Six Keys to Shaping a Child’s Will

Six Keys to Shaping a Child’s Will

By James C. Dobson, Ph.D.

  1. Define the boundaries before they are enforced.
    The most important step in any disciplinary procedure is to establish reasonable expectations and boundaries in advance. Children should know what is and what is not acceptable behavior before they are held responsible for those rules. This precondition will eliminate the overwhelming sense of injustice that youngsters feel when they are punished for their accidents, mistakes and blunders. If you haven’t defined it, don’t enforce it!
  2. When defiantly challenged, respond with confident decisiveness.
    Once children understand what is expected, they should be held accountable for behaving accordingly. That sounds easy, but as we have seen, most children will assault the authority of their elders. In a moment of rebellion, small children will consider their parents’ wishes and defiantly choose to disobey.

    Like a military general before a battle, they will calculate the potential risk, marshal their forces and attack the enemy with guns blazing. When those nose-to-nose confrontations occur between generations, it is extremely important for the adult to win decisively and confidently. The children have made it clear that they’re looking for a fight, and their parents would be wise not to disappoint them!

    Nothing is more destructive to parental leadership than for a mother or father to disintegrate during a struggle. When parents consistently lose those battles, resorting to tears and screaming and other evidence of frustration, some dramatic changes take place in the way they are seen by their children. Instead of being secure and confident leaders, they become spineless jellyfish who are unworthy of respect or allegiance.

  3. Distinguish between willful defiance and childish irresponsibility.
    Children should not be spanked for behavior that is not willfully defiant. When they forget to feed the dog, make their beds or take out the trash–when they leave your tennis racket outside in the rain or lose their bicycles–remember that these behaviors are typical of childhood.

    It is, more than likely, the mechanism by which an immature mind is protected from adult anxieties and pressures. Be gentle as you teach them to do better. If they fail to respond to your patient instruction, it then becomes appropriate to administer some well-defined consequences (they may have to work to pay for the abused item or be deprived of its use, etc.). However, childish irresponsibility is very different from willful defiance and should be handled more patiently.

  4. Reassure and teach after the confrontation is over.
    After a time of conflict, during which the parent has demonstrated his or her right to lead, youngsters between 2 and 7 (or older) may want to be loved and reassured. By all means, open your arms and let them come! Hold them close and tell them of your love. Rock them gently and let them know, again, why they were punished and how they can avoid the trouble next time. This moment of communication builds love, fidelity and family unity.
  5. Avoid impossible demands.
    Be absolutely sure that your children are capable of delivering what you require. Never punish them for wetting the bed involuntarily, for not becoming potty-trained by 18 months of age, or for doing poorly in school when they are incapable of greater academic success. These impossible demands put children in an unresolvable conflict: There is no way out. That condition brings inevitable damage to the human emotional apparatus.
  6. Let love be your guide!
    A relationship that is characterized by genuine love and affection is likely to be a healthy one, even though some parental mistakes and errors are inevitable.

Dr. James Dobson is founder and president of Focus on the Family. "Six Keys to Shaping a Child’s Will" was adapted from Dr. Dobson’s book The Strong-Willed Child.