Q. My oldest son, soon to be 8, still soils his underwear during school or recess. Some of it is that he is embarrassed to use the toilet that's in the classroom, and some of it is that he gets busy and doesn't want to stop what he's doing. His doctor assures us that he has no physical problem.
We have tried spanking, grounding and threatening him with having to wear pull-ups (but we really don't want to humiliate him). We have even suggested that one of us might need to come to school and remind him to use the toilet. A counselor told us that our son's soiling was his way of expressing hostility toward us and suggested that we are too controlling. Is that psychobabble, or could there be something to it? Anyway, we'd sure appreciate some ideas.
A. As for whether the counselor's explanation qualifies as psychobabble, here is its definition: An explanation of human behavior that posits the existence of motives that cannot be verified by any objective means. You can be the judge.
When an explanation of that sort concerns the problematic behavior of a child, the explanation always transfers responsibility for the problem from child to parents, thus paralyzing the parents' ability to discipline effectively.
Quite simply, the parents no longer know who needs to be corrected, the child or themselves. In this regard, let's get one thing clear: This problem is of your son's making, not yours. The discipline, therefore, needs to be directed at him, not you.
Moving right along, the following is a disciplinary axiom: The manner in which parents define a child's behavior problem will determine the effectiveness of their approach. At present, you are defining your son's soiling in a way that gives him permission to continue in this bad habit. Saying he's "embarrassed" to use the bathroom at school or he's "too busy" to tend to business during recess are ways of excusing the problem. In effect, you are unwittingly giving him permission to be irresponsible, and then you are becoming angry when he acts on your permission.
You first need to define the problem in a manner that assigns full responsibility to him. I suggest that you call the proverbial spade a spade and tell him that it's rude (the smell offends others) and irresponsible. If you pull your punches here, you won't make any headway.
Up until now, your frustration has been driving your response to the problem. You swing from being confused as to whether or not he can control the problem to being angry. Your attitude has got to become one of calm, determined intolerance. In that regard, I'll share what I recently recommended to the parents of a 9-year-old who was also soiling at school. When soiling occurred, the child was removed from the classroom and a parent was called to retrieve him and take him home. There, he was confined to his room for the remainder of the day and only allowed to come out to use the bathroom. Before this rehabilitation program began, his room was stripped of all entertainment. I call this "Kicking the Child Out of the Garden of Eden." He could come out of his room only to use the bathroom. If soiling occurred two times or more during the school week, the child was confined to his room for the subsequent weekend.
Two school days and one weekend in his room was all it took for him to resolve his anger toward his over-controlling parents and begin using the toilet properly.
XJohn Rosemond is a family psychologist. Questions of general interest may be sent to him at Affirmative Parenting, 1020 East 86th Street, Suite 26B, Indianapolis, IN 46240 and at his Web site: http://www.rosemond.com/