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Girls and Their Mothers

By Dr. James Dobson

Ever since the word got out that I was writing this book about girls, readers have been sending stories and suggestions for my consideration. One of them came from a woman named Marlene who is raising Hannah, a very strong-willed seven-year-old girl.

Recently the two of them were having a bad day. Finally Hannah put her hands on her hips in exasperation and said, "You know, Mom, this just isn't working out. I want a new mother." Marlene is a very bright woman who knew exactly how to handle the situation. Without flinching, she said, "Well, I think we can arrange that. I know someone who would love to have another child."

She went to the telephone and pretended to call a neighbor. After faking a greeting, she said, "Hannah has decided she doesn't want to live here anymore, and I was wondering if you would like to have her come be your little girl."

Hannah's bluff had backfired. She immediately ran to her mother and said, "No, no, no, Mom! Let's give it another shot." You probably don't need me to tell you that clashes like this one between moms and daughters are standard fare, even when the kids are young. I hear about them often. If you have multiple children, at least one of them is likely to be strong willed. The ratio of testy kids to those who are compliant is about one to one. Raising a tough-as-nails child is no easy task, and at times you need the wisdom of Solomon to keep her on track. And yes, it is more difficult now than in the past because of cultural intrusions.

Despite these stressful times for mothers and daughters, staying in touch with each child emotionally should be a matter of the highest priority. You have to hang in there until the upheaval passes. Your children's successes or failures in many of life's endeavors will depend on the quality of the relationships you share during their childhood years. Indeed, how they navigate the storms of adolescence will be influenced directly by the security of that bond. Let's talk about how it can be enhanced.

Specialists in child development refer to the vital connection between generations as attachment, and the explanation for how it works is called attachment theory. This concept holds the keys to unlocking many of the mysteries of parenting. It was originally formulated in the 1950s by Dr. John Bowlby, an English psychiatrist, and Dr. Mary Ainsworth, an American psychologist.1 They were responsible for the most exhaustive research into the mother-child relationship ever conducted.

To understand their work, let's pick up where we left off in chapter 4 with findings from brain studies. Imaging technology, which we discussed earlier, has not only revealed brain structure and the hormones responsible for hard wiring, it has also helped us make the connection between environmental experiences and how they influence a child neurologically. I'll try not to get too technical this time, but it is very important for parents to know that the first three years of life are vital to everything that will come later. It is a period of remarkable change in all areas of a child's development. Let me explain: A newborn's brain is about 25 percent of its future adult weight. By the time a child is three years old, her brain will have produced billions of cells and hundreds of trillions of connections, or synapses, between nerve cells. Clearly, something dramatic is taking place neurologically, beginning long before birth. Good nutrition is critically important to brain development between mid-gestation and two years of age.

This breathtaking increase in brain structure and mental capacity helps to explain why every experience in childhood is significant. A toddler takes in and tries to make sense of her bewildering world. I have always been fascinated by how this "mantle of humanness" descends on a baby. A newborn who was hanging by her heels in a delivery room just a short time ago will quickly gain fifteen or twenty pounds and develop a sparkle in her eyes, a sense of humor, a unique personality, a curiosity about everything she sees and can get her hands on, and an independent streak that will surprise even her two-hundred-pound father. There is nothing like it in all of nature.

To get a better understanding of attachment theory, it is important to know that there are "critical periods" during a child's early years when certain opportunities for learning must be grabbed or forever lost. For example, babies require normal visual input, or else permanent impairment of the eyes can occur.3 The rudiments of language skills also occur in a critical period, which is why it is so beneficial to talk, talk, talk to your baby. And when you are not talking, you should be listening. Hearing her imitate your vocal sounds and her coos and laughter makes caring for an infant so rewarding. One of my grandson's first spoken phrases was, "That's cool."

Once again, if these various windows are missed, some of the learning that should have occurred can be lost or distorted for a lifetime. It is one of the reasons children raised amid deprivation and abject poverty are often intellectually and emotionally impaired. Here is the nub of it: in a sense, all of a girl's childhood should be thought of as a "critical period" in the relationship with her mother. If a proper linkage fails to develop between them, the daughter will be affected negatively, some girls more than others, by what was missed.

