Q&A: The Five Keys To Family Harmony

Want your home to run smoothly? Dr. James Dobson suggests the following prescriptions.

1. Developing respect for parents is the critical factor in child management

It is imperative that a child learns to respect his parents–not to satisfy their egos, but because his relationship with them provides the basis for his later attitude toward all other people. His early view of parental authority becomes the cornerstone of his future outlook on school authority, law enforcement officers, employers and others with whom he will eventually live and work. The parent-child relationship is the first and most important social interaction a youngster will have, and the flaws and knots experienced there can often be seen later in life.

Respect for parents must be maintained for another equally important reason. If you want your child to accept your values when he reaches his teen years, then you must be worthy of his respect during his younger days. When a child can successfully defy his parents during his first 15 years, laughing in their faces and stubbornly flaunting their authority, he develops a natural contempt for them.

“Stupid old Mom and Dad! I have them wound around my little finger. Sure they love me, but I really think they’re afraid of me.” A child may not utter these words, but he feels them each time he outsmarts his elders and wins the confrontations and battles. Later he is likely to demonstrate his disrespect in a more blatant manner. Viewing his parents as being unworthy of his respect, he may very well reject every vestige of their philosophy and faith.

2. The best opportunity to communicate often occurs after a disciplinary event

Nothing brings a parent and child closer together than for the mother or father to win decisively after being defiantly challenged. This is particularly true if the child was “asking for it,” knowing full well he deserved what he got. The parents’ demonstration of their authority builds respect like no other process, and the child will often reveal his affection after the initial tears have dried.

For this reason, parents should not dread or shrink back from confrontations with their children. These occasions should be anticipated as important events, because they provide the opportunity to convey verbal and nonverbal messages to the boy or girl that cannot be expressed at other times.

After emotional ventilation, the child will often want to crumple to the breast of his parent, and he should be welcomed with open, warm, loving arms. At that moment you can talk heart to heart. You can tell him how much you love him and how important he is to you. You can explain why he was disciplined and how he can avoid the difficulty next time.

This kind of communication is often impossible with other disciplinary measures… such as standing the youngster in the corner or taking away his favorite toy. A resentful child usually does not want to talk.

Parental warmth after such an event is essential to demonstrate that it is the behaviour–not the child himself–that the parents reject. William Glasser, the father of Reality Therapy, made this distinction very clear when he described the difference between discipline and punishment.

“Discipline” is directed at the objectionable behavior, and the child will accept its consequence without resentment. Glasser defined “punishment” as a response that is directed at the individual. It represents a desire of one person to hurt another, and it is an expression of hostility rather than corrective love. As such, it is often deeply resented by the child.

Although I sometimes use these terms interchangeably, I agree with Glasser’s basic premise. Unquestionably, there is a wrong way to correct a child that can make him or her feel unloved, unwanted and insecure. One of the best guarantees against this happening is a loving conclusion to the disciplinary encounter.

3. Control without nagging (it is possible)

Yelling and nagging at children can become a habit, and an ineffectual one at that. Have you ever screamed at your child, “This is the last time I’m telling you for the last time!” Parents often use anger to get action instead of using action to get action. It is exhausting and it doesn’t work! Trying to control children by screaming is as utterly futile as trying to steer a car by honking the horn.

It is surprising to observe how often a teacher or group leader will impose disciplinary measures that children do not dislike. I knew a teacher, for example, who would scream and threaten her class to cooperate. When they got completely out of hand, she would climb atop her desk and blow a whistle.

The kids loved it! She weighed about 240 pounds, and the children would plot during lunch and recess about how they could get her atop that desk. She was inadvertently offering entertainment–a reward for their unruliness. It was much more fun than studying multiplication tables!

Their attitude was much like that of Brer Rabbit, who begged the fox not to throw him in the briar patch. There was nothing they wanted more.

One should never underestimate a child’s awareness that he is breaking the rules. I think most children are rather analytical about defying adult authority, they consider the deed in advance and weigh its probable consequences. If the odds are too great that justice will triumph, they’ll take a safer course.

This observation is verified in millions of homes where a youngster will push one parent to the limit of tolerance, but remain a sweet angel with the other. Mom whimpers, “Rick minds his dad perfectly, but pays no attention to me.” Rick is no dummy. He knows Mom is safer than Dad.

To summarize this point, the parent must recognize that the most successful techniques of control are those that manipulate something of importance to the child. Yakkity-yak discussion and empty threats carry little or no motivation power for the child. “Why don’t you straighten up and do what’s right, Jack? What am I going to do with you, son?
Good grief, it seems like I’m always having to get on you. I just can’t see why you don’t do what you’re told. If one time, just one time, you would act your age.” On and on goes the barrage of words.

