Taming the Savage Preschooler

Dear Mr. Dad: My daughter and son-in-law are raising their 4-year-old child with no discipline or boundaries. The boy is a little brat, screaming and throwing temper tantrums whenever he doesn’t get what he wants. I’ve tried speaking to my daughter about this but she just laughs it off. What should I do?

A: Oh, boy, that’s a tough one. I totally agree that raising a child without any boundaries, or, for that matter, discipline, is just plain bad parenting. Your daughter and son-in-law aren’t doing your grandson any favors by giving in to all his whims. Sooner or later, their lenient, anything-goes approach will backfire. (He’s already an unmanageable little tyrant. Imagine how much worse it’ll be as he gets older).

The big question is, Why are your daughter and her husband putting up with (and encouraging) this awful behavior? I’m only guessing, here, but one possibility is that either she and/or her husband had a very strict upbringing and consciously decided not to be as tough on their own child. Now, they’re going overboard in the other direction.
Or maybe they feel guilty that they don’t spend enough time with their son and worry that if they say No, he’ll feel he’s not loved—or he won’t love them.

The most likely culprit is that they just don’t know how to set limits or discipline their child, and letting him run roughshod over them seems easier than enforcing rules.

So, what can you, the concerned grandmother, do? Obviously, you don’t want to seem interfering or meddling. But you don’t want to just stand by and allow things to continue as they are, either.

A lot depends on your relationship with your daughter. Are you close and open enough with each other to honestly talk with her—in a calm and non-confrontational manner—about your concerns?

Start by asking her why she doesn’t believe in setting limits for her child. If she says she doesn’t want to be seen as a strict disciplinarian, explain that boundaries don’t have to be harsh, just fair and reasonable. Tell her that boundaries are actually good for a child’s development. They teach not only appropriate and acceptable behavior at home, school, and elsewhere, but also respect towards others and a sense of self control.

Not setting rules, on the other hand, will have some serious consequences. If the boy continues to act like (and be) a spoiled brat, he’ll have trouble making and keeping friends. As a result, he won’t learn to share, interact, or get along with his peers. Worse yet, kids who get whatever they want whenever they want it, never learn how to handle disappointments and frustrations later in life. The world is a tough place for people who march through life with a snotty attitude and a sense of entitlement.

If your daughter is still speaking to you after this, encourage her and her husband to make an appointment with a family counselor. Re-programming a child who’s had no rules for four years will probably require professional help.

Of course, if she refuses to listen to you or follow your advice, there’s little you can do but hope she’ll realizes the error of her ways sooner rather than later. In the meantime, offer to babysit from time to time–if you can stand it–and be consistent in enforcing your own boundaries around your house while he’s there. You won’t make an angel out of your grandson overnight, but at least he’ll know that rules do exist and that some people enforce them.

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