This brings us back to Bowlby and Ainsworth, who were the first to recognize that infants are highly vulnerable and easily wounded by anxiety, fear, and confusion.4 Elaborating on a previous point, children who are subjected to prolonged periods of emotional trauma experience surges of stress hormones, principally cortisol, that flood through their immature brains, causing irreversible neurological damage.5 In extreme cases involving abuse or neglect, an individual may eventually lose his or her ability to "feel" for others, which has implications for violence in days to come.6 There are tragic cases on record of toddlers who have stood alone in cribs for hours, hungry, sick, and scared. Some of them have even grown up to be cold-blooded killers who murder strangers just for the thrill of watching them die.

It has been demonstrated further that the failure of mothers and babies to attach is linked directly to physical and mental illness of all types. The reason is apparent. If a child is regularly overwhelmed by negative feelings and stressful circumstances, her inability to cope in infancy becomes a life- long pattern. The link between maternal attachment and poor health is not merely theoretical. It is a reality.

By contrast, something wonderful happens when a nurturing mother intercedes lovingly on behalf of her distressed baby. Typically, she talks softly to her frightened infant, cuddles her, changes uncomfortable diapers, sways with her gently, and sings quietly while providing a warm and nurturing breast. The child in her arms is calmed both emotionally and physically, and her fears subside. From that deeply satisfying experience for mother and baby, a bond begins to form between them. It will establish a foundation for all that lies ahead. The relationship the mother and child forge will never be completely abandoned or forgotten, even though it may be severely strained at times. This is why wounded and dying men, hardened by combat on a battlefield, will often utter one last word through their tears: "Mother!"

Infants are like sponges soaking up the affection showered on them. They clearly prefer human stimuli above anything else. As we indicated in chapter 4, girl babies more than boys are attuned to faces, touch, voices, and even smell. They are more sensitive to speech and singing than any other sound. Is this the origin of the lullaby? It must be. A newborn has been listening to her mother's voice from inside the womb for many months, and she is comforted by it.

Brain development is greatly influenced and aided by the care and attention given in a nursery by mothers, grandmothers, or mother substitutes. As the months pass, this attachment provides a secure base that encourages the exploration of the surrounding environment. It also defines a child's style of relating to others, teaches her to trust, helps her interpret her feelings, and acquaints her with intimacy. We cannot overstate the importance of this maternal bonding to the health and well-being of a child of either sex.

To put it succinctly, Mom, you are indispensable. The start your baby gets in life is in your hands—and in your voice and in your heart. What a wonderful privilege and responsibility it is to welcome her with open arms. That little bundle arrives straight from the hand of the Creator as His precious gift. King David wrote about his own formation in one of his most beautiful psalms: For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you.

As indicated, attachment begins prenatally and continues to be vital for years to come. In fact, a two-year-old is still as "clingy" to her mother as she was a year earlier. The encouragement and confidence Mom provides is the primary factor in nudging her toddler out to the edges of her universe. At about five years of age, a child will gradually become more independent and confident, especially if the bond with the mother or mother figure has been firmly established. Lauren Porter, a psychotherapist and clinical social worker, puts it this way:

As children continue to age and develop, their needs evolve but their reliance on the attachment system endures. Even adolescence, often viewed as the pinnacle of developmental challenges, has its focus in attachment. Adolescents struggle with the tension between their connection to family and their formation of independence. The foundation built in the early years is the groundwork for this phase of life; if the attachment is secure and established, child and parents can negotiate the events of adolescence with little struggle.

But what about fathers? How do they fit into this attachment phenomenon? As we'll see in the next chapter, when a child is an infant, Mom provides the cornerstone of healthy child development, but Dad is hardly irrelevant. His role is primarily to be supportive of the mother. He should also begin to connect with the baby in the months to follow. His masculine voice, size, demeanor, and gentle discipline provide the security produced by defined limits. In a permissive world where many parents have forgotten or never knew the importance of appropriate authority, it is the responsibility of a father to help guide behavior and teach self-control.

When my grandson, Lincoln, was nineteen months of age, his mother and I were sitting at a table and he was in his high chair. He started to throw a glass on the floor when his mom, who has bonded beautifully with her baby, quietly said, "No." Her manner conveyed, This is a suggestion. I could see that the toddler was going to ignore her, so I said with a little more force, "Lincoln! No!" I wasn't gruff with him, but the tone of my voice said, "This is an order." It was the first time I had ever spoken to him in that tone. He instantly turned his head toward me and studied my face. We sat looking at each other for about five seconds without moving, and then we both smiled. He had examined my expression to see if I was angry and realized I was not. But he also recognized that I expected obedience. His smile said, "I get it," and he put the glass down. My smile said, "You're a good boy." This brief two-word interchange and the reading of faces between my grandson and me illustrate how a man typically handles matters of discipline more easily than a gentle mother does.

