Should we discourage silly child's behavior?
February 20, 2008 6:21 AM   Subscribe

My friend's 9-year-old daughter acts like this, what can she do?

My friend's daughter is a complete goofball. She is the sweetest kid, but when I read this post, I saw her future. When the child--let's call her Jenny--is in public, she has a tendency to act like a puppy or make goofy faces and jump around like a frog... all behaviors that are obviously meant to be cute and funny, but which are a bit embarrassing. Her mother is very annoyed by her daughter's behavior, I see it on her face every time, and gets easily frustrated and snaps at Jenny about it. Jenny's father (who lives in another state) is very socially awkward and weird, so I suspect she's somehow inherited this behavior. I'm sure Jenny doesn't intend to be annoying, so is there something her mother (and the rest of us who care about her) should be doing or saying to discourage this behavior or teach her that it's embarassing before she turns into an adult whose friends secretly find her incredibly irritating? Or should Jenny just be allowed to "be who she is" and should we trust that she'll grow into the person she's destined to be?

I should add that Jenny has been diagnosed as being ADHD and is currently on Ritalin for that problem. Also, I'm not yet a parent... I do, however, see how much this bothers my friend and thought I'd solict a little advice from you smarties...
posted by uvaleg to Human Relations (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Uh...she's nine. Kids are silly attention whores. Give her a chance to grow out of it before freaking the fuck out.
posted by almostmanda at 6:27 AM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Let her be a kid. Don't fuck her future up by trying to make her an adult now. She'll change as her peers change in the neighborhood and school. Am I allowed to say fuck here?
posted by bprater at 6:32 AM on February 20, 2008

I diagnose her with childhood. Don't worry, it's not terminal. But if you try to "cure" her, you'll end up giving her massive hangups and inhibitions about her behaviour that will probably haunt her into adulthood.
posted by loiseau at 6:36 AM on February 20, 2008 [18 favorites]

Whoa. If I could figure out how to delete this question I would, as I was obviously (from the number of "fucks" being thrown out) out of line in asking it. I guess I just want to save her as much ridicule as possible... although I know that is what makes us stronger people as adults.

And for the record, yes, she's just 9, but if it was typical nine year old attention whore behavior, it wouldn't be of note. I'm not an idiot.
posted by uvaleg at 6:37 AM on February 20, 2008

With ADHD she has probably also been tested for Autistic spectrum disorders. If not, she should be. Especially if these behaviours have not settled down on Ritalin.

Intervention sooner rather than later is indicated, as ASD kids "unlearn" behaviours with much more difficulty than neurologically typical children. However this behaviour has become ingrained, unlearning it may require some professional support as the child is taught more sucessful social scripts.

So first step, have the child tested. It is exhausting keeping on top of this with an ASD child, but potentially very rewarding as they are the object of less bullying at school, make friends easier, etc.,
posted by Wilder at 6:39 AM on February 20, 2008

My daughter was a pretty silly person for most of her life -- including at the age of nine -- but now at eleven she's mellowed out a fair bit. Definitely give her time.

On the other hand, she's nine! A nine year old can certainly carry on a fairly rational conversation about her own behavior. Perhaps the best thing to do is for a parent to sit her down and talk about it, explaining that while she doesn't intend to be annoying and it might be fun for her, running around pretending to be an animal all the time isn't something people around her get much enjoyment from.

For your part, as a non-parental adult, the best thing to do when interacting with her is to tell her something like "calm down and come talk to me instead." It may or may not work, but you can't expect mature behavior unless you respectfully treat her like she's capable of it.
posted by majick at 6:40 AM on February 20, 2008

Uvaleg, I share your dismay at the tone of some of these responses, and as the mother of an ASD child it certainly rings a few bells. If it was normal behaviour I would not have expected you to bring it to the green, so advise the Mom to talk to the school and perhaps the family doctor.

Yes it is possible that we overdiagnose ASD these days but teaching a child social skills can avoid a whole lot of heartache, especially if they have managed to learn unhelpful ones.
posted by Wilder at 6:44 AM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well, she could have ADD or ADHD or some other thing. I mean, I don't want to get all Bill Frist (i.e. diagnosing) conditions based on second-hand internet postings. Kids can be silly, but some kids can be way over-hyped up too.

Is she a good student? Does she have trouble in school? Does she have a lot of friends? She can be given hangups by being a "dork" growing up unpopular, and clearly if she can't do well in school that will cause other problems.

