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March 22, 2024

How to Discipline Without Breaking a Child's Spirit

The goal in dealing with a difficult child is to shape the will without breaking the spirit. Hitting both targets is sometimes easier said than done. Perhaps it will help to share a letter from a mother who was having a terrible time with her son Jake. Her description of this child and her responses to him illustrate precisely how not to deal with a difficult boy or girl. (Note: The details of this letter have been changed slightly to conceal the identity of the writer.)


Dear Dr. Dobson:

More than anything else in this world, I want to have a happy family. We have two girls, ages three and five, and a boy who is ten. They don't get along at all. The boy and his father don't get along either. And I find myself screaming at the kids and sitting on my son to keep him from hitting and kicking his sisters.

His teacher of the past year thought he needed to learn better ways of getting along with his classmates. He had some problems on the playground and had a horrible time on the school bus. And he didn't seem to be able to walk from the bus stop to our house without getting in a fight or throwing rocks at somebody. So I usually pick him up and bring him home myself.

He is very bright but writes poorly and hates to do it. He is impulsive and quick-tempered (we all are now). He is tall and strong. Our pediatrician says he has "everything going for him." But Jake seldom finds anything constructive to do. He likes to watch television, play in the water, and dig in the dirt.

We are very upset about his diet but haven't been able to do anything about it. He drinks milk and eats Jell-O and crackers and toast. In the past he ate lots of hot dogs and bologna, but not much lately. He also craves chocolate and bubble gum. We have a grandma nearby who sees that he gets lots of it. She also feeds him baby food. We haven't been able to do anything about that, either.

Jake's teachers, the neighbor children, and his sisters complain about his swearing and name-calling. This is really an unfortunate situation because we're always thinking of him in a bad light. But hardly a day goes by when something isn't upset or broken. He's been breaking windows since he was a toddler. One day in June he came home early from school and found the house locked, so he threw a rock through his bedroom window, broke it, and crawled in. Another day recently he tried the glass cutter on our bedroom mirror. He spends a great deal of time at the grandma's home who caters to him. We feel she is a bad influence, but so are we when we're constantly upset and screaming.

Anyhow, we have what seems to be a hopeless situation. He is growing bigger and stronger but not any wiser. So, what do we do or where do we go?

My husband says he refuses to take Jake anywhere ever again until he matures and "acts like a civilized human being." He has threatened to put him in a foster home. I couldn't send him to a foster home. He needs people who know what to do with him. Please help us if you can.

Mrs. T.

P.S. Our children are adopted and there isn't much of anything left in our marriage.

This was a very sad plea for help because the writer was undoubtedly sincere when she wrote, "more than anything else in this world, I want to have a happy family." From the tone of her letter, however, it was unlikely that she ever realized that greatest longing. In fact, that specific need for peaceful coexistence and harmony apparently led to many of her problems with Jake. She lacked the courage to do battle with him. It's possible that he suffered from ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). For the sake of our discussion here, let's look at the two very serious mistakes this mom made with her son.

First, Mr. and Mrs. T. failed to shape Jake's will, although he was begging for their intervention. It is an unsettling thing to be your own boss at ten years of age—unable to find even one adult who is strong enough to earn your respect. Why else would Jake have broken every rule and attacked every symbol of authority? He waged war on his teacher at school, but she was also baffled by his challenge. All she knew to do was call his trembling mother and report, "Jake needs to learn better ways of getting along with his classmates." (That was a kind way of putting it. I'm sure there were more caustic things the teacher could have said about this boy's classroom behavior!)

Jake was a brat on the school bus, he fought with his classmates on the way home, he broke windows and cut mirrors, he used the foulest language, and he tormented his sisters. He ate junk food and refused to complete his academic assignments or accept any form of responsibility. Can there be any doubt that Jake was screaming, "Look! I'm doing it all wrong! Doesn't anyone love me enough to care? Can't anyone help me? I hate the world and the world hates me!"

