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January 05, 2015

The Tough and the Gentle



In the days of the wild and woolly West, a lone cowboy went riding through a valley and came unexpectedly upon an Indian lying motionless on the road. His right ear was pressed to the ground, and he was muttering soberly to himself. "Ummm," he said. "Stagecoach! Three people inside. Two men, one woman. Four horses. Three dapple gray, one black. Stagecoach moving west. Ummmmm." The cowboy was amazed and said, "That's incredible, pardner! You can tell all that just by listening to the ground?" The Indian replied, "Ummmmmm. No!  Stagecoach run over me thirty minutes ago!"


When I first heard that story I was reminded of the mothers, bless them all, who are raising one or more rambunctious preschoolers simultaneously. If you are one of them, haven't you had moments like that Indian when you found yourself lying flat on the floor and muttering to yourself, "Mmmmm. Three kids. Dirty hands. Wet diapers. Mud on feet. Tearing through the house. Making me crazy! Help!"

If you've been in this posture lately, then take heart. You are not alone. Millions of parents, past and present, can identify with the particular stresses you are experiencing right now. A child between eighteen and thirty-six months of age is a sheer delight, but he can also be utterly maddening. He is inquisitive, short-tempered, demanding, cuddly, innocent and dangerous at the same time. I find it fascinating to watch him run through his day, seeking opportunities to crush things, flush things, kill things, spill things, fall off things, eat horrible things—and think up ways to rattle his mother. Someone said it best: The Lord made Adam from the dust of the earth, but when the first toddler came along, He added electricity.

One such energetic lad, who belongs more or less, to some friends of ours is little Frankie. One day recently he pulled a chair over to the front window and carefully placed it inside the drapes. He was standing there staring out at the world when his mother came looking for him. She spied his little white legs protruding beneath the drapes and quietly slipped in behind him. Then she heard him speaking to himself in very somber terms. He was saying, "I've got to get out of here!"

I could fill a book with wonderful pronouncements from the mouths of preschool children. They are among the most delightful little people on the face of the earth. But returning to our thesis, they (and all children) bring a special kind of stress into the lives of their parents. Humorist Erma Bombeck said in one of her books that she was frustrated by her children from the moment they were born. She remembered how she got three kids, but she couldn't recall why. She decided maybe they were a 4-H project that got out of hand.

For some parents, the overwhelming responsibility associated with child-rearing is not so funny. As indicated in the preceding chapter, there appears to be a growing number of husbands and wives today who are not coping well with parenthood. They've reached the end of the rope and it is frazzled. The letters they send to me are replete with self-condemnation, guilt and anger. Many seem to have experienced a kind of physical exhaustion that leaves them confused and depressed.

High on the list of irritants which keeps them off balance and agitated is the tendency of some children to test, challenge, resist and blatantly defy authority. These rebellious youngsters can create more stress in a single afternoon than their mothers can handle in a week. I wrote about them in an earlier book entitled The Strong-Willed Child, but they continue to fascinate me. For fifteen years I have watched them operate and wondered what makes them tick. I have interviewed adults who had been rebellious teenagers, and asked them what they were thinking during their season of anger. Even they do not fully understand themselves. I resolved to investigate further.

On behalf of those readers who have never encountered him, let me describe the tough-minded child. At birth he looks deceptively like his more compliant sibling. He weighs seven pounds and is totally dependent on those who care for him. Indeed, he would not survive for more than a day or two without their attention. Ineffectual little arms and legs dangle aimlessly in four directions, appearing to be God's afterthoughts. What a picture of vulnerability and innocence he is!

Isn't it amazing, given this beginning, what happens in twenty short months? Junior then weighs twenty-five pounds and he's itching for action. Would you believe this kid who couldn't even hold his own bottle less than two years ago now has the gall to look his two-hundred-pound father straight in the eye and tell him where to get off? What audacity! Obviously, there is something deep within his soul that longs for control. He will work at achieving it for the rest of his life. 