On the other hand, she is only nine. If she has trouble controlling her behavior, and it's not causing problems in school or with socialization in her peer group then I think it would be a bad idea to use any sort of negative reinforcement to with this behavior without consulting a psychologist. If she really has trouble controlling it, and she's made to feel bad about it, it can definitely fuck her up.

Criticizing kids for something they can't control is a sure-fire way path to creating a mess of a person (which will probably make her even more self conscious and 'goofy' as an adult)

As an example, In 1939 there was a speech pathologist who thought that the only reason kids stuttered was a lack of self esteem in their speech, exacerbated by harsh speech therapy. So, he took a bunch of normal kids, and gave them harsh speech therapy to see if they would start stuttering. They didn't, in fact their speech improved. But definitely succeeded in ruining their self esteem. In fact, the kids who were in the study still too this day suffer from the experiment. It turned them into shy messes who were super selfconscious about speaking.

So, like I said. Unless this is messing up the daughters life, you definitely don't want to try to modify the behavior just because it's annoying. Although you might consider positive reinforcement for acting "grown up" and positive reinforcement only.

Also, when the kid is a teenager or whatever, and still doing it, it might be time to talk about it. There is a time to grow up, but that time isn't 9 years old.
posted by delmoi at 6:54 AM on February 20, 2008

She does have problems in school, is in second grade for the second time now. And her little brother has been diagnosed as autistic, so Wilder's thoughts on testing for ASD might be a good thought.

Thanks to all those who posted constructive comments. I again want to reinforce that this behavior is weighing heavily on the mom and I was just interested in thoughts that might help her deal and that might also help Jenny avoid some of the ridicule I know she suffers at school.
posted by uvaleg at 7:02 AM on February 20, 2008

Just a thought -- has she ever shown any interest in acting? I'm not saying you should get her an agent and send her on auditions, but she may enjoy taking an acting class with other kids her age or joining a youth theater group.
posted by kitty teeth at 7:08 AM on February 20, 2008

Really? You saw her future? She is nine.

When I was around 11 and on vacation in the mountains with my parents and extended family, the entire vacation I would say repeatedly, "I think not, Mary!" to my mother as a joke. I said it a lot. My mother's name is not Mary. It was a quote from one of my favorite TV shows. It was extremely annoying. My mother or father never told me to stop saying the stupid phrase. Looking back I am thankful they never corrected me. This is one example of many silly and annoying things that as I did as a child. My parents, mostly, allowed me to act like a goofball. They weren't embarrassed by a kid's behavior.

I can empathize, though. As a mother you want your child to behave and act polite and not act like a barbarian in public. Most parents want their kids to fit in. The mother might feel like it's a reflection of her parenting that her daughter is over-the-top goofy in public. When she snaps and acts annoyed her insecurity is glaringly obvious.

It's never helpful, and a bit immature I might add, to be embarrassed by your own child. Maybe Jenny is acting out because her mother finds her so dang annoying. Maybe she misses her father. Maybe she jumps around as a frog as a coping mechanism. Or, probably her ADHD is the reason for her behavior. Who knows. Maybe she does have a spectrum disorder, but at age nine they are usually long diagnosed.

If it were me I would stop correcting silly behavior. At least the mother should stop acting embarrassed. Jenny can detect the embarrassment. Pretty soon Jenny will be increasingly shaped by her peers and her behavior might calm down to fit in.
posted by LoriFLA at 7:11 AM on February 20, 2008

I hope you don't think my comment was a snark-and-run. It certainly wasn't intended that way. I meant it sincerely. I base it on my own life.

I was quite a sensitive child -- the slightest hint of scorn and I was embarrassed. When I was around 13 I had a pretty insecure friend who demonstrated her vulnerability through a series of quirks and neuroses that can best be boiled down to superficiality. One night we were hanging around and ran into some girls she knew from another school, whom I had never met. There was a conversation and we parted ways; nothing seemed peculiar about it to me. But after we got out of earshot she confided, "When you laughed, they looked at each other and you could tell they thought your laugh was annoying." Well. I had never thought about how my laugh sounded before. When you're laughing at something in sincerity you're rarely conscious of how you sound. But naturally, this information terrified, and into adulthood I was hyper-conscious of my laugh. I still, on occasion, laugh full-heartedly and immediately wonder if I looked or sounded stupid or was too loud or annoyed anyone. It pisses me off that something so stupid and so long ago and so... 13-year-old could still affect me, but undeniably it does.

