DENNIS THE MENACE AND CRITICISM: AN ADVANCED LESSON my previous post, I offered some suggestions for dealing with criticism.  There, I mentioned that in difficult situations I have found it helpful before providing criticism to pause. Because people want to be liked and to be free to make their own decisions, during my pause I think about how to minimize any perceived threat to these two desires.

To practice this skill, I then presented the following Dennis The Menace comic strip:


In my previous post, I pointed out that Gina, the socially clever girl in the comic, noticing a conflict has popped up in her neighborhood, helps out by letting Dennis know how much he is loved at home.  I also mentioned that while criticizing Dennis about his room, his mom could have said something like this: “Dennis, I sure love you. It’s so much fun to have you around. It’s getting about that time to clean up your room. Do you want to do it now, or in an hour from now?” By letting Dennis know that she loves him and then giving him a choice, Dennis’s mom could have come off as more loving and less bossy.

A master at dealing with criticism must become highly skilled at addressing concerns about the desire to be loved and to maintain freedom.  For this reason, we will be going over many examples of how to address these concerns in coming weeks.  As for today, let’s dig a little deeper into the situation illustrated in the above comic.

Digging Deeper

Please take an especially good look at the following panels from the above comic:

dennis1It appears to me that Dennis has a conflict with his mother about her desire that he pick up his room.  Judging from the expression on Dennis’s mom and dad, they seem to be turning angry over Dennis’s response.

When this type of situation happens in Dennis The Menace comic strips, his parents usually end up responding by making Dennis sit in a corner.

Dennis new 2

Other parents in this type of situation feel that Dennis should be told  that he should not answer back, and that he should be forced to do what he is told to do.  If Dennis does not comply, such parents believe Dennis’s parents should beat some sense into him.  This type of parenting has been referred to as an authoritarian approach.  Critics of an authoritarian approach say that it leads sons and daughters to feel like they are pawns rather than origins.

Illustration by Deanna Martinez

Illustration by Deanna Martinez

When people feel like pawns, they feel pushed around, and they feel that they are like puppets with someone else pulling the strings.  This leads to resentment and recurring conflicts.  We get a sense of this resentment in the following comic:

Dennis new 1 Notice the angry expression on Dennis’s face and his hands balled up into fists.

Feeling like a pawn may be contrasted with feeling like I have an influence over what I do—that I have played at least a part in originating my behavior. We say that when people feel this way they feel like an origin.  Parents who help their children to feel like origins, instead of using an authoritarian style of leadership, use an authoritative style of leadership.  When we become skillful at using the DIG Conflict Model to deal with criticism and to resolve conflicts, we become authoritative leaders.

So, if Dennis’s parents, Henry and Alice, were skillful at using the DIG Conflict Model, what might that look like?

First, They Would Summarize and Delay.

Henry, realizing that he and Alice have become angry at Dennis’s comment, would very quickly respectfully summarize Dennis’s perspective (See blog post titled Summarize and Delay for a complete description of this approach).

To do this, Henry uses the word DIG to remind him to dig for what Dennis desires in this situation, what Dennis views as interfering with his desire, and what Dennis thinks his mother is guilty of doing wrong.  Because he is so well-practiced at this, even though he is angry, Henry does this rather easily.

“Dennis,” says Henry, I think I understand how you are feeling.  It looks to me like you desire that Mom will stop telling you to pick up your room. You feel she is interfering with this desire when she tells you that you have to do it.  You feel she is guilty of treating you unfairly because I pay her to pick up your room.  Is that right?”

“That’s right,” Dennis replies, “you pay her to clean up, and it’s not fair that she wants me to do it!”

“Okay, Dennis,” I understand.  “Your Mom and I are always interested in what you have to say.  We’re going to think about this for a little while, and then Mom and I will discuss this with you some more.”

During this calming-down period, Dennis is not pressured to pick up his room.  The topic is dropped.

Second, They Are a Wise Friend to Their Angry Self.

As Henry and Alice leave Dennis, they keep in mind that their angry self does not have to seek to suppress any anger to reach a state of relative calm (see BEING A WISE FRIEND TO YOUR ANGRY SELF).  They are confident this will occur naturally without any effort at all. They just listen to what is going on inside of themselves in a caring manner, just like a good friend would, and they are confident that their calm will return.

Now, as Alice and Henry go through this calming period, they notice their angry selves chattering away, saying things like, “That Dennis is acting like an idiot!  He is a stupid jerk for making me angry.”  Other derogatory statements about the source of their anger come to mind.  They realize this is just part of the anger process.

At such times, they simply observe their angry self in a nonjudgmental manner as this is happening.  They are as kind to their angry selves as they can be throughout this process—just like a good, compassionate friend would.

Third, After They Calm Down They Map out a Plan.

Jack's Picture cropedOnce they are in a state of relative calm, Henry and Alice begin to respond to the conditions that led to anger in a more reasonable manner. They calmly discuss the issue with each other, and Alice calls a couple of friends whom she respects to get their take on how this situation can best be handled.  Soon they feel comfortable with a plan that they have created.

Fourth, They Carry Out the Plan.

Alice and Henry call Dennis in for a discussion and quickly summarize for him what had happened. Then Alice says, “Dennis, from what happened, I can see that you are starting to get some ideas about Dad giving me money and what I have to do for it.  That’s good.  Let me explain a little more about how this works.

“When Dad goes to work, he does some things for his boss, and his boss does some things in return for Dad.  One thing the boss does is pay Dad some money for the work that Dad does for him.  At home, I do some things for Dad, and he, in return, does some things for me.  For example, I cook dinner most of the time and wash the dishes.  In return, Dad gives me some money, and sometimes he goes to the store to pick up some things I need, or he goes with me to a party.  So, you see how it works, Dad does some things for me, and in return, I do things for him.