In the early 1970s, I had the privilege of living near one of these little spitfires. He was thirty-six months old at the time and had already bewildered and overwhelmed his mother. The contest of wills was over. He had won it. His sassy talk was legendary in the neighborhood, not only to his mother but to anyone who got in his way. Then one day my wife saw him ride his tricycle down the driveway and into the street, which panicked his mother. We lived on a curve and the cars came around that bend at high speed. Mom rushed out of the house and caught up with her son as he pedaled down the street. She took hold of his handlebars to redirect him, and he came unglued.

"Get your dirty hands off my tricycle!" he screamed. His eyes were squinted in fury. As Shirley watched in disbelief, this woman did as she was told. The life of her child was in danger, and yet this mother did not have the courage to confront him. He continued to ride down the street and she could only stand and watch.

How could it be that a tiny little boy at three years of age was able to buffalo his thirty-year-old mother in this way? Well, it was clear to any observer that she had no idea how to manage him. But also, he was simply tougher than she—and they both knew it. This mild-mannered woman had produced an iron-willed kid who was giving her fits, and you can be sure that her physical and emotional resources were continually drained by his antics.

Contrast this independent youngster with his easy-going counterpart at the other end of the continuum. The compliant child approaches people from an entirely different direction. He wants to please them because he needs their approval. A word of displeasure or even the slightest frown from his parents can be disturbing to him. He is a lover, not a fighter. 

A few years ago I talked with the mother of one of these easy-going kids. She was concerned about the difficulties her son was having in nursery school. He was regularly being bullied by more aggressive children, but it was not within him to defend himself. Thus, every afternoon when his mother came to get him, he had been whacked and harassed by these other boys. Even the girls were joining in the fun.

"You must defend yourself!" his mother said again and again. "Those other children will keep hitting you until you make them stop!" 

Each day she urged her little lover to be more assertive, but it contradicted his nature to do so. Finally, his frustration became so great that he began trying to follow his mother's advice. As they were on the way to school one morning he said, "Mom! If those kids pick on me again today I'm going to beat them up! Slightly."

How does one beat up an opponent "slightly"? I don't know, but it made perfect sense to this compliant child. He didn't want to use any more force than was absolutely necessary to survive. Why? Because he had a peace-loving nature. His parents didn't teach it to him. It simply was.

As most mothers know, this kind of compliant child and his strong-willed sibling are so distinct that they could almost be from different planets. One cuddles to your embrace and the other kicks you in the navel. One is a natural sweetheart and the other goes through life like hot lava. One follows orders and the other gives them. Quite obviously, they are marching to a different set of drums.

I must make it clear that the compliant child is not necessarily wimpy or spineless. That fact is very important to our understanding of his nature and how he differs from his strong-willed sibling. The distinction between them is not a matter of confidence, willingness to take a risk, sparkling personality or other desirable characteristics. Rather, the issue under consideration is focused on the strength of the will—the inclination of some children to resist authority and determine their own course, as compared with those who are willing to be led. It is my supposition that these temperaments are pre-packaged before birth and do not have to be cultivated or encouraged. They will make themselves known soon enough.

Not everyone concurs. Many psychologists and psychiatrists of the past would have disagreed violently with this understanding. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, and J. B. Watson, creator of behaviorism, believed that newborns come into the world as "blank slates" on which the environment would later write. For them, a baby had no inborn characteristics of personality that distinguished him from other infants. Everything he would become, both good and evil, would result from the experiences to be provided by the world around him. He could make no independent decisions because he had no real freedom of choice ability to consider his circumstances and act rationally on them. Watson even rejected the existence of a mind, viewing the brain as a simple switchboard that responded automatically to external stimuli. Hence, his system of thinking has been called, "Psychology out of its mind."

Watson bragged during the 1920s that he could train any infant "to become any type of specialist I might select doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant, chief and, yes, even beggarman and thief." He thought children were simply "raw material" for parents "to fashion in ways to suit themselves."

In short, this belief that all behavior is caused is called determinism, and it will have significance for us in later discussions. I first heard the concept when I was in graduate school  I didn't accept it then, and I certainly don't believe it now. As a Christian psychologist, I have always filtered man-made theories through the screen of Scripture, and in this instance, determinism hangs up in the wire. If it were true, we would be unable to worship and serve God as a voluntary expression of our love. We would be mere puppets on a string, responding to the stimuli around us.