Here is another example of a father's role as related to gender. Boys are not born with an understanding of what it means to be male. It is a dad's responsibility to introduce that concept over time. Beginning at about eighteen months of age and continuing over the next four years, sexual identity is being formed. During that time, boys need exposure to a loving father or father figure who will serve as a role model for masculinity. They still need their mom's affirmation, to be sure, but not in an overbearing way that prevents them from becoming the males they were made to become. Said another way, the mother is no less significant to her son during that period of identity formation, but something new is being added to the mix. A boy will usually observe as time passes that "Dad is different, and I should be like him." Hopefully, the mother will not be threatened by that realignment and, in fact, should encourage it.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture where family breakup is a common tragedy. Boys, especially those born in the inner city or in poverty-stricken areas, often have little or no exposure to healthy male role models. Too many of them grow up on the streets with older gang members as their only male examples. It is a recipe for violence, drug use, and illicit sex. For more information on boys and their needs, refer to my earlier book Bringing Up Boys.

For girls, dads play an entirely different role. Most parents are aware that boys need their fathers and girls are dependent on their mothers. It is equally important to know, however, that the cross-sexual relationship is also of inestimable significance. Girls need their fathers as much as boys do, but for different reasons. We'll address that point and the vital father- daughter connection shortly.

The establishment of attachment between generations is made much more difficult for boys and for girls because of dramatic changes in the culture in recent years. Before the Industrial Revolution, fathers and mothers worked side by side on farms or in family-owned businesses. They raised their children together, and except for men in the military or those who sailed the seas, most dads lived and worked close to home. For example, we read in Mark 6:3 that Jesus was a carpenter, a trade obviously learned from his earthly father as a child (see Matthew 13:55). We assume his mother, Mary, was a full-time homemaker living nearby. That family structure is now rarely seen. Only in the last one hundred years have fathers left home all day to make a living. Now, approximately 51 percent of mothers are also employed full-time in the workforce.

This is where establishing attachment encounters a challenge. There are enormous pressures on millions of new mothers to "get back to work" as soon as possible after giving birth. The U.S. Census Bureau indicated several years ago that only 42 percent of new mothers take more than three months at home with their babies.12 Many return to work within a month or six weeks. Given what we have seen about the importance of early bond- ing, that can be a big problem. If at all possible, I would recommend that moms take at least a year after birth to heal, bond, and establish a family routine. I recognize that full-time homemaking is not possible for many mothers because of financial pressures and other concerns. Single mothers usually have no choice. It is unfortunate that so many women face that dilemma. Most new mothers know intuitively that the time spent with their babies is precious and fleeting, and they often feel a unique agony when the time comes to hand their babies or preschoolers over to a caregiver and head back to a job outside the home.

Psychologist Daphne de Marneffe, Ph.D., advocates for at-home mothers in her book entitled Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life. After giving birth to her third child, she acknowledged an ache inside to be with her children. She writes, "I felt an invisible tether drawing me home."13 After talking to many other conflicted mothers in the work- place, she concludes, "Maternal desire is not, for any woman, all there is. But for many of us, it is an important part of who we are."14 Dr. de Marn- effe gave up her practice and became a full-time homemaker.

Freelance writer Ellyn Spragins sought to explain why mothers in the workforce become easily offended when even casual references are made to their employment. She writes:

What makes a working woman act this way? Having her heart broken each morning by a tearful 2-year-old who has to be restrained from running down the sidewalk after her when she leaves for work? Forcing herself to linger on a phone call about decorations for the fifth-grade Thanksgiving feast when her client is checking his watch in the reception area? And, of course, needing her paycheck to pay the bills?

Then Spragins turns the coin over and describes the sensitivity of full- time homemakers. She says:

The have-to-work argument isn't believable to many at-home moms, either. Having sacrificed an income and tightened the budget, they see a neighbor's second income as an indulgence, like the new Lincoln Navigator in the driveway.

Spragins continues:

I've straddled these two worlds for most of the last 13 years because I work at home so I can be near my daughter, Keenan, 13, and son, Tucker, 11. Sometimes it makes me feel like a thin-skinned spy. I wince when I hear stay-at-home acquaintances slam an employed mother and become indignant when working friends wonder what stay-at-home moms do all day.

It is a source of powerful internal conflict either way. The system seems rigged against both lifestyles, with mothers at home feeling disrespected for not having a career, and those in the workplace feeling guilty for not being with their children full-time. Combatants in the mommy wars are still in full battle gear.

