By James C. Dobson, Ph.D.
By the time a child reaches 4 years of age, the focus of discipline should be not only on his behavior, but also on the attitudes that motivate it. This task of shaping the personality can be relatively simple or incredibly difficult, depending on the basic temperament of a particular child. Some youngsters are naturally warm and loving and trusting, while others sincerely believe the world is out to get them. Some enjoy giving and sharing, whereas their siblings are consistently selfish and demanding. Some smile throughout the day while others complain and bellyache about everything from toothpaste to turnip greens.
Furthermore, these attitudinal patterns are not consistent; they tend to alternate cyclically between rebellion and obedience. In other words, a time of intense conflict and defiance (if properly handled) gives way to a period of love and cooperation. Then when Mom and Dad relax and congratulate themselves for doing a super job of parenting, their little chameleon changes colors again.
Some might ask, "So what? Why should we be concerned about the attitudes of a boy or girl?" Indeed, there are many childrearing specialists who suggest that parents ignore negative attitudes, including those that are unmistakably defiant in tone. Consider the naive recommendations of Dr. Luther Woodward, as paraphrased in the book for parents Your Child from Two to Five:
" What do you do when your preschooler calls you a ‘big stinker’ or threatens to flush you down the toilet? Do you scold, punish…or sensibly take it in your stride?"
Dr. Woodward recommends a positive policy of understanding as the best and fastest way to help a child outgrow this verbal violence. When parents fully realize that all little tots feel angry and destructive at times, they are better able to minimize these outbursts. Once the preschooler gets rid of his hostility, the desire to destroy is gone and instinctive feelings of love and affection have a chance to sprout and grow. Once the child is 6 or 7, parents can rightly let the child know that he is expected to be outgrowing sassing his parents.
In conclusion, Dr. Woodward reveals the permissive implications of his recommendation by warning those who try to apply it:
" But this policy takes a broad perspective and a lot of composure, especially when friends and relatives voice disapproval and warn you that you are bringing up a brat."1
In this case, your friends and relatives will probably be right. This suggestion (published during the permissive 1950s and so typical of other writings from that era) is based on the simplistic notion that children will develop sweet and loving attitudes if we adults will permit and encourage their temper tantrums during childhood. According to the optimistic Dr. Woodward, the tot who has been calling his mother a "big stinker" for six or seven years can be expected to embrace her suddenly in love and dignity. That outcome is most improbable. Dr. Woodward’s creative "policy of understanding" (which means, stand and do nothing) offers a one-way ticket to emotional and social disaster, in my view. I expressed my contrasting opinion in my book The New Dare to Discipline:
If it is desirable that children be kind, appreciative and pleasant, those qualities should be taught – not hoped for. If we want to see honesty, truthfulness and unselfishness in our offspring, then these characteristics should be the conscious objectives of our early instructional process. If it is important to produce respectful, responsible young citizens, then we should set out to mold them accordingly.
The point is obvious: Heredity does not equip a child with proper attitudes; children learn what they are taught. We cannot expect the coveted behavior to appear magically if we have not done our early homework.2
But how does one shape the attitudes of children? Most parents find it easier to deal with outright disobedience than with unpleasant characteristics of temperament or personality. Let me restate two age-old suggestions for parents and then I’ll offer a system that can be used with the especially disagreeable child.
1. There is no substitute for parental modeling of the attitudes we wish to teach. Someone wrote, "The footsteps a child follows are most likely to be the ones his parents thought they covered up." It is true. Our children are watching us carefully, and they instinctively imitate our behavior. Therefore, we can hardly expect them to be kind and giving if we are consistently grouchy and selfish. We will be unable to teach appreciativeness if we never say "please" or "thank you" at home or abroad. We will not produce honest children if we teach them to lie to the bill collector on the phone by saying, "Dad’s not home." In these matters, our boys and girls instantly discern the gap between what we say and what we do. And of the two choices, they usually identify with our behavior and ignore our empty proclamations.
2. Most of the favorable attitudes that should be taught are actually extrapolations of the Judeo-Christian ethic, including honesty, respect, kindness, love, human dignity, obedience, responsibility, reverence, etc. And how are these time-honored principles conveyed to the next generation? The answer was provided by Moses as he wrote more than 3,000 years ago in the book of Deuteronomy: "Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates." (Deuteronomy 6:7-9).
