QUESTION: You have said that children and young people are experiencing an epidemic of self-doubt and feelings of low self-esteem. Why do you think this is true?DR. DOBSON: It has resulted, in part, from an unjust system of evaluating human worth now prevalent in our society. Not everyone is seen as worthy; not everyone is accepted. Instead, we reserve our praise and admiration for those who have been blessed from birth with the characteristics we value most highly. It is a vicious system, and we, as parents, must counterbalance its impact.

At the top of the list of the most highly respected and valued attributes in our culture is physical attractiveness. Those who happen to have it are often honored and even feared; those who do not may be disrespected and rejected through no fault of their own. This measure of human worth is evident from the earliest moments of life, when an attractive infant is considered more valuable than a homely one. For this reason, it is not uncommon for a mother to be depressed shortly after the birth of her first baby. She had hoped to give birth to a beautiful 6-week-old Gerber baby, having four front teeth and rosy, pink cheeks. Instead, they hand her a red, toothless, bald, prune-faced, screaming little individual who isn't exactly what Mom expected.

As the child grows, his or her value as a person will be assessed not only by parents, but also by those outside the home. Beauty contests offering scholarships and prizes for gorgeous babies are now common, as if the attractive child didn't already have enough advantages in life. What a distorted system for evaluating human worth! As author George Orwell has written, "All (people) are equal, but some (people) are more equal than others." The real tragedy today is how often this statement is proven true in the lives of our children.

QUESTION: My little boy always wants to know just how far I will let him go. Once he has tested me and found I'm serious about what I say, he'll usually cooperate at that point. What is going on in his mind?

DR. DOBSON: Your child, like most other kids, has a great need to know where behavioral boundaries are and who has the courage to enforce them. Let me illustrate how that works.

Years ago, during the early days of the progressive education movement, an enthusiastic theorist decided to take down the chain-link fence that surrounded the nursery schoolyard. He thought the children would feel more freedom of movement without that visible barrier surrounding them. When the fence was removed, however, the boys and girls huddled near the center of the play-yard. Not only did they not wander away; they didn't even venture to the edge of the grounds. Clearly, there is a security for all of us in defined boundaries. That's why a child will push a parent to the point of exasperation at times. She's testing the resolve of the mother or father and exploring the limits of her world.

Do you want further evidence of this motivation? Consider the relationships within a family where the dad is a firm but loving disciplinarian, the mother is indecisive and weak, and the child is a strong-willed spitfire. Notice how the mother is pushed, challenged, sassed, disobeyed and insulted, but the father can bring order with a word or two. What is going on here? Simply that the child understands and accepts Dad's strength. The limits are clear. There is no reason to test him again. But Mom has established no rules, and she is fair game for a fight every day if necessary.

The very fact that your child accepts the boundaries you have set tells you that he respects you. That youngster will still test the outer limits occasionally to see if the "fence" is still there.

Dr. Dobson is founder and chairman of the board of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, CO 80995(www.family.org).

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