The trend, it would appear, is moving toward more women staying home. According to a Pew Research Center survey of two thousand women conducted in 2007, only one in five (21 percent) of employed mothers with children under seventeen said full-time work is the ideal situation for them. That is down from 32 percent in 1997. Sixty percent of these moms said part-time work would be their ideal, compared to 48 percent in 1997. One in five (19 percent) said they would rather not be employed outside the home at all. Stated another way, 79 percent of working mothers of minor children would rather not be employed full-time.

On the other side of the ledger, only 16 percent of stay-at-home mothers with minor children said their ideal situation would be full-time employment, down from 24 percent in 1997.19 Forty-eight percent of these stay-at-home moms said not working outside the home would be the ideal situation. Have I overwhelmed you with these statistics? I must share one more that is significant. In 2007, only 16 percent of mothers with children under five thought it would be ideal to work full-time, down from 31 percent in 1997.

In summary, the majority of stay-at-home mothers are content with their decision not to enter or reenter the workforce, and those who are employed full-time say they would prefer to work less or not at all. These preferences are not widely reported in the mainstream media, but they reveal something significant about mothers. Most of them work outside the home because they feel they must, and the younger their children are, the more they yearn to stay home. What a shame it is that women who desperately want to stay at home with their babies do not have the opportunity to do so. Given the economic downturn since 2008, even more women may be forced by financial need to return to the workforce.

Dare I express my opinion on this volatile subject? It is this: the frantic pace at which "two-career" families run is simply not conducive to what is needed at home when kids are small. I'm sure this statement will be irritating to some of you who are still fighting the mommy wars, but it reflects my firm conviction. Whether or not a woman chooses to be employed full- time when not economically necessary is a complex decision to be made only by her and her husband. No one else should try to make it for her or imply that there is only one way to run a family. I am certainly not trying to do that. All I can say is that parenting is an exhausting experience. Some mothers have the energy and stamina to handle domestic duties and child rearing while also carrying the demands of employment. Others clearly do not. Life for them is one long challenge. The issue at hand, however, is not a matter of the mother's well-being. It is what is best for her children in a critical period of life.

It comes down to this: kids thrive in an environment of order, vigilance, and close supervision, which is very difficult to provide by those who come home every night exhausted, distracted, and frazzled. The question that every family raising small children must answer is one of priorities: where is the best place for a mom to invest her time? All things being equal, I rec- ommend that mothers who do have an option consider the welfare of their children first, especially when they are young. Attachment won't wait.

Before closing this discussion about getting your kids off to the most advantageous start in life, I want to make sure I have not been misunder- stood regarding the creation of good relationships with children. One could draw the conclusion that because attachment is so important, mothers and fathers have to walk on eggshells to avoid upsetting and driving away inde- pendent and self-willed youngsters. That could lead to many problems. You, Mom and Dad, are still in charge, and you must not fear that responsibility.

Loving authority, when properly applied, does not weaken a bond between generations. It strengthens it, because mutual respect is the cornerstone of a relationship. Mothers who are overly cautious around their youngsters deprive them of the guidance, discipline, and boundaries that are necessary for healthy development.

Please don't assume, for example, that you must end every order to your child with a tentative question mark, as in, "Do you want to go to bed now?" "Would you like to eat your vegetables, sweetie?" Or, "I want you to be home by 10 p.m., okay?" If you sound like a wimp, you will be treated like one. You will not destroy your mother-child attachment by actively leading that child! Take charge of your youngster from babyhood! God has given you the responsibility of shepherding your precious children through the developmental years, and they need you to fulfill it! At the same time, there are countless ways to show that you love and cherish your child, even in the midst of corrective moments.

I remember my mother punishing me for something (which I undoubtedly deserved) when I was about four years old. After the encounter, she took me onto her lap and told me a story about a little bird. She said the mother bird told her baby to stay snuggled down in the nest, but he didn't obey her. When she flew away to find some worms, the little bird climbed out on the limb and fell to the ground. A big cat saw the little bird fall and quickly caught him.

I'm sure my eyes were as big as saucers as my mother continued, "You see, Jimmy, I am like that mother bird, and you are the little bird. God has told me to protect and care for you, and to keep you from doing anything that could hurt you. That is why you have to obey me at all times. If you don't listen, I will have to punish you like I did today because I love you so much. Now, give me a big hug, and let's go have a snack."