Mrs. T. and her husband were perplexed and frustrated. She responded by "screaming at the kids" and "sitting on [her] son" when he misbehaved. No one knew what to do with him. Even Grandma was a bad influence. Mom resorted to anger and high-pitched weeping and wailing. There is no more ineffective approach to child management than volcanic displays of anger.

In short, Mrs. T. and her husband had abdicated their responsibility to provide leadership for their family. Note how many times she said, in essence, we are powerless to act. These parents were distressed over Jake's poor diet but wrote that they "haven't been able to do anything about it." Jake's grandmother fed him junk food and bubble gum, but they weren't able to do anything about that either. Likewise, they couldn't stop him from swearing or tormenting his sisters or breaking windows or throwing rocks at his peers. One has to ask "Why not?" Why was the family ship so difficult to steer? Why did it end up dashed to pieces on the rocks? The problem was that the ship and the crew had no captain! They drifted aimlessly in the absence of a leader—a decision-maker who could guide them to safe waters.

The T. family not only failed to shape Jake's rampaging will, they also assaulted his wounded spirit with every conflict. Not only did they scream and cry and wring their hands in despair, but they demeaned his sense of personal worth and dignity. Can't you hear his angry father shouting, "Why don't you grow up and act like a civilized human being? Well, I'll tell you something! I'm through with you, boy! I'll never take you anywhere again or even let anyone know that you are my son. As a matter of fact, I'm not sure you are going to be my son for very long. If you keep acting like a lawless thug we're going to throw you out of the family—we're going to put you into a foster home. Then we'll see how you like it!" And with each accusation, Jake's self-esteem moved down another notch. But did these personal assaults make him sweeter and more cooperative? Of course, not! He just became meaner and more bitter and more convinced of his own worthlessness. You see, Jake's spirit had been crushed, but his will still raged at hurricane velocity. And sadly, he then turned his self-hatred on his peers and family.

If circumstances had permitted, it would have been my pleasure to have had Jake in our home for a period of time. I don't believe it was too late to save him, and I would have felt challenged by the opportunity to try. How would I have approached this defiant youngster? By giving him the following message as soon as his suitcase was unpacked: "Jake, there are several things I want to talk over with you, now that you're a member of the family. First, you'll soon learn how much we love you in this house. I'm glad you're here, and I hope these will be the happiest days of your life. And you should know that I care about your feelings, problems, and concerns. We invited you here because we wanted you to come, and you will receive the same love and respect that is given to our own children. If you have something on your mind, you can come right out and say it. I won't get angry or make you regret expressing yourself. Neither my wife nor I will ever intentionally do anything to hurt you or treat you unkindly. You'll see that these are not just empty promises that you're hearing. This is the way people act when they care about each other, and we already care about you.

"But, Jake, there are some other things you need to understand. There are going to be some definite rules and acceptable ways of behaving in this home, and you are going to have to live within them, just as our other children do. I will have them written for you by tomorrow morning. You will carry your share of responsibilities and jobs, and your schoolwork will be given high priority each evening. And you need to understand, Jake, that my most important job as your guardian is to see that you behave in ways that are healthy to yourself and others. It may take you a week or two to adjust to this new situation, but you're going to make it and I'm going to be here to see that you do. And when you refuse to obey, I will punish you immediately. In fact, I'm going to be right on your neck until you figure out that you can't beat the system. I have many ways to make you miserable, and I'm prepared to use them when necessary. This will help you change some of the destructive ways you've been acting in recent years. But even when I must discipline you, know that I will love you as much as I do right now. Nothing will change that."

The first time Jake disobeyed what he knew to be my definite instructions, I would have reacted decisively. There would have been no screaming or derogatory accusations, although he would quickly discover that I meant what I said. The following morning, we would have discussed the issue rationally, reassuring him of our continuing love, and then started over.

Even the most delinquent children typically respond well to this pairing of love and consistent discipline! It is a prescription for use in your own home too. I strongly suggest that you give it a go.

From Dr. Dobson's book The New Strong-Willed Child.


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