Q&A with author Dr. Michael Popkin - MetroFamily Magazine
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Q&A with author Dr. Michael Popkin

by Michael Popkin

Reading Time: 18 minutes 

On November 13, 2007, MetroFamily proudly presented Dr. Michael Popkin, founder of the video-based parenting series Active Parenting and author of the acclaimed book Taming the Spirited Child: Strategies for Parenting Challenging Children Without Breaking Their Spirits. Dr. Popkin spoke to both educators and parents in two different sessions, during which the audience submitted questions. Below Dr. Popkin has answered these questions. We gratefully acknowledge and sincerely thank Dr. Popkin for answering these questions.

For our readers wanting to know more, please consider purchasing Dr. Popkin’s book. It is available at all regular book retailers and at our Parent University sponsor, Best of Books, at Bryant and Danforth (1313 W. Danforth) in Edmond, 340-9202.

Taming the Spirited Child

Oklahoma City Q & A

By Michael H. Popkin, Ph.D.

Author, Taming the Spirited Child: Strategies for Parenting Challenging Children Without Breaking Their Spirits

Q.  Every morning our two and a half-year-old boy insists on selecting his own clothing.  He will change his choices again fully clothed. He insists on shorts –“summer clothes” on cool fall days.  I would like to understand the importance of this to better deal with him.

A.  Because spirited kids are often more sensitive to their environment (the S in CAPPS), things often bother them that do not bother other children. Your son may prefer shorts because they do not feel scratchy on his legs or because he feels too hot or too restricted in long pants. Or, he just might have a strong fashion preference and is destined to become a great New York clothing designer.  Whatever his reason, show respect for his feelings in the matter, but set some reasonable limits on what he can wear. Using a combination of choices and consequences help him choose his wardrobe the night before by giving him choices between two or three good options. While shorts in the fall might be acceptable, by the time winter rolls around in Oklahoma, you’ll need to let him know that, “I know you like shorts better, but it’s too cold today for shorts and I don’t want you to get sick. Which of these pants do you like better?”  If he has a tantrum, you can let him know that he can wear shorts inside, but if he wants to go outside to play at all, he’ll need long pants. The consequence of choosing shorts is to stay inside. You also might be able to find a texture or style in pants that he doesn’t mind.

Q. What is your opinion about negotiating with a persistent child? We will agree to do what the child requests in exchange for the child agreeing to do something he wouldn’t normally agree to. 

A. Because spirited kids are more persistent (the second P in CAPPS) they will often try to argue and negotiate with you until you either give in or die of old age. This is a double-edged sword. The good news is that you want a child to negotiate rather than melt down into a tantrum or yell & scream in disrespectful outrage. The ability to negotiate for what you want is a useful skill in any open society and should be encouraged. The bad news side of the equation is that at some point kids need to accept an authority’s final answer, even when it isn’t the answer they want. This is also a useful skill to master.  

The answer is to negotiate with your child within limits that are acceptable for the situation. Do NOT agree to something that you would ordinarily say “no” to in order to get your child to go along with what you want.  This amounts to a bribe, and a bribe with a spirited child leads to more and more extortion on his part. “I’ll go to bed now IF I can play an hour more of video games tomorrow.” Give in to this type of demand and there will be no end to it.  A better way to negotiate is to find reasonable alternatives that are logically connected to the situation. For example, “I’m sorry, but playing extra video games isn’t something that I think will be good for you. But I’ll tell you what, if you want to read for fifteen minutes in bed before going to sleep, I’ll go for that.” The other key to negotiating is to set some time limits around it. Don’t leave it open-ended (unless you have no other life and this is what you do for entertainment). Instead, let your child know that you will take ten minutes (or five) to talk about it. Then, you’ll make a decision.


Q.    What do you do when there’s a power struggle between two spirited kids?

A. If you can devise a way to hook them up to a generator you could get the Nobel Prize for solving the world’s energy problem. Short of that, you have three good options:

1.    Separate them until they calm down.

2.    Make sure they know the rules (no biting, hitting or otherwise hurting the other person) and let them work it out.

3.    Use it as an opportunity to teach them problem solving.  In other words, mediate the struggle teaching them how to give and take, negotiate, empathize, and otherwise work out a problem so that both parties win.

Q.  How do you know when a child is beyond just being spirited?

A. Spirited children can have other problems in addition to a spirited temperament. Some of these other problems have specific treatments, including medication, that can be of benefit, so if you suspect that there is more going on with your child, you should get her evaluated by a psychologist or other trained professional. You will still want to use the taming skills described in the book even if there are other treatments involved. I also suggest a professional evaluation if you have been applying the taming skills for at least six months and have not seen any significant change in your child’s behavior. 

