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posted: 1/5/2013 10:00 AM

A direct response to behavior is best

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Q. I hope I'm not too late with a Christmas dilemma. My friend, "Louise," has a 4-year-old niece, "Lyndie," who is already a spoiled brat. Last year at their family Christmas gathering, Louise said she patted the then-3-year-old on her head as she passed her in the hallway. The little girl followed her to her chair, got in her face and exclaimed, "Don't ever touch me like that again," and stormed off. Louise was flabbergasted, since she sees Lyndie only two to three times a year at family functions.

Apparently Lyndie is always running around screaming and stomping her feet at these family events, and her parents simply ignore her behavior, accepting it as normal.

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A few weeks ago, Lyndie's mother emailed a list to the family of what Lyndie wants for Christmas. Louise is distressed about rewarding Lyndie's behavior, so I told her she should just donate a gift to a needy child and give Lyndie a card indicating the donation in her name. Of course Lyndie likely won't understand or care since she'll have dozens of other gifts, but maybe her parents would take note. What do you think?

"Thelma"

A. I think grown women who communicate through hints, proxies and gifts withheld from 4-year-olds have some nerve criticizing the way said 4-year-old communicates.

Say this for Lyndie: She gets what boundaries are, even if her technique could use some work.

And why shouldn't it? She's 4! I hope her adults do teach manners though it seems what she really needs is loving attention. "Family events" too often mean yakking adults and bored, desperate kids, who then do what bored, desperate kids do: seek stimulation and attention! Run! Scream! Stomp!

Never judge a kid on holiday behavior alone.

I hope, too, that Lyndie's adults don't ignore, discipline or praise wholesale, and instead tease out good from bad. I have in mind her willingness to stand up for herself when she doesn't appreciate being touched by someone she barely knows. That is not an impulse you want to civilize out of her. In fact, if her touch-aversion persists, take it more seriously -- it's pediatrician time.

No, the part that needs changing in this story is merely her delivery. Toward that end, Louise could have said: "I'm sorry I touched your head without your permission. Please tell me politely next time I feel sad and angry when people yell at me."

Withholding gifts to make this point is just loopy, since I doubt even the adults will connect it to Lyndie's thrice-a-year-family-event stomping. It's like asking a dog to understand he's being punished at night for the trash can he upended at noon. It assumes their brains can instantly connect two discrete pieces of data out of hours, days, months of competing information.

What will keep the tantrum out of the toddler (and, since we're here, the dog out of the trash can) is to give positive attention and something to do. A 4-year-old can do small errands to feel included and loving relatives can take turns getting on the floor to play.

One last thing about boundaries: I'm answering you because it's a good (and non-Christmas-sensitive) question and you're the one who asked it, but how exactly is your friend's sibling's kid's exclamation your concern?

• Email Carolyn at tellmewashpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

2012 The Washington Post

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