QUESTION: I have heard you say that we have shamefully mismanaged the present generation of children. Explain what you meant by that.

DR. DOBSON: I was referring to the many harmful influences that previous generations didn't have to confront - at least not to the degree that we see today. That includes safe-sex ideology, and violence and sexual imagery in movies, rock music and television; it refers to gang activity and drug abuse, and many other dangerous aspects of our culture. I was also speaking about the extreme emphasis on physical attractiveness and body consciousness in Western nations that is having a terrible impact on children. It can even be life-threatening to them.

A study done at the University of California showed that 80 percent of girls in the fourth grade have attempted to diet because they see themselves as fat. One elementary school girl justified her dieting by saying she just wanted to be skinny so that no one would tease her. How sad it is that children in this culture have been taught to hate their bodies - to measure their worth by comparison to a standard that they can never achieve.

At a time when they should be busy being kids, they're worried about how much they weigh, how they look and how they're seen by others. For young girls, this insistence on being thin is magnified by the cruelties of childhood. Dozens of studies now show that overweight children are held in low regard by their peers, even at an early age. According to one investigation, silhouettes of obese children were described by 6-year-olds as "lazy," "stupid" and "ugly."

We must take the blame for the many pressures on today's kids. Fifty years ago, parents and other adults acted in concert to protect kids - from pornography, sexual abuse, harmful ideas and dangerous substances. Millions of husbands and wives stayed together "for the benefit of the children." It was understood that tender minds and bodies needed to be shielded from that which could hurt them.

Now, child abuse and sexually transmitted disease are rampant. As the family has unraveled, and as adults have become more self-centered and preoccupied, children are often left to fend for themselves in a very dangerous world. It may be our greatest failing as a people.

QUESTION: I've read that it is possible to teach 4-year-old children to read. Should I be working on this with my child?

DR. DOBSON: If a youngster is particularly sharp and if he or she can learn to read without feeling undue adult pressure, it would be advantageous to teach this skill. But that's a much bigger "if" than most people realize. There are some parents who find it difficult to work with their children without showing frustration over immaturity and lack of interest.

Furthermore, new skills should be taught at the age when they are most needed. Why invest unnecessary effort trying to teach a child to read when he has not yet learned to cross the street, tie his shoes, count to 10 or answer the phone? It seems foolish to get panicky over preschool reading. The best policy is to provide your children with interesting books and materials, read to them every day and answer their questions. You can then introduce them to phonics and watch the lights go on. It's fun if you don't push too hard.

Dr. Dobson is founder and chairman of the board of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, P.O. Box 444, Colorado Springs, CO. 80903; or Questions and answers are excerpted from "The Complete Marriage and Family Home Reference Guide" and "Bringing Up Boys," both published by Tyndale House.

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