Q. A lot of the examples relate to very young children. What are some characteristics of older spirited children?

A. The basic CAPPS of curiosity, adventure, power, persistence and sensitivity do not change over time. What does change is how they are exhibited. Older kids can do more damage to themselves and others. They take more risks. They are more difficult to tame. Sometimes with teenagers, parents have to eventually have the teenager placed in a residential treatment program for a period of time in order to regain some control. But I never recommend the “tough love” approach of just kicking the teen out of the house. We don’t’ ever want to communicate to a spirited child that they are no longer wanted. A better message is to let them know that, “I love you too much to let you run wild, so we have arranged for you to get the help you need in order to manage your spirited nature.”

Q.  Many girls are not physically adventurous. Have you noticed spirited girls being adventurous in other ways?

A. My guess is that about 3/4s of the spirited children and teens are boys. Since this is a genetic temperament it makes sense that it might be sex-linked like that. I find it interesting though that when you see the term spirited used in literature over the past centuries it is almost always applied to women and girls. You see the term “spirited young woman” used to describe women such as Scarlet O’Hare who have some of the traits more often associated with masculinity. Spirited boys were just considered “all boy.” In our current age of feminism girls are given more permission to be spirited. This tends to bring out the spirited aspects of their temperaments, instead of suppressing them. On the positive side we see girls and women engaged in more active pursuits from sports to business to politics.  On the negative side, they are also acting out more as children, and then later through crime, sexuality, drugs and other untamed spirited behavior. In the book I don’t distinguish how to use the parenting skills for taming a boy versus a girl, because I don’t believe you need to distinguish. All eight sides of the corral are necessary whether you are taming a Scarlet or a Rhett.

Q. Can homework cause a tremendous disconnection at home? How do you handle the meltdowns but yet set the timeframe of getting all the work done? Motivation seems to be lacking due to low self-esteem in doing schoolwork.

A. Homework can be tough on any family, especially one with a spirited child. The key is to use the experience to continue establishing ties with your child, and not breaking them. This means communicating that although homework is his responsibility, you are there to support him and help him succeed. This doesn’t mean doing the work for him—even if you can, a feat that becomes increasingly impossible past grade five. Instead, you want to help him learn how he can best do it himself. Creating positive structures such as a quiet space with good light and a desk or table, a set time each day for homework, a written assignment sheet and the like can be a huge help. Use some of the self-soothing methods from the book to help him manage frustration and anger. As for motivation, a lot of encouragement can help. You might also use a when-then choice as an added incentive. For example, when you’ve finished your homework, you may have an extra half-hour to _____________ (for example, play a video game, read, work on a hobby, etc.). This isn’t a bribe, just ordering two normally occurring events so that the work has to happen before the play. Finally, if the work is really beyond your child’s ability at this point, talk with his teachers, get extra help such as tutoring, and/or have him evaluated.

Q. How do you shut down a child in the middle of a screaming, crying tantrum (that has lasted hours before) in a classroom setting? It is always the result of her not getting her way.

A. When a spirited child “loses it” what she has lost is the ability to think rationally.  Her brain becomes flooded with emotion in what is often called a meltdown. “Shutting it down” is not impossible, but very very difficult. The best bet is prevention. Talk with the entire class about how to handle it when you don’t get your way. Discuss alternatives with them. Then agree on things that they can do when they start to lose it. Deep breathing, a cool place in the room they can go and listen to music, a wet area where they can play with water (seems to sooth spirited kids) or as a last resort, a place outside the room where they can be supervised by another adult. Try to help them catch themselves when they begin to feel frustrated, and not wait for a full meltdown to take action. Talk to them calmly, encouraging the self-soothing methods you have already discussed as a class when they begin to overheat. There are a number of other methods in the book for preventing meltdowns and handling them—some of which attempt to engage the child’s rational mind in spite of the flood of emotions.

Q. What other consequences besides taking away recess can teachers use?

A.  I’m not a big fan of taking away recess to begin with. Kids need the chance for physical activity and socializing as much as they need their other subjects. Logical consequences that involve thinking about what they have done and coming up with a better way to handle the situation next time can be useful. This can be done through a brief written assignment to be completed at home or during any free time at school. Instead of taking away something, you might also consider creating an incentive. For example, offer the class extra free time, a party or something else to celebrate a good workday or week. This can be defined as a period of time in which you don’t have to stop to handle behavior issues. Don’t set the bar too high—you want them to succeed. And make sure the class uses positive peer pressure (not name calling or belittling) to help everyone stay on task.

