QUESTION: I want to control and lead my strong-willed child properly, but I'm afraid I'll break his spirit and damage him in some way. How can I deal with his misbehavior without hurting his self-concept?
DR. DOBSON: I sense that you do not have a clear understanding of the difference between breaking the spirit and shaping the will of a child. The human spirit, as I have defined it, relates to the self-esteem or the personal worth that a child feels. As such, it is exceedingly fragile at all ages and must be handled with care. You as a parent correctly assume that you can damage your child's spirit quite easily -- by ridicule, disrespect, threats to withdraw love and by verbal rejection. Anything that depreciates his self-worth can be costly to his spirit.
However, while the spirit is brittle and must be treated gently, the will is made of steel. It is one of the few intellectual components that arrive full strength at the moment of birth.
In a past issue of "Psychology Today," this heading described the research findings from a study of infancy: "A baby knows who he is before he has language to tell us so. He reaches deliberately for control of his environment, especially his parents." This scientific disclosure would be no surprise to the parents of a strong willed infant. They have walked the floor with him in the wee small hours, listening to this tiny dictator as he made his wants and wishes abundantly clear.
Later, a defiant toddler can become so angry that he is capable of holding his breath until he loses consciousness. I heard about one headstrong 3-year-old who refused to obey a direct command from her mother, saying, "You're just my mommy, you know!" Another mere mommy wrote me that she found herself in a similar confrontation with her 3-year-old son over something that she wanted him to eat. He was so enraged by her insistence that he refused to eat or drink anything for two full days. He became weak and lethargic, but steadfastly held his ground. The mother was worried and guilt-ridden, as might be expected. Finally, in desperation, the father looked the child in the eyes sternly and convinced him that he would face the consequences if he didn't eat his dinner. With that, the contest was over. The toddler surrendered. He began to consume everything he could get his hands on, and virtually emptied the refrigerator.
Returning to your question, your objective as a parent is to shape the steely will of your child while leaving his fragile spirit intact.
QUESTION: You have told us what kinds of homes produce children with the greatest intellectual potential. Are there other studies that would tell us how to raise kids with the healthiest attitudes toward themselves and others?
DR. DOBSON: A study designed to answer that precise question was conducted some years ago by Dr. Stanley Coopersmith, then an associate professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis. He evaluated 1,738 normal middle-class boys and their families, beginning in the preadolescent period and following them through to young manhood. After identifying those boys having the highest self-esteem, he compared their homes and childhood influences with those having a lower sense of self-worth. He found three important characteristics that distinguished them:
(1) The high-esteem children were clearly more loved and appreciated at home than were the low-esteem boys.
(2) The high-esteem group came from homes where parents had been significantly more strict in their approach to discipline. By contrast, the parents of the low-esteem group had created insecurity and dependence by their permissiveness. Their children were more likely to feel that the rules were not enforced because no one cared enough to get involved.
Furthermore, the most successful and independent young men during the latter period of the study were found to have come from homes that demanded the strictest accountability and responsibility. And as could have been predicted, the family ties remained the strongest, not in the wishy-washy homes, but in the homes where discipline and self-control had been a way of life.
(3) The homes of the high-esteem group were also characterized by democracy and openness. Once the boundaries for behavior were established, there was freedom for individual personalities to grow and develop. The boys could express themselves without fear of ridicule, and the overall atmosphere was marked by acceptance and emotional safety.
QUESTION: My family and I have been in France for four years, but I'm told I still have a strong accent. My 9-year-old daughter, however, speaks perfect French. How come children can learn a language so much easier than adults?
DR. DOBSON: It is true that children can learn to speak perfect Russian, Chinese, Spanish or any other language used around the world, yet 15 or 20 years later, most people will have a much harder time trying to make those same sounds.
Researchers now know why this is true. It's explained by a process known as "phoneme contraction." The larynx of a young child assumes a shape necessary to make any sounds that he or she is learning to use at that time. It then solidifies or hardens in those positions, making it impossible or very difficult to make other sounds later in life.
In other words, there's a window of opportunity when anything is possible linguistically, but it closes very quickly.
