Answers to Children’s Behavior Sought

March 4, 1956

by Ken Metzler of The Register-Guard

As a parent you may have asked yourself whether you should spank your children.

It is, in fact, one of the frequently asked questions at the recently-established (since January, 1955) University of Oregon child guidance clinic.

The answer is not simple. But, for what it’s worth, Norman D. Sundberg, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, and director of the clinic, shyly admits he spanks his kids occasionally.

He’s not particularly proud of it. Nor does he mean to infer that spanking is the answer to disciplinary problems.

The comment, just as you’re about to administer a licking, that “this will hurt me more than you,” is not entirely accurate.

As a truthful parent you probably should say, “This will do me more good than you.”

Parent’s Expression

Spanking is frequently an expression of the parent’s anger–particularly the parent who feels so strongly about the child’s misdeed that he cannot express himself in any other way.

Before spanking, Sundberg suggests, the parent should ask himself two questions: Will it help me to get it out of my system? Will it do the child any good–or will he take it to mean that “Daddy’s mad at me” rather than “I did wrong?”

The staff at the clinic, organized as a training program for student psychologist, occasionally answers such questions as well as tackling some bigger problems in bringing up children.

Some of these problems are:

  • A 12-year-old girl is subject to severe temper outbursts –once threatened another child with a hammer, and frequently starts fights with other youngsters.
  • A child tries to burn down a house by starting a fire in the attic.
  • An 11-year-old boy habitually steals pencils, books, and other petty items at school.
  • A 14-year-old attempts to molest a smaller sister.
  • A 9-year-old girl, extremely withdrawn and timid, seems to wander in a daze–sits and daydreams at school, shows no interest in the world around her.

These are the types of cases referred to the clinic by physicians, social agencies, schools and parents.

The clinic is staffed by 11 persons–Sundberg; Robert Feeney, M.D., medical consultant; Mrs. Mary Cavagnaro, social worker; Robert D. Boyd, chief psychologist, Portland Community Child Guidance Clinic (he comes one day a month); Thomas F. Nugent, graduate assistant; and six student clinicians, all of whom hold bachelor degrees or higher.

Selects Cases

The clinic selects some 30 cases per year from about twice that many applications. Its community service is, in a sense, a by-product of its primary educational purpose. The clinic works with a maladjusted child only with the consent of the family doctor and with participation of parents.

For the youngster, diagnosis and treatment can be fun. He finds a friend, confidant and “playmate” in the counselor, whom he sees once a week for an hour.

And the counselor makes it a point to treat little Johnny as an individual, not as “Junior.” One who has gained the child’s confidence can learn things the youngster wouldn’t dare tell his parents–sex experiences, for instance. Such things are held in extreme confidence. The parents never know what the child does or says with the counselor.

Play Games

Together in the playroom upstairs in Condon Hall, Johnny and his counselor play games–“I’ll bet you can’t name all the states of the union”–and they talk about Johnny’s interests.

As Johnny talks or plays with the toys in the playroom, all the fears, tensions and anxieties that crowd into the depths of his mind slowly come to the surface.

They sometimes come out in strange ways, particularly with smaller children whose only expression is through their play.

With modeling clay, for instance, one youngster fashioned a female figure and let it be known this represented “Mommie.” He then proceeded to chop it to bits with a rubber hatchet. From this bit o drama the counselor inferred there was a certain amount of hostility toward “Mommie.”

Children also expressed themselves through pencil or crayon drawings. Making Daddy very large and Mommie very tiny shows a bias. Sometimes failure to include one member of the family shows an inability of the child to express his feelings toward that individual. Happy faces–sad faces–figures floating in midair–monsters–all these show something of how the child sees the world around him.

Staff Conference

One child drew a picture of Daddy–about to be crushed under a giant steamroller.

Meanwhile the child’s mother (sometimes the father too, if he isn’t busy at work) is talking with another counselor. Later the counselors will meet in staff conference to discuss the problem.

The series of weekly talks starts, as a rule, with the mother’s anguished comment, “we’ve done everything for Johnny. We’ve loved him, we’ve given him everything. I just can’t understand his behavior.”

Frequently, under the guidance of the counselor, the talks turn to the problems of the parents themselves. Sometimes, when a parent can see her own problems, the cause of the child’s behavior becomes obvious. If not, the counselor may point out some factors in the youngster’s relationships with others that tend to point toward his bad behavior. Often just getting the problems ‘off their chests’ has a therapeutic effect for parents.

In one instance, which Dr. Feeney related, an 11-year-old girl, an only child, was addicted to petty stealing and fighting in school.

Curiously, in the discussions with the girl, stealing was never mentioned, for it was only a symptom. The real trouble involved several factors, as is usually the case.

Busy Parents

The parents were pressuring the girl into a full schedule of activities beyond her capabilities. The parents themselves were extremely busy with outside activities, and spent little time with her. She’d been involved in sex observation and play with a boy and she felt guilty. She got along poorly with other children.

The pressures and anxieties added up to a condition that sought an outlet. She stole and fought, perhaps, to get attention. Or it may have been her way of “striking back” at her parents for their neglect.

Anyway, the trouble eventually cleared when the parents made appropriate changes. They dropped some of their outside work and allowed her to do likewise. They spent more time with her. And, with the counselor’s help, the girl tried to understand her parents, too.

Behavior problems are the result of a combination of factors, seldom one alone. Parents should not blame themselves entirely if Johnny tries to burn down the house. The contributing factors to such acts may include–beside parents–relationships with brothers and sisters, friends, school, physical condition, past experiences and “social-economic conditions.”

The latter was described as the “industrial-age” situation which tends to take parents’ attention away from the home and family and direct it toward other activities.

Thomas Nugent, a member of the clinic’s staff, puts it this way. “All of life is an interaction between the individual and his setting. Plant an acorn in the proper setting and it will grow to a mighty oak. But plant it in a difficult setting, the coast for instance where a combination of adverse elements work on it–strong wind, sea spray, heavy rains–and it will grow up to be a gnarled monstrosity.”

Reprinted with permission. Copyright 1956, The Register-Guard,