Jack endures the endless tirades, month in, month out, year after year. Fortunately for him, he is equipped with a mechanism that allows him to hear what he wants to hear and screen out everything else.

Just as a person living by railroad tracks eventually does not even hear the trains rumbling by, so Jack has learned to ignore meaningless noise in his environment. Jack (and all his contemporaries) would be much more willing to cooperate if it were clearly to his personal advantage.

4. Don’t saturate the child with materialism

How can I say no to my child’s materialistic desires? It was very simple in the old days of the Great Depression for parents to tell their children they couldn’t afford to buy them everything they wanted; Dad could barely keep bread on the table. But in more recent times, the parental task becomes less believable.

It takes considerably more courage to say, “No, I won’t buy you the Playstation or a Barbie doll,” than it did to say, “I’m sorry, but you know we can’t afford to buy those toys”

A child’s demand for expensive toys is carefully generated through millions of dollars spent on TV advertising by the manufacturers. The commercials are skillfully made so that they toys look like full-sized copies of their real counterparts; jet airplanes, robot monsters and automatic rifles.

The little consumer sits open-mouthed in utter fascination. Five minutes later he begins a campaign that will eventually cost his dad a tidy sum.

The trouble is, Dad often can afford to buy the new item, if not with cash, at least with his magic credit card. And when three other children on the block get coveted toys, Mom and Dad begin to feel the pressure, and even the guilt. They feel selfish because they have indulged themselves with similar luxuries.

There is a broader principle to be considered here. Pleasure occurs when an intense need is satisfied. If there is no need, there is no pleasure. A simple glass of water is worth more than gold to a man dying of thirst.

The analogy to children should be obvious. If you never allow a child to want something, be never enjoys the pleasure of receiving it. If you buy him a tricycle before he can walk, a bicycle before he can ride, and a car before he can drive, he accepts these gifts with little pleasure and less appreciation.

How unfortunate that such a child never had the chance to long for something, dreaming about it at night and plotting for it by day. He might have even gotten desperate enough to work for it. The same possession that brought a yawn could have been a trophy and a treasure.

I suggest that you show your child the thrill of temporary deprivation; it’s more fun and much less expensive.

5. Establish a balance between love and discipline

It has been known for decades that an infant who is not loved, touched and caressed will often die of a strange disease initially called marasmus. They simply wither up and die before their first birthday.

Evidence of this emotional need was observed in the 13th century, when Frederick II conducted an experiment with 50 infants. He wanted to see what language they would speak if they never had the opportunity to hear the spoken word.

To carry out this dubious research project, he assigned foster mothers to bathe and suckle the children, but forbade them to fondle, pet or talk to their charges. The experiment failed dramatically because all 50 infants died.

Hundreds of more recent studies indicate that the mother-child relationship during the first year of life is apparently vital to the infant’s survival. An unloved child is truly the saddest phenomenon in all of nature.

While the absence of love has a predictable effect on children, it is not so well known that excessive love or “super love” imposes its hazards, too. I believe some children are spoiled by love, or what passes for love. Some Americans are tremendously child-oriented at this stage in their history; they have invested all of their hopes, dreams, desires and ambitions in their youngsters. The natural culmination of this philosophy is overprotection of the next generation.
Childhood illness and sudden danger are always difficult for a loving parent to tolerate, but the slightest threat produces unbearable anxiety for the overprotective mom and dad. Unfortunately, the parent is not the only one who suffers; the child is often its victim, too. He or she is not permitted to take reasonable risks–risks which are a necessary prelude to growth and development.

Likewise, materialistic problems are often maximized in a family where the children can be denied nothing. Prolonged emotional immaturity is another frequent consequence of over-protection. Again, the “middle ground” of love and control must be sought if we are to produce healthy, responsible children.

Lest I be misunderstood, I shall emphasise my message by stating its opposite. I am not recommending that your home be harsh and oppressive. I am not suggesting that you give your children a spanking every morning with their ham and eggs, or that you make your boys sit in the living room with their hands folded and their legs crossed.

I am not proposing that you try to make adults out of your kids so you can impress your adult friends with your parental skill, or that you punish your children whimsically, swinging and screaming when they didn’t know they were wrong, I am not suggesting that you insulate your dignity and authority by being cold and unapproachable.

These parental tactics do not produce healthy, responsible children. 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 from him. Then begin to enjoy the sweet benefits of competent parenthood.

This article was written by Focus on the Family Malaysia and the Questions and Answers are extracted from “Complete Family and Marriage Home Reference Guide” by Dr. James Dobson with permission.

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