In other words, we can’t instill these attitudes during a brief, two-minute bedtime prayer, or during formalized training sessions. We must live them from morning to night. They should be reinforced during our casual conversation, punctuated with illustrations, demonstrations, compliments and chastisements. This teaching task is, I believe, the most important assignment God has given to us as parents.
Finally, let me offer a suggested approach for use with the strong-willed or negative child (age 6 or older) for whom other forms of instruction have been ineffective. I am referring specifically to the sour, complaining child who is making himself and the rest of the family miserable. He may slide his brakes for weeks and criticize the efforts of everyone nearby. The problem with such an individual is in defining the changes that are desired and then reinforcing the improvements when they occur. Attitudes are abstractions that a 6- or 8-year-old may not fully understand, and we need a system that will clarify the "target" in his mind.
Toward this end, I have developed an Attitude Chart (see illustration) that translates these subtle mannerisms into concrete mathematical terms. Please note: This system would not be appropriate for the child who merely has a bad day, or displays temporary unpleasantness associated with illness, fatigue or environmental circumstances. Rather, it is a remedial tool to help change persistently negative and disrespectful attitudes by making the child conscious of his problem.
MY ATTITUDE CHART__________________________________
Excellent – 1 Good – 2 Okay – 3 Bad – 4 Terrible – 5
6-9 The family will do something fun together.
10-18 Nothing happens, good or bad.
19-20 I have to stay in my room for one hour.
21-22 I get one swat on my bottom.
23+ I get two swats on my bottom.
The Attitude Chart should be prepared and then reproduced, since a separate sheet will be needed everyday. Place an X in the appropriate square for each category, and then add the total points earned by bedtime.
Although this nightly evaluation process has the appearance of being objective to a child, it is obvious that the parent can influence the outcome by considering it in advance. Mom or Dad may want Junior to receive 18 points on the first night, barely missing the punishment but realizing he must stretch the following day.
I must emphasize, however, that the system will fail miserably if a naughty child does not receive the punishment he deserves, or if he hustles to improve but does not obtain the family fun he was promised. This approach is nothing more than a method of applying reward and punishment to attitudes in a way that children can understand and remember.
I don’t expect everyone to appreciate this system or to apply it at home. In fact, parents of compliant, happy children will be puzzled as to why it would ever be needed. However, the mothers and fathers of sullen, ill-tempered children will comprehend more quickly. Take it or leave it, as the situation warrants.
NINE TO TWELVE YEARS
Ideally, the foundation has been laid during the first nine years that will then permit a general loosening of the lines of authority. Every year that passes should bring fewer rules, less direct discipline and more independence for the child. This does not mean that a 10-year-old is suddenly emancipated; it does mean that he is permitted to make more decisions about his daily living than when he was 6. It also means that he should be carrying more responsibility each year of his life.
Physical punishment should be relatively infrequent during this period immediately prior to adolescence. Of course, some strong-willed children absolutely demand to be disciplined. However, the compliant youngster should have experienced his last disciplinary spanking by the end of his first decade (or even four years earlier).
The overall objective during this final preadolescent period is to teach the child that his actions have inevitable consequences. One of the most serious casualties in a permissive society is the failure to connect those two factors: behavior and consequences. Too often, a 3-year-old child screams insults at his mother, but Mom stands blinking her eyes in confusion. A first-grader launches an attack on his teacher, but the school makes allowances for his age and takes no action. A 15-year-old sneaks the keys to the family car, but his father pays the fine when the son or daughter is arrested. A 17-year-old drives his Chevy like a maniac, and his parents pay for the repairs when he wraps it around a telephone pole.
You see, all through childhood, loving parents seem determined to intervene between behavior and consequences, breaking the connection and preventing the valuable learning that could have occurred.
Thus, it is possible for a young man or woman to enter adult life not really knowing that life can bite back; that every move we make directly affects our future; that irresponsible behavior eventually produces sorrow and pain. Such a person applies for his first job and arrives late for work three times during the first week. Then, when he is fired in a flurry of hot words, he becomes bitter and frustrated. It was the first time in his life that Mom and Dad couldn’t come running to rescue him from the unpleasant consequences. (Unfortunately, many American parents still try to bail out their grown children even when they are in their 20s and live away from home.) What is the result? This overprotection produces emotional cripples who often develop lasting characteristics of dependency and a kind of perpetual adolescence.
