Mali's a Monster and It's Your Fault

That's what I said in last week's BlogHer post, anyhow. I really am tired of people enabling my youngest child's disrespectful behavior because she's just so darn adorable, or they're afraid of offending me. Here's the post's chewy center:
Her brother's autism and the extra effort we put into parenting, that's our problem. Teaching kids like Mali to behave respectfully -- that's your problem, too. Once children become social beings and start taking cues from people outside their family, social skills become a group responsibility. And, every time my freshly minted five-year-old walks up to an adult and smacks them on the bottom or otherwise misbehaves, and my apologies and reminders about appropriate behavior are brushed off with an "Oh, it's okay," because she's little and cute  or you're more worried about offending a potentially prickly parent than teaching a child about appropriate boundaries, you have fed my tiny monster anew.
Here's the part that got bloggers like the inimitable Mike Adamick chatting:
Step up, people. You have my permission: kindly but firmly tell other people's children that you are not okay with being treated badly! Really, it's all right. If the parent is offended, feel free to roll your eyes or grumble about them on Twitter. Your responsibility is to the child, to society.
And here's the part I really wanted people to absorb but that apparently wasn't as compelling the more incendiary statements:
This doesn't mean you get to tell off every pint-sized jerk you encounter -- quite the opposite. I expect you to model the behavior you'd like that child to emulate. Actively participating in the parenting and discipline social sphere is not about lashing out or imposing your will on someone else's child, it's about demonstrating how being social means treating people with respect.
I also talked about the importance of removing judgment from such exchanges, and how we use behavioral methods mostly learned from seven years of Leo's home ABA program to parent our children and shape their behavior ever so carefully.  What I didn't mention is that we're back into using bribes, a.k.a. reinforcers, to keep the two girls from strangling each other, and me from finishing the job (CPS types please note: that was a joke).

Iz is a sensitive girl who can't not go berzerk in response to certain external stimuli, like little sisters pinching or taunting or encroachment of a shared arm rest. Mali has Iz's number, she can make her dance like a marionette, and she's not about to back down -- as long as Iz keeps responding, Mali will keep badgering. We needed to break that cycle.

Since Mali draws such great delight from torturing Iz (as our youngest illustrated above; the drawing shows Mali indulging in the venial sin of "smirking" at a very distraught Iz), we pulled out the behavioral water cannons of positive reinforcement: sticker charts. We set time periods of one to two hours during which the girls must not only refrain from needling, shrieking at, or smacking each other, but must treat each other with kindness and respect. Each time they succeed, they get a physical sticker (Mali) or a point on my mental tally chart (Iz). The payoffs for chart completion are items of no great monetary value but great emotional worth.

It's sort of working. Though Mali still really enjoys goading her sister, and Iz still can't not respond. In between points and stickers earned are awful episodes where Seymour and I end up banishing them to opposite ends of the house. Later I'll find them fawning over each other and then looking at me expectantly, hoping for that point or sticker. With enough practice, those fawning sessions may become at least partially genuine.

I don't think Mali is really a monster -- she has a generous, loving heart -- but I do think she's smart and passionate and embodies spiritedness. A girl who emerged from our recent Lord of the Rings movie marathon unable to decide if her favorite character was the Balrog or Grond,  flaming Hammer of the Underworld, and who also thought the trilogy's highlight was Eowyn slaying the Witch King of Angmar, is not going to be a quiet, complacent child. She'll surely be an interesting one, as long as we can guide her away from the path of shadow and flame.


  1. my mom used to tell my brother and i that we were "no longer brother and sister" and therefore could not be in the same room... we were too young to see the flaw in that logic.

    she says every time we would come back to her in about ten minutes all sad saying we wanted to be brother and sister again.

    as youngest, i remember just wanting so much to be in control of *something* in the family; i can sort of see why mali likes egging iz on.

    hope the stickers work!

  2. Having watched the Mali-Iz Show live & in action I can attest to the description.

    I wonder if you can find a way to teach Iz how to be less reactive to Mali's antics that aren't particularly meant to irritate Iz. In other words, start the process of differentiating (being able to self-soothe while realizing another's action have only to do with the other, not with yourself.)

  3. Anonymous4:38 AM

    I know this sounds contrite, but it really is Mali's job to aggravate her older sister. No she should not, and no Iz should not get upset when her buttons get pushed, but she does and they do. Still the ref in the knock down drag out fights of my boys. If we learn to live with our siblings we learn to live with the rest of the world. Well that was what I was told,meanwhile they sit at opposite ends of the table during meals...

  4. You hit a nerve with me. I totally agree. It drives me nuts when someone tells my child, "it's ok."

    No, it's not. Plus, my child's apology means something to them and should mean something to the adult. "It's ok" is dismissive to the behavior and the apology. We'd much rather hear, "Thank you" or "I forgive" since both acknowledge the behavior and the apology.

    Back off my soap box. :)


Respectful disagreement encouraged.