Parents who do not understand that the real human being is not the manifestation of holiness and innocence are in for a rude awakening when the Little Criminal awakens from the slumber of infancy and begins demanding that they please and obey him. Their lack of preparation enables the child to knock them off balance, a position from which some parents never recover. For that reason, I advise parents of infants to prepare themselves for the Little Criminal's bursting upon the scene, and when he does, to make it clear to him from day one that they do not exist to please him, that they are not going to obey him, that, in fact, it's the other way around.
A few years ago, an obviously distressed mom called my office and persuaded my wife Willie to set up a phone consultation. Her twenty-month-old had awakened screaming from his midday nap four days earlier and had not stopped since. She and her husband had tried everything to get him to stop, but nothing had worked. Even giving him new toys caused him to scream even louder. If anyone tried to hold him, he began thrashing around as if he was in pain. He had even caused himself to throw up several times.
On the third day, now desperate and worried sick, the parents had taken him to the pediatrician, who, unable to determine a cause for the child's persistent howling, had referred him to a pediatric neurologist. The neurologist was also stumped and had scheduled him for an MRI. When I returned the mother's call, I could hear the child screaming in the background. Both sets of grandparents, an aunt and an uncle, and several friends had gathered at the home to console the now-distraught parents.
"Do you have any ideas, anything that could possibly help us?" the mom asked. I could hear her anguish. At several points during the ensuing conversation, she broke down in tears.
I had a sense of what was going on. The real human being had awakened, and for whatever reason, nonstop screaming was the way he had decided to announce his arrival. I related to the mother what I thought. It was certainly not the explanation she expected, but it definitely fit the facts. "What should we do?" she asked.
I told her to take him to a comfortable sofa and place him in the angle between the back and a seat cushion, facing out. Then she was to sit down and move back against him, applying just enough pressure to keep him there, pinned in place. He should be able to squirm, I said, but not escape. While he was so pinned, Mom was to talk softly to him, telling him that it was all right to scream, but as long as he screamed, she was going to keep him there. Then she was to say positive things like "life is good, we live in a nice house, we eat good food, we can pay all of our bills, and America is still the greatest country on the planet." She didn't know it, but the real purpose of having her say such things was to help her calm down.
"You may have to hold him there for a couple of hours," I warned. She thought that was no big deal, given that she had survived his screams for three days already. I told her to let him up when he stopped, but to stand ready to pin him to the sofa the minute he started wailing again. She assured me she would follow my instructions and call me with a progress report the next day.
As promised, she called the next evening. I immediately knew from her calm, confident tone that all was well.
"It was amazing, John," she said. "He screamed for about an hour and stopped, so I let him up. He started up again about an hour later, but I immediately went back to the sofa with him and he stopped right away. He hasn't screamed in nearly twenty-four hours. He's been playing contentedly and happily. I have my little boy back again!"
Several days later, another good progress report, and that was that. The moral of the story: How do you prevent a little sociopath from becoming a big, full-blown sociopath? Sit on him.
Had this mother not been willing to accept that her child's sinful nature had awakened, she and her husband might have fallen for the currently popular notion that any persistent behavior pattern that deviates ever so slightly from the norm is a sign of either psychological or physiological problems. Both of these explanations—which are really two sides of the same post-modern coin—deny the sinfulness of human nature, deny that even a toddler exercises free will, and deny that a child is (and should therefore be held) fully responsible for his behavior. These parents might have wasted years, not to mention thousands and thousands of dollars, pursuing a chimera. They would have begun, when their child was not yet two, ceding authority in his life to medical and psychological professionals who would have had a field day with his "case."
Said professionals would have ordered one test after another and come up with one hypothesis after another, each requiring yet more tests. Meanwhile, the parents' sense of powerlessness would have grown and deepened. They would have suspended serious attempts to discipline until the professionals found the reason for their child's behavioral problems. The behavioral problems would have worsened, therefore, and the psychologists and medical doctors would have collaborated on the stock diagnoses—attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, bipolar disorder of childhood.