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 three-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 three-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.

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