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Q. We have three children, ages 10, 8 and 4. The problem is with the older two, who obviously feel they are qualified to discipline their little brother. Their attempts to correct him and even punish him for misbehavior are certainly well intentioned, and they don't do anything that's wrong; nevertheless, it's our job, and we will do it better. Explaining that to them has been to no avail, however. What would you suggest?

A. Oh, this is an easy one! In the course of trying to explain to the older boys why they should not discipline their younger brother, you've discovered (but do not yet appreciate the discovery of) what I call the Yada Yada Principle: Talking does not stop children from misbehaving.

In fact, your older boys seem to have a better grip on this than you do. After all, they aren't trying to persuade their younger brother to stop misbehaving, are they? Nope! They are imposing consequences on him. Granted, their discipline is clumsy and misguided, but they've got the right idea: to wit, it's all about consequences, not talking. Sit the two older boys down and tell them that the next time they attempt to discipline their younger brother, they will spend the rest of the day in two separate areas of the house with nothing but their homework and/or a book.

Plus, to make your life even easier, send them both to bed immediately after supper. If you wish, you can even add the celebrated Triple Whammy: "And until I am satisfied that you have come to grips with the fact that you are brothers, not parents, to your younger brother, every time he misbehaves, we will punish him, and we will punish you, too, just for the heck of it." If you do what you say, you will soon discover that one consequence is worth more than a thousand words. Voila!

Imaginary friends are harmless

Q. Our 3-year-old daughter has an imaginary playmate named "Slubby." No kidding. How she came up with the name is anyone's guess. We know that imaginary playmates per se are not a problem, but Caitlin plays almost constantly with Slubby, wants us to set a place at the table for her and even wants us to get a car seat for her so she can go places with us. Is there a place where we should draw the line, and if so, how?

A. This is the age of imaginary playmates with bizarre names. My daughter Amy, when she was 3, invented two playmates named Shinyarinka Sinum and Soppy, with whom she played constantly. They were so real to Amy, I swear I could almost feel their presence at times. As suddenly and quietly as they had shown up, Shinyarinka and Soppy disappeared after about nine months, and we haven't heard from them since. Amy is now a happily married, well-adjusted mother of two.

Bottom line: Don't worry about Caitlin's relationship with Slubby, no matter how strange it may seem at times. This, too, will pass.

Not only is there no cause for concern, there is cause to rejoice. In my experience (which is professional as well as personal), children who invent imaginary playmates, compared with children who do not, are more imaginative (naturally), are better able to entertain themselves and develop better verbal skills. The only down side is that the control these kids exercise over their Slubbys and Shinyarinkas often fosters a bossy attitude in real-life social situations. That, too, will work itself out in due time, assuming playmates won't put up with it.

Setting a place for Slubby at the table? Oh, go ahead. Just don't put food on her plate. Pretending to serve her will do. I would draw the line at buying another car seat, however. Simply tell Caitlin that if she wants to take Slubby along on outings, she has to hold her in her lap.

Take it from someone who's been there: You're gonna miss Slubby when she's gone. Enjoy her while you can.

John Rosemond is a family psychologist in North Carolina. Questions of general interest may be sent to him at Affirmative Parenting, 9247 N. Meridian, Indianapolis, Ind. 46260 and at his Web site:
If you or someone you know has parenting problems, call the Parents Anonymous 24-hour confidential Help-Line at 892-2172.

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