Q. How could you apply these same principles to kids with autism?


A.  The key to “taming” as I’ve said is to “establish ties.” In other words you want to build a relationship with the child, and through the relationship, teach him to channel his spirited temperament in positive directions. Autistic kids have difficulty—often severe—in forming relationships. Consequently, all of the relationship building skills in the book can help you break through and connect with these children.    

Q.  Please address sleep problems of spirited children.

A. When our spirited son, Ben, was still sleeping in his crib, he would wake up so early sometimes that it was still pitch dark outside. We told him that he needed to stay quiet until the sun came up, figuring this would be a good compromise for everyone. The next morning he awakened early as usual while it was still dark outside, leaned out of his crib, and yelled down the hall,  “Son’s up!!! Son’s up!!!”

I used to call him our Ever-Ready battery child—he’d just keep going and going and going from before sun-up to whenever he finally crashed. A lot of spirited kids seem to not only march to a different drummer, they race full out to it!  Helping them go to sleep at night can be a struggle as well, a struggle we avoided early on with Ben. The key is to allow plenty of time to calm down before putting them to sleep. Never, I mean never, get them wound up with active play anywhere near bedtime. Our schedule included a thirty-minute routine: bath time (with music and toys), teeth brushing (“Can you open wide like a Lion?”), reading together, lights out, prayer, special words of endearment, and the familiar, but essential, “I love you,” followed by lullaby music.  Because there were so many parts of the routine that he liked, and since he knew that if he refused any part of the routine, he had to go straight to bed, we seldom if ever had a problem. 

Q. What is your opinion about time-out naughty spot chairs, followed up by time-out in a room alone for a minute for 3-½ year olds?

A. I don’t like the term “naughty spot chairs” at all. It seems to me to smack of the negative. In the book, I suggest an area of the room called a “cool place” where the child can go (or be sent) when she is starting to overheat and needs to cool down. I suggest letting the child (or children in a classroom) help come up with where it should be and what calming things should be there (for example, pillows, music, a special book about calming down, a saying that you’ve discussed together.)  This is not a punishment area, but rather a place to cool down and regroup. Also, be careful about isolating a spirited child who is having a tantrum. This sometimes makes the tantrum worse. What the spirited child may need more than isolation at that moment is an adult who will help her calm down with soothing words, deep breathing, and other methods.

Q. How do you deal with hitting and name-calling?

A. I call the police. Well, I would call them if I got hit and name called by another adult. Since we live in a society that doesn’t tolerate hitting and doesn’t like name-calling, kids need to be taught to find other ways to resolve conflicts.  Most kids, especially spirited kids, will experiment with hitting and name calling (and often biting, lying and other anti-social behavior) and see what effect it has. Parents and teachers can let the child know that “people aren’t for hitting” and/or “In our family/class we don’t call each other names.” Then follow up by saying something like, “Either tell him how you feel and what you want without hitting or you’ll need to play alone for awhile.” If the child continues the misbehavior, you can gently remove him from the situation for a brief period. Of course, this won’t work if you hit (even spank) or call names when you get angry, so be ready to practice what you preach.

Q. I have a 4-year-old that tells me she is “the adult” and then gets into a power struggle. What can I do/say?

A. Spirited kids have a strong desire to be powerful, and they assert that power in some of the most inappropriate ways. Your job as the leader in the relationship is not to convince her that you are the adult and she is the child.  Instead, remain firm and calm as you refuse to either fight with her or give in. See the chapter explaining the dynamics of power in the book, and then use the respectful methods of discipline to maintain structure and order. Again, don’t argue with her. Your actions, more than your words, will help her accept you as the leader.

Q. What is your strategy for responding to the child’s (age 10-12) inappropriate behavior in front of other parents or children?

A. You have two goals in these situations: 1. Get your child to change his behavior; and 2. Refrain from embarrassing him while doing it. You can’t always accomplish both goals, but making sure that you talk to him calmly and respectfully will help. (If you intentionally set out to embarrass him, or show callous disregard for his feelings, he will probably look for ways to get even later on—a bad outcome for both of you!). Begin, as always, by asking politely for what change in behavior you want. If he ignores you (or complies, but slips up again) remind him a little firmer. If he continues the misbehavior, ask him to step outside with you for moment. If he refuses to leave with you, then it’s time to go home or ask the friends to go home. If he complies and goes outside with you use the FLAC method (Feelings, Limits, Alternatives and Consequences). A good logical consequence might be to let him know that he needs to either stop the misbehavior or you will have to leave. If he WANTS to leave, then think of another logical consequence–for example, sitting by himself for awhile. 