Keep working on your French, even though you'll probably never get rid of your accent.
QUESTION: You described the "trapped" feeling that causes some people to withdraw from their spouses. I think that applies to my wife, who has been strangely distant from me in recent years. Can you tell me more about what such a person might be thinking?
DR. DOBSON: The feeling of entrapment begins with disrespect for a partner. For example, a man may think these kinds of thoughts about his wife:
"Look at Joan. She used to be rather pretty. Now with those 15 extra pounds, she doesn't even attract me anymore. Her lack of discipline bothers me in other areas, too - the house is always in a mess, and she seems totally disorganized. I made an enormous mistake back there in my youth when I decided to marry her. Now I have to spend the rest of my life - can you believe it - all the years I have left tied up with someone I'm uninterested in. Oh, I know Joanie is a good woman and I wouldn't hurt her for anything, but man! Is this what they call living?"
Or Joanie may be doing some thinking of her own:
"Michael, Michael, how different you are from what I first thought you to be. You seemed so exciting and energetic in those early days. How did you get to be such a bore? You work far too much and are so tired when you come home. I can't even get you to talk to me, much less sweep me into ecstasy.
"Look at him, sleeping on the couch with his mouth hanging open. I wish his hair wasn't falling out. Am I really going to invest my entire lifetime in this aging man? Our friends don't respect him anymore, and he hasn't received a promotion at the plant for more than five years. He's going nowhere -- and he's taking me with him!"
If Joanie and Michael are both thinking these entrapment thoughts, it is obvious their future together is in serious jeopardy. But the typical situation is unilateral, as in your marriage. One partner (of either gender) begins to chafe at the bit without revealing to the other how his or her attitude has changed. A reasonably compassionate person simply does not disclose these disturbing rumblings to someone who loves him or her. Instead, a person's behavior begins to evolve in inexplicable ways.
He may increase the frequency of his evening business meetings -- anything to be away from home more often. He may become irritable or "deep in thought" or otherwise uncommunicative. He may retreat into televised sports or fishing trips or poker with the boys. He may provoke continuous fights over insignificant issues. And of course, he may move out or find someone younger to play with. A woman who feels trapped will reveal her disenchantment in similar indirect ways.
To summarize, the trapped feeling is a consequence of two factors: disrespect for the spouse and wishing for an excuse to get away.
QUESTION: I am 19 years old and have struggled with a bad self-concept all my life. It seems that everyone I know has more to offer than I do. I envy the girls who are better looking than I am, more athletic or smarter. I just don't measure up to my own expectations. How can I deal with my own insecurities?
DR. DOBSON: Someone once said, "Comparison is the root of all inferiority." It is true. When you look at another person's strengths and compare them to your own weaknesses, there is no way to come out feeling good about yourself. That is what you are doing when you pit yourself against the "best and brightest" around you.
This destructive game begins in elementary school when we begin to evaluate ourselves critically. Even at that young age, our self-image is shaped by how we stack up against our peers.
It's not how tall we are that matters; it's who is tallest. It's not how fast we can run; it's who runs fastest. It's not how smart we are; it's who is smartest. It's not how pretty or handsome we are; it's who is most gorgeous.
Thus begins a pattern of self-doubt that often becomes all-consuming during adolescence. For some people it continues well into adult life. This is why millions of women buy fashion magazines and envy the beauty of the models. It's why we watch Miss America contests, and why some men read about successful and powerful businessmen. When we do that, we're weighing ourselves against the most admired assets of others. It is an exercise that brings us nothing but pain, and yet we continue to engage in it.
It appears that you are caught up in this destructive pattern. Perhaps a wise counselor or pastor can help you see that you are a worthy human being exactly the way you are and that you have been designed for a specific purpose. Mental and spiritual health begins with an acceptance of life as it is and a willingness to make the most of what has been given.
By contrast, I am recommending a simple principle: When you are defiantly challenged, win decisively. When the child asks, "Who's in charge?" tell him. When he mutters, "Who loves me?" take him in your arms and surround him with affection. Treat him with respect and dignity, and expect the same in return. Then begin to enjoy the sweet benefits of competent parenthood.