What emotionally disturbed children taught me about world politics: Part II, what to do?

Jennifer Roback Morse
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Posted: Jan 16, 2006 9:05 AM
In a recent column, I described Saddam Hussein as an attachment disordered individual. In this week’s column, I analyze what to do with him.

Some of my correspondents worried that a psychological analysis of Hussein might lead to excusing his behavior or minimizing his culpability. Forget that. I’m not here to propose a therapeutic plan to help poor little Saddamy-wammy.

I am here to say that a disordered person like Saddam can exploit the free world’s regard for fairness and due process. From the U.N. resolutions to the Iraqi court now trying Saddam, the world community treated Saddam as if it were afraid to actually exercise any authority. Saddam can sense fear from a mile away. He is sick and we are afraid. Not a good combination.

Here are some ways emotionally disturbed children routinely behave that can feed off our obsession with process and our fear of authority.

1. Disturbed children never admit anything, no matter how much evidence the parents have. So take it as a given that Saddam will never admit anything.

2. Disturbed children go through the motions of compliance, without ever fully complying. They always leave some part of the request or chore undone. It is part of their pathological need to be in control. It makes them feel powerful, as in, “you aren’t the boss of me.” Except they keep saying that, inwardly, way past the age of 2 or 3 when it is sort of normal.

Picture that never-quite-grown-up two year old when you remember Saddam pretending to comply with United Nations resolutions.

3. Disturbed children deflect responsibility for their actions by a lot of talking. As long as he is allowed to talk, the child thinks the issue is negotiable. Saddam has been disrupting the proceedings of the Iraqi court by running his mouth.

You can’t let these kids chatter. They will suck you into their craziness and excuse-making. Sooner or later, you will slip into some opening they can use to divert attention from what they’ve done.

Don’t go there. When the kids break a rule, my husband and I make a point of saying as little as possible.

Instead of talking, we deliver the consequence. It may take only a single word: “Sit.” We may bodily (and wordlessly) remove them from whatever they were doing. Sometimes, we’ll say, “go get me a dollar.” If they’ve offended another child, we may say, “thank you for volunteering to do Johnny’s chores.” (At which, Johnny breaks into a wide grin.)

The Iraqi court, whose proceedings resume on January 24, should do something comparable. They should inflict penalties for contempt of court. Deliver a specific consequence every time he disrupts the court. A fine. Extra jail time. Every time.

4. Disturbed children will take as many chances as you give them. Assume they knew the rule the first time they broke it.

The U.N. gave Saddam way too many chances. Saddam has disdain for anything other than force. He laughed at the U.N. He is laughing at the Iraqi court.

We think of it this way: people put money into vending machines because they want a soda. Every time. They put the money into slot machines because they like the bells, whistles and excitement of a pile of money flowing out. Once in a while, at random.

Parents should strive to be vending machines, not slot machines. Make misbehavior costly, but boring. If you overlook many small infractions, and then randomly get mad and scream at the child, you’ve rewarded them with drama and a power buzz.

The Iraqi court should install consequences for contempt of court with as little excitement as possible. Same penalty, every time. No excitement. No attention. No cameras. Big yawn.

5. Disturbed children are masters of manipulation. Saddam manipulated the whole world community. Should we be surprised that a sadistic, genocidal dictator is also a liar? Every time Saddam successfully conned Hans Blix, the world became a sicker place.

Speaking of being conned, don’t go there. Getting away with lies makes the person sicker. “If his lips are moving, he’s lying,” describes children we have known.

When they claim innocence, we don’t accuse them. They might run their mouths with denials. We don’t get into evidence and arguments. Instead, we say simply and truthfully: “I don’t believe you.” When they (inevitably) protest their innocence, we respond, “what do I think?” They say, “you think I did it.” Whatever else we might do to handle the situation, at least the child knows he hasn’t fooled us.

Of course, courts of law must meet legal standards of proof, which parents acting on intuition don’t have to meet. But don’t kid yourself. The point of legal proceedings is to establish the facts, not to establish the authority. Legitimately-constituted governmental bodies are entitled to inflict costs on people who do wrong. Process is no substitute for genuine authority.

Protecting the innocent is the central purpose of all this. It is the purpose of the Iraqi court, currently trying Saddam. It was America’s purpose in removing him from power. It is even the purpose of parents of disturbed children.

These parents, of course, would like to heal their children. But that is not always possible. I have known families who had to give up an adopted child, for the protection of the other children in the family. They felt they had failed, I am sure. But they would be negligent toward their other children if they had acted otherwise. Likewise, allowing Saddam to continue his regime, or letting him go unpunished now, is not compassion toward anyone.