It has been many decades since my mother and I had that conversation, but I remember it vividly today. Did it damage our relationship? Certainly not. It added to the attachment between us, which guided me through childhood. I'm afraid that many parents today have little grasp of the principles involved here. Their confusion will reap painful consequences in years to come. Carol Platt Liebau is one of my favorite authors. She tells moms in her book Prude why they can't afford to be "best friends" with their daughters and sons. She writes:

Desperate for a good relationship with their children, these adults, mothers in particular, seem to believe that they can win their children's affection only by being "cool." Accordingly, they behave a lot like their children's peers and unquestioning advocates, offer generous and constant approval whether or not it's merited, toss discipline out the window, and pretend to be little older than their children. . . .

Either unable or unwilling to take charge of their children, they are parents who are committed above all to remaining popular with their own children. . . .

They are able to ignore the most difficult parts of parenting—setting an example, and assuming responsibility for supervising and disciplining their children—and enjoy all the fun of relating to them as friends. But when mothers squander their moral authority, it's the daughters who ultimately suffer, because they are deprived of the wisdom, experience, and guidance of a mature adult. . . .

Many girls with "parent-peers" are allowed to function so autonomously that they alone decide even what morals they will embrace—which, in practice, may mean that peers, the culture, or others who may not have their best interests at heart are shaping girls' principles. . . .

In fact, today's young people are far more open to parental supervision and guidance than their parents often suspect.

What sage advice this is. Dr. Nancy Snyderman addresses the same issue. She suggests that one of the most significant errors mothers make is assuming they'll be their teenage daughter's best friend. She writes, "After your daughter gets through adolescence, you then earn the right to morph into a friendship."

It is my belief that the desire to be liked by one's children reveals a subtle apprehension that they will rebel when they are teens. Perhaps moms think, If my husband and I don't try to tell them what to do, maybe we can avoid conflict down the road. But both generations suffer when that happens. Moms and dads who are afraid to say no to a child, which I call "the denial of denial," often produce the very rebellion they dread. Children need firm leadership from the moment of birth onward, and it is cruel to deprive them of it. Trying to avoid conflict by being permissive has a name. It is called appeasement, and it never works in human affairs.

When I was in my early twenties, I taught sixth-, seventh-, and eighth- grade science and math in public schools. Down the corridor from me were several new teachers who were terrified of their students from the first day. They tried desperately to appease them with fun and games and what was then called the "open classroom." The rule was that there were no rules. Kids could do whatever they pleased, simultaneously talking, wrestling, playing, and throwing things. These boys and girls knew intuitively that their teachers were inexperienced and afraid of them. The result was utter contempt.

I remember one teacher who had no idea how to control her classroom. The students became little tyrants who reduced her to tears regularly. When she reached the end of her rope and was completely exasperated, she would climb on her desk and blow a whistle at the kids. They loved it. The ring- leaders would plot at lunchtime about how they could get this poor woman to "blow at them." Sometimes she blew all day long. The result was chaos in her classroom.

Children are very perceptive of power games, and they move immediately to fill a perceived vacuum. For them, disrespect and contempt are very closely linked. Adults who are tentative and lacking in confidence often end up being despised by their children. If attachment is the goal of parenting, and it certainly is, that objective is achieved by expressing genuine love, affection, and dedication, combined with reasonable discipline, defined limits, and firm leadership. They work in tandem.

On the cover of my first book, Dare to Discipline, was a little scale depicting "love" on one side and "control" on the other. The key to success- ful parenting is to get those two ingredients into balance. Trouble brews if the scale tips in either direction, whether it is toward permissive and over- protective love or angry and oppressive control. Affection and discipline counterbalance each other, leading to greater bonding.

I'll close with this final thought about attachment. I have been describ- ing ideal family relationships in this chapter, beginning with a loving, nur- turing mother and an available, connected dad. In real life, those complex attachments are never perfect. There are countless single mothers and fathers today who are doing the best they can amid difficult circumstances.

There are dads who are so committed to their professions that they hardly know the names of their kids. There are immature moms who were still dealing with the emotional upheaval of adolescence when they found them- selves pregnant. In these and a myriad of other challenging family settings, parents should try to get as close to the goal of attachment as possible.

Nevertheless, children are resilient and usually manage to land on their feet. To all the moms and dads among my readers who recognize their own limitations, take heart. The Creator of families knows your needs and offers His care and concern. Ask and you will receive!

I could devote at least a thousand more pages to this subject, but I will have to move on at this point.



From Bringing Up Girls by Dr. James C. Dobson
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