“Now, your Dad and I do lots of things for you, so it seems to us that it’s only fair that you do some things for us.  Here’s some things that Dad and I do for you–we make you meals, we wash your dishes, we take you to parties, we buy you toys, and do lots of other things for you.  What do you do in return for us?”

“I go to school,” says Dennis.

“Dennis,” says Henry, “we don’t think that when you go to school it is for us.  When you go to school, that helps you to learn to read, count, and stuff like that.  Mom and I do things for you.  What do you do for us in return?”

After thinking about this, Dennis appears stuck.

“One thing I want you to do for us,” says Alice, “is to pick up your room when I ask you to do it.  When it gets messy in your room, I can trip and hurt myself, or I might step on something and break it.  I also like the way it looks when the room is all picked up.  When I ask you to pick up your room, you don’t have to do it right away if you feel you are busy with something else, but after I ask you, before the end of the day, I want it picked up.  Is that fair?”

“I guess so, Mom,” Dennis replies.


Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.


About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.


  1. This was fascinating. Very nice. My only comment would be some surprise at your use of a purely material exchange between husband and wife…I never thought of their interactions in these terms. It feels somehow very artificial and not particularly convincing (to Dennis) who must see that there is much more to the relationship than an exchange of goods and services. Also, i question whether Henry gives Alice money truly “in exchange” for what she does for him — cooking, cleaning (these days she might well work outside the house herself as well as do these chores!). Feels very mechanical and not what marriage is or should be all about. I don’t think that Dennis needs quite this degree of simplification — and to look at his mother as simply doing things in exchange for other things or services might teach Dennis lessons about marriage that won’t serve him to become a better human being. It basically just focuses on what he can get, and what he can trade for what he does.

    • Hi Pamela,
      I very much appreciate your thoughtful comment. You make a very legitimate point. We don’t just do things for people that we care about so that we will get something in return–we often do things for others out of caring and genuinely wishing to be helpful. At the same time, we at times do do things for others to achieve a fair exchange.

      I wondered if children who are at a similar age as Dennis could appreciate an argument that utilizes the notion of caring and altruism. I do think that there are stories that are excellent at teaching young children about this.

      Making an argument about something, versus telling a story uses different thinking processes. Perhaps making an argument about the value of caring by parents when the child is likely to be defensive can be done in a productive way. On the other hand, maybe after the argument about give and take, later in the day a story would be helpful. I’ll have to think a little more about this.

      Much thanks,

  2. Coming at this from the perspective of a parent, I find that the scenario that you describe while “digging deeper” has its own problems. While the parents’ authoritative method does a good job of defusing Dennis’s anger, it doesn’t perform well in getting the job done in a timely manner. My experience so far has been that kids (and even grownups) will often gladly put up with a delay and discussion (which they can tune out or forget) rather than have to make the desired change. In the cartoon case, Dennis desires to not pick up his room, his mother interferes with that desire by asking him to do so, and she is guilty of asking him to do something which is important to her but not to him. A real kid might agree to clean up later, but when asked to clean up at the end of the day as agreed, he will get angry all over again, because it is a strategy that may result in another delay.

    I guess what I’m driving at is that it seems to me that there is a third issue going on besides wanting to be liked and wanting to be free; there is also a real dislike of the change being requested. How does one deal with that?

    The DIG analysis seems likely to be effective, when used by the person being criticized who has a genuine desire to react better to criticism or insults; but I am not convinced that it works so well from the perspective of the other person hoping to effect a change.

    That said, thank you so much for this blog. Your techniques are very interesting and give me hope that I can use them in raising my kids to deal better with criticism!

    • Hi Jean Chung,

      I enjoyed reading your take on this blog post.

      At one point in your comment you wrote, “A real kid might agree to clean up later, but when asked to clean up at the end of the day as agreed, he will get angry all over again, because it is a strategy that may result in another delay.”

      I can see that happening with some kids. It sometimes takes a child a few lessons to learn some things. In the scenario that I provided, Dennis does agree to clean up his room. Let’s pretend you are Dennis’s mother. If he does not regularly start to pick up his room when you ask and you went through your plan three times, after the third time that you have the discussion with him that includes reviewing the argument for cooperating, asking him to explain it back to you, and seeing if he agrees to cooperate from now on, it seems to me that it is time for another plan. Usually there are a number of roads up the same mountain, so let me just tentatively propose one way to teach what you might be after.

      If in the case Dennis does not start cleaning his room after three tries at the plan, or if at any point that even after you explain the lesson about cooperating he says he doesn’t care what you say, he’s not going to clean up his room, then, when he calms down, a few minutes before supper, both Mom and Dad could say something like this to Dennis:

      “Dennis, you don’t seem to be learning why it is important to cooperate. You continue to refuse to pick up your room. So, to help you to learn about cooperating, Mom and Dad are going to stop cooperating with you. You’ll make your own meals of peanut butter, bread, milk and juice. I know you like jelly with your peanut butter, but I’m going to stop buying that for you. You like cold cereal for breakfast but I’m not going to buy that for you any more until you learn to cooperate. You like it when Dad takes you to the park on weekends, he’s not going to do this for you. We actually like doing things for you because we love you so much, but we both feel that it is so important to learn to cooperate that we are going to do this until you come to us and explain that you now clearly understand why cooperation is important, and you begin to show us that you understand by picking up your room.”

      I would do this in a loving manner. If Dennis says it is not fair, I would ask him if he would like to propose a different plan that would help him to learn about cooperation. If he comes up with some idea, I would use it, even if it doesn’t sound very plausible, saying to him, “Let’s give your plan a try for a week and see how it works.”

      Well, those are some quick thoughts to address your comment, as always, if some other questions or concerns come up, please feel free to post additional comments.

      My Best,

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