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Psychologist Uses Humor to Ease Pains of Parenting

December 30, 1985|BOB BAKER | Times Staff Writer

It is never clear exactly where child psychologist Don Fleming stands in the war between parents and kids.

One minute he can be on the adult's side, sympathizing with the parent whose tyke specializes in removing parts from the kitchen oven, remarking straight-faced, "That's the kind of child I call the interesting, fun, exciting, pain-in-the-ass kid."

The next moment he can be seeing the world through the eyes of a 5-year-old, gleefully lampooning what he calls the "helpless" style of parenting, in which a worn-out mom pleads in desperation: "Can't you listen to me once ? Can't you make it easy on your mother?"

This is the path to disaster, Fleming will warn an audience of similarly plagued parents, his voice taking on the slyness of a Wall Street insider, "because the first thing the kid says when he hears that and sees mom saying she can't do anything more is, 'I got 'em now!"'

In a field full of sober consultation, Fleming has built a reputation among parents' groups as a popular speaker by thrusting a whimsical saber into the eternal struggle of adults to control their children.

As far as Fleming has been able to see in his 20 years of experience, it is a losing battle, fraught with inconsistent strategies and unrealistic expectations.

And so he has chosen to laugh at it.

Fleming, 53, is schooled in child development (in addition to his private practice he is director of training for a Westside center for disturbed children), but he concentrates much of his attention on humorously dissecting mistakes that parents make.

His lectures delve into a mundane but troublesome world filled with issues like how to keep order on a long car trip, how to enforce civility between big brother and little brother and how to decide if Junior is ready to start eating with utensils.

What evolves is a sort of verbal how-not-to book, delivered with the good-natured ridicule of Bill Cosby and the confrontational empathy of Phil Donahue, bringing forth frequent groans of recognition from war-weary parents.

They were audible on a recent night in Sherman Oaks when Fleming, a rod-slender, ever-grinning man, started ticking off ineffective styles of parenting for an audience whose children attended a local nursery school.

There was not merely the "helpless" approach, but the Threatener: "This is the one who says, 'One more time and you're going to get it.' The trouble is, kids through thousands of years have never found out what 'it' is !"

There was the Storm Trooper: "This is the person who is slowly going crazy, finally becomes a maniac, the eyes pop out and he screams 'You . . . better . . . get . . . going!' and the kid says to himself, 'Goddamn, they mean it this time!' "

And the Laser Beam Look: "You grit your teeth and hope the laser will drill a hole in the kid's head and stop him."

Fleming mocks these traditional disciplinary stances because he regards them as desperate afterthoughts, not part of a coherent system of setting limits for children, and thus they are doomed to fail because a child cannot interpret the often convoluted subtleties an adult may be trying to get across.

Such criticism is traditional. What distinguishes Fleming is his emphasis on quirks of parental behavior, rather than the science of child development, and his use of humor to prod an audience of parents into examining the everyday moments that drive them crazy.

To the mother who wonders how to stop her child from calling her names, Fleming may preface a reasoned examination of manipulating children by reminding his audience, "There are two areas of children we can't control: what comes out of their mouths and what comes out of the other parts of their bodies.

"Kids tell us things in a variety of ways that sometimes make us nuts," Fleming advises his audiences, and with that he begins to play the role of the child, attempting to show parents how to listen to their kids and how to articulate limits.

Enjoys His Role

It is a role Fleming relishes. Shrill-voiced and enthusiastic, he freely admits that he still has "a lot of kid in me," and occasionally threatens his audiences that he will write a book for kids called "How to Outmaneuver Your Parents."

"Kids are very smart and at a very early age they learn our behavior," he tells the parents. "Meaning that I know that if you call me from a certain place in the house, I have another 15 minutes before I have to do anything. That you behave in a certain way. That if you're in the bathroom and you're calling to me to brush my teeth in the other bathroom, you may check later and say, 'Why didn't you brush your teeth?' and I'll say, 'Because, you dummy, you didn't check on me and I wanted to still play.' That's what the kid would say to you if he could."

The problem, Fleming says, is that in setting rules for their kids, many parents forget the gulf between the way they run their lives and what Fleming calls the child's agenda.

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