Q. What are the logical consequences for dangerous or hurtful behavior? (Example: running into the street, biting a sibling.)

A. Remember that the key to using a logical consequence is to make sure that the consequence is logically connected to the misbehavior. In the case of running into the street, you first yell, “STOP!” and grab him. Let him know very clearly that “the street is off limits.” And that, “You can either play in the yard or you’ll have to stay in the house.” The logical consequence, therefore, of running into the street is to go inside for a period of time. For biting, again a firm reminder that “people are not for biting!” followed by time away from people is a good consequence. You can also use the FLAC method to acknowledge, “Sometimes you get so mad you want to bite something (Feelings), but people are not for biting (Limits). How about if we get you a damp towel that you can bite when you get angry (Alternatives)? Otherwise, you’ll have to play by yourself (consequences).

Q. 21 month old (Former 27 week micro-preemie)—when he gets angry at us or a toy or gets told “no” when he is already upset, he will hit himself or bang his head on things. He will do this until it hurts enough to cry. Sometimes if he bumps his head accidentally, he will bang it on purpose until he cries. 

A.  Head banging, like most behaviors is learned. However, the purpose it serves can be directed at two different goals: 1. the behavior gets the child something he wants from his parent or 2. the banging actually soothes (or resets) something in the child’s brain that calms him down. Sometimes the head banging can accomplish both. Either way you want to do the following things: protect his head; teach him the self-soothing methods described in the book; don’t give in to his demands. Of course, you also want to talk to his pediatrician about ways to keep him safe—whether some type of headgear or gently restraining him, for example. 

Q. My child gets frustrated when he can’t figure something out, but will not let an adult show him. How do I work past this? My child can get set off like a magnesium flare and burn out of control. What is the best method to diffuse at this point?

A. Have you ever tried to diffuse a burning magnesium flare? Me neither, but I suspect it is a lot easier to do before it goes off. The same is true of spirited children. You are much better “heading them off at the pass,” as I say in the book. Look for what triggers your child’s meltdowns and then address them with your child, focusing on alternative ways to handle the problem. Using your example of “when he can’t figure something out,” talk to him when is calm about ways to handle frustration. Taking deep breaths, taking a break and coming back to it, counting slowly to ten, washing your hands (water is particularly soothing to spirited children) or some other method can be planned ahead of time. You can then suggest them when he begins to melt down. “You seem to be getting frustrated. Maybe it’s time to take a break like we discussed so your mind can think about it.” 

Once your child has hit his flare point and has gone off, there are suggestions in the book for calming him. For example, some kids respond to soothing talk, others to gentle holding and rocking, a bath, or deep breathing. There should also be logical consequences set up ahead of time so he will know that it is okay to get frustrated, but not to break things, be violent or disrespectful.

Q.  My son Tate (4) and daughter, Lily (almost 3) are so spirited, especially my son, and they will work together.    Ways to work with my son—I have taken the emotion out of the punishment and look for positives. He just spins.

A. When two kids set each other off, they need to be told “that you can either play together positively, or you’ll have to play on your own.” When trouble breaks out, do not try to figure out how it started, and just separate them without getting angry to blaming anyone. “We’ll try it again when you both settle down.”

As for “taking the emotion out of the punishment, it is good to discipline calmly. However, the term “punishment” itself suggests ways of hurting the child as a means of teaching him positive behavior. I recommend other methods of discipline such as logical consequences that are not as likely to trigger a melt down.

Q. What if you have a spirited husband? How can I encourage both husband and child?

A.  Because spirit is a temperament—which means kids are born that way, not made that way—it is genetically transmitted. That means a lot of spirited children have one or more spirited parents. For example, our son, Ben, who was gracious enough to serve as an example in the book, is the son of a former spirited child himself: yours truly.  Fortunately, we were both tamed early, and hopefully have made positive use of our spirited natures since then.  Remember, there is a wonderful upside to the characteristics that define spirited: curiosity, adventurousness, power, persistence, and sensitivity (CAPPS). If your husband still has a little self-taming to do, talk with him about the example he wants to set for his child. Of course, be sure to appreciate and acknowledge the positive aspects of his nature—after all, it’s probably one of the reasons you married him!

Q.  I can see my son’s world betraying him. I feel powerless to help him. He’s seven. Is it too late to teach him and myself goodness of fit (assimilation and accommodation)? 

A. Although the world can be unfair to spirited children, it is up to parents to help them learn to use their gifts to be successful, rather than to become victims.  Instead of thinking how the world is betraying him, think of how he can use his spirited characteristics positively. Seven-years-old is certainly not too old to learn how to accommodate the needs of others while still working to achieve your own goals. The power to choose is the greatest power of all, and as long as you both have that, you can help each other learn how to succeed.

