’, then the parent asked again, nicely, and the child said something along the lines of ‘I’m not going to and you can’t make me!’ The child received a warning, ‘Because you have a bad attitude.’ Then, time-out. I don’t have a problem with the consequence, and I don’t think that was an appropriate way for a kindergartener to speak to his mom. But the consequence must be attached unambiguously with a specific correctable action in order for the child to learn from it. In this case, all the child learned was that punishment comes when mom is angry. That’s pretty darn close to abuse.
Remember Dr. Wolffe’s Rule #2: Be Kind.