I guess what I'm saying is that the girl's personality is still forming and it's good to let her become whoever she's going to be without giving her a complex about it. (There's lots of time to give her a complex about it after she leaves the next, like my mom did.) Unless there's something you're downplaying or leaving out, just making weird faces and acting like a frog in public doesn't sound terribly unusual or worrisome to me. There've been lots of AskMe questions about weird friends, and lots of advice about not feeling others' behaviour necessarily reflects on oneself. Maybe mom has some insecurities of her own that she's projecting on her kid.
posted by loiseau at 7:14 AM on February 20, 2008 [5 favorites]

I behaved very much like this as a child. I would pretend to be various animals, talk in accents, start all kinds of conversations with strangers, and generally mug around far past the point where it was believed to be entirely appropriate for my age (probably around 9-10). My mother thought that I was a weird kid, and when I grew up, she told me that she was worried I'd grow up to be the Crazy Cat Lady of the neighborhood. However, I matured into an entirely "normal" person. I definitely was a bit goofier and impulse-driven than your average bear even up through college and my early 20s, but I did fine in school (despite my problems studying), went to an excellent college, got a great job, married a swell guy, and function perfectly well in a social environment. I now identify as a slightly shy person, though I try to compensate for it. I actually personally believe that a lot of this sprung from the fact that I was originally extraordinarily outgoing, but my behavior generated a bemused response I wasn't expecting and people (adults and peers) frequently made comments throughout my childhood and teen years that let me know that I was "weird." I subsequently started deliberately tamping down my behavior, and became much more wary of how people might respond to me when I was "being myself." So, I've got an excellent social face, but it comes along with the baggage that I have a constant low-grade anxiety about coming off the wrong way, saying the wrong thing, etc.

My point is that her mother's responses to her child's natural exuberance is potentially far more damaging long-term than any goofy awkwardness at this age. The mother might want to reconsider her own response to the behavior, and why she finds it embarrassing rather than endearing, rather than looking for ways to nip it in the bud.
posted by tigerbelly at 7:15 AM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Tigerbelly: thanks. Just the things I needed to hear!
posted by uvaleg at 7:24 AM on February 20, 2008

I'm going to go against the grain and suggest that this is not acceptable behavior for a 9 year old. At that age a child should know how to behave properly in public. My question is *does* she know how to act? When my daughter was younger I always made it a point to tell her what I expected of her. "We're going to go a restaurant for dinner. You will need to sit in your chair. No running around. If you do start running around and misbehaving, you will not get to go with us next time." Then once we got back to the car after dinner I would go on and on about how well behaved she was and how proud I was of her. When she was 4 I didn't expect much. Kids that age have a hard time sitting still etc. However, at 9 they are perfectly capable of acting civilized. Clear instructions on how they are expected to act and then positive reinforcement go a long way with kids.

I grew up with someone that was even worse than "Jenny" and never grew out of it. A few years ago I had said friend with me when we met up with a group of my friends. Said friend (in her late 20s at the time) started farting, belching, and cussing like a sailor in front of all my friends (perfect strangers to her). I found it very humiliating. She seemed completely unaware of the disgusted looks people were giving her. Growing up her parents never reprimanded her about her behavior. In fact, I have a few memories of her mom laughing about the behavior. I am not sure why she continued the behavior as an adult. My best guess is that for some people negative attention is better than no attention at all.
posted by GlowWyrm at 7:29 AM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

My son sounds just like your friend's daughter. He has ADHD, a touch of Aspergers, and he's bright. It takes a little longer for these kids to catch on to social cues and to care about what their peers think. Some of them don't catch on until they've been labeled by their peers. Let me be the first to say that it should not matter what other people think of you, but it often does matter. No one want their child to be socially ostracized. Kids can be cruel all on their own; give them some "wacky" behaviors to make fun of and they'll go to town. That can be very damaging to the targeted child.

We started teaching our son that there were times and places where he could be goofy (home, the grandparents' homes, around family and close friends), but there were also times and places that he shouldn't be goofy (school, the library, sporting events, etc.). He's just turned 11 and really is growing out of a lot of the goofy stuff, but he still occasionally does stuff that makes me cringe inside.

Do I want him to pretend to be someone he isn't? Of course not, but I also don't want him to be the guy in that other question. He's found his niche of friends who don't care how goofy he is, but he's also not the target of the "cool" kids at school.
posted by cooker girl at 7:32 AM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's great that you doubt the issue enough to ask the question. I think you oughtta let her be or even encourage some silly behavior at times. She needs to be responsive to some boundaries of course. She can't jump around on the backs of the seats ribbiting loudly if she wants to be taken to a movie ever again, for example. But it doesn't seem that little situational iconveniences like this are at the heart of the worry. This closer was interesting for me:

Or should Jenny just be allowed to "be who she is" and should we trust that she'll grow into the person she's destined to be?