Q.  What do the N and the D stand for in the acronym, FRIEND?

A. Ah, finally an easy one. I use this acronym to describe how to connect with your spirited child—to establish ties—as the word taming means in the story, The Little Prince. The N stands for “no,” because friends have to be able to say “no” to their friends from time to time. This is especially true in a parent-child friendship, since the parent is also the leader in the relationship. The D stands for “delight.” Find something in your child that delights you and watch your child begin to flourish under the warmth of your light. It may not be easy if you are at a stage of frequent power struggles, but this is the time to look hard, when your awareness will do the most good. You may actually find that there is something in the conflict itself that you genuinely admire about your child—perhaps his energy, enthusiasm, backbone, humor, or something else you see when you look through a positive lens.

Q.  How do you give a choice when it’s a safety issue (seatbelt)? There was literally nothing than made him want to buckle himself. He wanted me to do it.

A. The idea about choice is that the child is given freedom (to choose) within limits (that are acceptable for the situation as determined by you).  Ironically, my usual suggestion about seatbelts is to give the choice, “Would you like to buckle up yourself or would you like me to buckle you?”  But since you are not okay with buckling him, you’ll have to find another choice.  For example: “Either buckle yourself in…or we will have to sit here in the car until you do.”  (Offer this choice sometime when you have plenty of time, and be sure to bring along something to read while you wait.)

Sometimes it is more effective when wanting to motivate your child to do something that she resists doing to use a “when-then” choice.  For example, “When you buckle your seat belt, then we can get going.”  You can sweeten the deal (without making it a bribe) by connecting something that the child enjoys doing to the behavior she is resisting.  For example, “Once we get going we may have time to stop at the park on the way home and swing for awhile.  Of course, if we have to sit here and wait, we won’t have time.”  (If stopping at the park is a normal thing you do, then it isn’t a bribe.  If it’s an extra reward, then it is a bribe and should be avoided.  Why? Bribes tend to beget more bribes, leading to a “What’s in it for me?” attitude and spoiled behavior.

Q.  When your spirited child has been triggered already…which is better to do…coddle with sympathy or let them deal with it independently?

A.  I smell a false dichotomy. You can do neither. Merriam-Webster defines coddling as, “to treat with extreme or excessive care or kindness:  PAMPER.  ince pampering leads to spoiling, we want to avoid that heartache.  If you are careful to avoid being “extreme or excessive” in your care or kindness, you can pull it off without simply “letting them deal with it independently.”  With other kids, it works to let them have a tantrum by themselves and work it out.  Spirited kids are not usually able to pull out of a meltdown on their own.  You can help sooth them using methods I’ve described in other questions and more fully in the book without giving in to unreasonable demands.  For example, if you’re saying no to watching a PG 13 movie triggers a meltdown, “coddling” would include giving in and letting him watch it anyway or offering an excessive alternative (No, you can’t watch that movie, but if you’ll calm down we’ll buy you a Lamborghini. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but the point is to keep your alternatives within the normal range of activities.  Another movie would be a good alternative—although it won’t calm him down by itself.)

Q.  How do you deal with a child who views your disciplining her as being “mean”?  How do you explain that discipline is necessary?

A.  First, make sure that you aren’t being mean when you discipline.  If you are using words, tone of voice, or body language designed to hurt or intimidate your child (which is what traditional “punishment” was designed to do) then I suggest you apologize and start over.  If your discipline is already firm yet calm and respectful, then your child may just be pulling a little smart-kid manipulation.  You can tell her that part of your job as a parent is to teach her how to get along in the world and that sometimes means doing things she doesn’t like.  Don’t dwell on the explanation, because she probably won’t like it anyway.  I also suggest that you review the section in the book about using the FLAC method (Feelings, Limits, Alternatives, and Consequences).  I designed this method specifically for your child as a way of taking the meanness out of discipline.

About Michael Popkin

Dr. Popkin is best known as the pioneer of video-based parent education with the introduction of The Active Parenting Discussion Program in 1983. Since then, millions of parents have completed his courses, including the best-selling Active Parenting Now and Active Parenting of Teens. A frequent keynote speaker and media guest, Dr. Popkin has appeared on such shows as “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Montel Williams, and as a regular parenting expert on CNN. Look for his newest book, Taming the Spirited Child: Strategies for Parenting Challenging Children without Breaking Their Spirits (2007, from Fireside/ Simon and Schuster). You can visit his website at www.activeparenting.com.

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