How does one connect behavior with consequences? By being willing to let the child experience a reasonable amount of pain when he behaves irresponsibly. When Jack misses the school bus through his own dawdling, let him walk a mile or two and enter school in midmorning (unless safety factors prevent this). If Janie carelessly loses her lunch money, let her skip a meal. Obviously, it is possible to carry this principle too far, being harsh and inflexible with an immature child. But the best approach is to expect boys and girls to carry the responsibility that is appropriate for their age, and occasionally to taste the bitter fruit that irresponsibility produces.
Let me offer a concluding illustration that may be read to an 11- or 12-year-old child. The following story was published by United Press International a few days after an eclipse of the sun had occurred.3
Ann Turner, 15, is living proof of the danger of trying to watch a solar eclipse with the naked eye. Now she is blind.
On March 7, despite the warnings she had read, Ann "took a quick look through the window" of her home at the solar eclipse in progress.
" For some reason, I just kept staring out of the window," she told Pat Cline, a reporter for the Tipton Daily Tribune. "I was fascinated by what was taking place in the sky. There was no pain or feeling of discomfort as I watched. I stood there perhaps four or five minutes when Mom caught me and made me turn away from the window."
Ann said she "saw spots before my eyes but I didn’t think much about it." Shortly afterward, she walked downtown and suddenly realized when she looked at a traffic signal that she could not read signs.
Frightened, Ann turned around and headed home. As she neared the porch, she found she was "walking in darkness." She was too scared to tell her family until the next day, although she "had an intuition or suspicion that something terrible was happening."
" I cried and cried," she said. "I didn’t want to be blind. God knows I didn’t want to live in darkness the rest of my life. I kept hoping the nightmare would end and I could see again, but the darkness kept getting worse. I was scared. I had disobeyed my parents and the other warnings. I could not go back and change things. It was too late."
When Mr. and Mrs. Coy Turner learned what had happened, they took Ann to specialists. But the doctors shook their heads and said they could not help Ann regain her sight. They said she is 90 percent blind and can make out only faint lines of large objects on the periphery of what used to be her normal sight field.
With the help of a tutor, Ann is going ahead with her education. She is learning to adjust to the world of darkness.
A Preteen Talk
After reading this dramatic story to your boy or girl, it might be wise to say, "Paul, this terrible thing happened to Ann because she didn’t believe what she was told by her parents and other adults. She trusted her own judgment instead. And the reason I read this story to you is to help you understand that you might soon be in a situation that is similar to Ann’s. As you go into your teen years, you will have many opportunities to do some things that we have told you are harmful.
" For example, someone could give you some drugs that don’t seem dangerous at all, even after you take them. Just like Ann, you may not realize the consequences until it is too late. That is why it will be so important for you to believe the warnings that you’ve been taught, rather than trust your own judgment.
" Many young people make mistakes during the teenage years that will affect the rest of their lives, and I want to help you avoid those problems. But the truth of the matter is, only you can set your course and choose your pathway. You can accept what your eyes tell you, like Ann, or you can believe what your mother and I have said, and more important, what we read in God’s Word. I have confidence that you will make the right decisions, and it’s going to be fun watching you grow up."
In conclusion, the period of 10 to 11 years of age often represents a final time of great closeness and unpretentious love between parent and child. Enjoy it to the maximum, for believe me, there are more tumultuous days coming!
I once was accompanied on a speaking trip by my wife, Shirley, that required us to leave our two children with their grandparents for a full week. My wife’s mother and father are wonderful people and dearly love Danae and Ryan. However, two bouncing, jumping, giggling little rascals can wear down the nerves of any adult, especially those who are approaching the age of retirement. When we returned home, I asked my father-in-law how the children behaved and whether or not they caused him any problems. He replied in his North Dakota accent, "Oh no! Dere good kids. But the important thing is, you jus’ got to keep ’em out in da open."
That was probably the best disciplinary advice ever offered. Many behavioral problems can be prevented by simply avoiding the circumstances that create them. And especially for boys and girls growing up in our congested cities, perhaps what we need most is to "get ’em out in da open." It’s not a bad idea.
1. Dr. Luther Woodward, Your Child from Two to Five, Morton Edwards, editor (New York: Permabooks, 1955), pp. 95, 96.
2. Dr. James Dobson, The New Dare to Discipline (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1970, 1992), pp. 14-15.
3. Reprinted by permission of United Press International.
The following material was adapted from Dr. Dobson’s book The Strong-Willed Child (copyright (c) 1978 by Tyndale House Publishers), and is used by permission.
Copyright (c) 1992 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.