Why is "be who she is" in quotes like some deprecated cliche? Especially when "the person she's destined to be" appears later in the sentence, unqualified, with a completely straight face? You guys are worried that her future may be at stake? Really? Are y'all... pretty... formal in your circles or something? I know that goofball children can be annoying but to think of it as a threat to her prospects and a possible poison to her developing character is a bit extreme. And being yourself was always pretty valued in my family. Is it not in yours?

What is this destiny you have in mind for the child?
posted by scarabic at 7:55 AM on February 20, 2008

A certain level of embarrassing silliness, even when it's annoying, should be expected. Yeah, sometimes kids are annoying. As grownups, we should be able to endure a little annoying behavior. She's nine. What, she should be little miss sophisticate and start dating now? The bigger problem is that she's probably trying to get her mom's attention, and she's found a sure-fire way to succeed. You can't tell people how to raise their kids without a fight, but if I were you (and I have been) I'd indicate to your friend that her irritation is uncool.

I wonder what the child's teachers think and how she's getting along at school? Can she give it a break when asked to do so nicely? If, so, she's totally fine. If she has a hard time not pushing everyone to the breaking point, then give her an opportunity to play with you, then show her when to end the play and be serious. Other adults besides Mom and Dad and Teacher are a great resource for kids.

My pseudo-niece was very much the same way. Heck, she's fourteen, and while she's calmed down a lot, she'll still pull out the stuff that drives her father nuts. My SOs niece was the same way, and has very much calmed down into a very well-behaved young lady at 12 (because her little sister is the clown now, so she's all grown-up. Uh, except when she's not. It's cute.)
posted by desuetude at 9:14 AM on February 20, 2008

scarabic: I think I'll leave the self-psychoanalysis for another post. Thanks for posing the questions to me, though.
posted by uvaleg at 9:39 AM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Every time I hear a story like this, I always wonder just how much high fructose corn syrup that kid has ingested over the past nine years.

ADHD is a real problem, but my non-medical suspicion is that it's significantly overdiagnosed.
posted by Caviar at 9:50 AM on February 20, 2008

Teacher here. If this behavior is disruptive or actively rude, a quiet "Jenny tone it down" should be issued from an adult that she feels has authority over her behavior. This will be more effective if she's been advised about appropriate public behavior, especially around people who don't know her. This should be done from two perspectives-- what the behavior feels like when she does it (so she can identify it) and the effect of the behavior on the people around her (so she can learn the social aspects of personal behavior, which is a huge problem for kids with ADD, ADHD and ASD). She also needs to learn where the behavior can be tolerated and where it cannot, and how to tell. This is a job for a therapist, possibly one supplied by her school's Special Ed division. It sounds like her mother doesn't know what to do, so she needs some help too. Children with these disorders are often completely unaware that they are being disruptive, so at this point just remind her.

I think this is a situation where Grandma got it right. A healthy dose of "children should be seen and not heard" with concessions made to our more tolerant modern ideas of what that means, needs to be explained to her. It's harder for ADD kids, but not impossible.
posted by nax at 9:54 AM on February 20, 2008

She reminds me of my cousin. Completely batshit annoying, starved for attention type. Her parents placed her in theater classes as an outlet. She became an actress, is now a successful producer and is very pleasant to be around.
posted by studentbaker at 9:54 AM on February 20, 2008

Seconding cooker girl above. I was a weird-but-bright kid with a mom who STILL tries to make my behavior conform to some fake ideal (like grabbing my leg in public to make me stop bouncing my knees -- I'm 28, for cripes sake), and it's so hard. On the flip side, though, I have a friend who has three kids, two of whom are little girls with some sort of ASD. It amazes me how well she deals with it, and I've learned a lot. My friend definitely lets them be who they are, and they are SO FUNNY, but she also recognizes that they have needs which have to be met somehow in order for the kids to be comfortable and let off steam. So she's a big advocate of "this is silly time" and "this is not silly time," and when it's silly time, she joins right in.

I think about that a lot, and how I wish someone would have been so compassionate with me. I think a lot of my acting out -- which WAS excessive at times -- was because I felt ignored or marginalized by my own family and wanted to find someone else who would tell me that what I did was fun and cute and special. So, y'know, I did stuff ALL THE TIME. All it did was reinforce the fact that people thought I was weird. Such is life.

--Do look into an acting class.
--Be clearer about silly time and not silly time. Make it a game, if you have to -- "Let's pretend we're at a tea party with the Queen, and we must be on our best behavior." Then go home and be a total, total goof, and make sure you or her parents or other older people get goofy too. That can probably reinforce that adults can have fun too but know how to separate playtime from non-playtime.
--CHALLENGE HER. She probably has a hard time focusing on things, but that may be because she's bored. Don't overschedule her in activities, but give her chances to take part in things, like cooking and home projects. Show her that the things she does matters and that she can take pride in them.
posted by Madamina at 9:56 AM on February 20, 2008

Simply look upstream and see how many respondents are:-

1. parents
2. parents with ASD, ADHD kids
3. non-parents

then go with your instincts about the kind of advice you give the parent. At the end of the day it is the parent who has to decide.
posted by Wilder at 12:41 PM on February 20, 2008

My close friend's eight-year-old son acts very goofy in exactly the ways you describe, including the hopping. His mother has told me that since she started assuming (six months ago) that the cause was sometimes anxiety and sometimes boredom, she's had an easier time coming up with solutions. Sometimes she talks with him ahead of time if she anticipates he'll be uneasy in some situation. She empathises with his feelings, and they come up with things for him to do in case he feels uncomfortable. She often brings along a book or crayons and paper so he can occupy himself in a restaurant or a waiting room. And she gives a positive reaction when he says, "Mom, I'm bored": "Yes, the adult conversation isn't very entertaining for you. You're being very patient." There's been a noticeable change in the kid's behavior.

It's likely your friend's child has inherited some of her dad's social awkwardness. Maybe some kind of diversion, some talk about feelings, and some positive reinforcement might help.
posted by wryly at 12:57 PM on February 20, 2008

I like wryly's answer best. Not everyone has the same instincts, that's why we're here asking and answering questions.

Of course kids should be kids, and of course fun and creativity should be encouraged and cultivated. At the appropriate times. And kids should also be taught what behaviors are appropriate for what situations. That's the job of a parent. Adults often forget that kids don't have "common sense" and they don't always know or remember how to act in certain situations.

I was that kid, by the way.

The plan should be:

1) Treat the kid with respect, never talk down.
2) Tell her what's going to happen, why it's happening, how long it will last and what sort of behavior is acceptable in the situation.
3) Either keep the kid engaged in the situation, or distracted from it.
posted by gjc at 3:43 PM on February 20, 2008

Like tigerbelly above, I was like this as a kid. Unlike her, I don't necessarily think it's healthy or something this kid will grow out of easily. It could be, but I think a couple of questions bear further examination.

1. Why does she need this extra attention? Is she not getting it from her parents or her teachers or her peers? Try to see the behavior as a symptom (of ADHD or of something less clear) and work from there.

2. Is this behavior preventing her from having healthy, age-appropriate interactions with her peers? Like others said above, kids do do stuff like this all the time. Nine seems a little old for this kind of acting out, but it could be within the "normal" part of the kid behavior spectrum. You can tell if it is, I think, by looking at how it's perceived by her peers. If they see her as the weird, over-dramatic, tiresome girl, that's a problem. If they see her as the fun, creative, hilarious one, it isn't.

I don't want to get too personal, but for me the answers to questions 1 and 2 were "Because she's not getting enough of her parents' attention," and "Yes." I did eventually grow up into a pretty normal adult with healthy relationships (I'm in my mid-twenties now), but first I had to get diagnosed with and treated for ADD (at age 24-- should've been done around age 6) and make a lot of personal changes. I wish someone had asked exactly the question you're asking when I was 9, and had sent me to a good child psychologist to work on impulse control and interpersonal skills back then.
posted by chickletworks at 6:48 PM on February 20, 2008

Just wanted to add:
I don't disagree with tigerbelly about the harm that criticizing this child's behavior could cause.

I think the key is to give her positive attention for good behavior, rather than negative attention for bad behavior. Making sure to notice her when she's not acting out-- and to tell her, "It makes me happy when you sit quietly and act like a young lady" or whatever-- will give her an alternative to acting out; right now she might not feel like she has one.
posted by chickletworks at 7:08 PM on February 20, 2008

Maybe she will grow up to be a comedian or other type of entertainer. In many of the interviews I've watched of various professional entertainers, they refer to being really goofy or the class clown as kids.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:04 AM on February 21, 2008

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