It is becoming clear today just how far off base these classical psychologists have been in their interpretation of human behavior. There is no doubt, as they said, that the environment is enormously influential in molding and shaping our personalities, but they failed to recognize our ability to think, to choose and to respond according to our own temperaments. We are rational human beings who can override our experience and external influences. Furthermore, at birth, except for identical twins, no two of us are a like. And how foolish it was to have thought otherwise. If God makes every grain of sand and every snowflake like no other on earth, how simplistic it was to have believed He mass-produced little human robots. We are, after all, made in His image.

A blob of tissue? A blank slate? A mass of protoplasm? Hardly! Individual differences in temperament can be discerned at birth or shortly thereafter. In one remarkable scriptural reference we even see references to a strong-willed temperament before the child was born. Genesis 16:11 reports a striking conversation between an angel of the Lord and Abraham's pregnant servant girl, Hagar. He said, "You are now with child and you will have a son, you shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers."

Does that sound like anyone you know? I've met a few wild donkeys in my time, to be sure. In another example from the book of Genesis, we are told of the prenatal development of the twins, Jacob and Esau. One was rebellious and tough while the other was something of a mama's boy. They were also enemies before they were born and continued in conflict through much of their lives (see Genesis 25:22-27). Then later, in one of the most mysterious and disturbing chapters in the Bible, the Lord said, "Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated" (Romans 9:13). Apparently, God discerned a rebellious nature in Esau before he was born and knew that he would not be receptive to the divine Spirit.

Behavioral scientists are now observing and documenting the subtle understandings that have been evident in the Scriptures for thousands of years. One of the most ambitious of these efforts to study the temperaments of babies has been in progress for more than three decades. It is known as the New York Longitudinal Study. The findings from this investigation, led by psychiatrists Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas, are now reported in their excellent book for parents entitled, Know Your Child. I recommend it enthusiastically to anyone interested in child development.

To my delight, Chess and Thomas found that babies not only differ significantly from one another at the moment of birth, but those differences tend to be rather persistent throughout childhood. Even more interestingly, they observed three broad categories or patterns of temperaments into which the majority of children can be classified. The first they called "the difficult child," who is characterized by negative reactions to people, intense mood swings, irregular sleep and feeding schedules, frequent periods of crying and violent tantrums when frustrated.

Does that sound familiar?

The second pattern is called "the easy child," who manifests a positive approach to people, quiet adaptability to new situations, regular sleep and feeding schedules, and a willingness to accept the rules of the game. The authors concluded, "Such a youngster is usually a joy to her parents, pediatrician and teachers." Amen.

The third category was given the title "Slow-to-warm-up" or "shy." These youngsters respond negatively to new situations and they adapt slowly. However, they are less intense than difficult children and they tend to have regular sleeping and feeding schedules. When they are upset or frustrated, they typically withdraw from the situation and react mildly, rather than exploding with anger and rebellion.

Not every child fits into these categories, of course, but approximately 65 percent do. Chess and Thomas also emphasize that babies are fully human at birth, being able immediately to relate to their parents and begin learning from their environments. I doubt if that news will come as a surprise to most parents, who never believed in the "blank slate" theory, anyway. Ask the mother who has raised a houseful of children. She will tell you that each of her kids had a different personality, a different "feel" from the first time she held the little one in her arms. She is right. 

It should not be difficult to understand why these findings from longitudinal research have been exciting to me. They confirm my own observations, not only about the wonderful complexity of human beings, but also about the categories of temperament identified by Chess and Thomas. Nevertheless, basic questions remain to be answered.

What do we really know about these strong-willed and compliant children? (We'll leave our consideration of the shy child to a future book.) How persistent are their personality traits as they grow older? What are the teen years like for each? How do their parents feel about raising them? Does the strong-willed child have an advantage over the compliant child socially or academically or in achievement during early adulthood? These questions have never been answered, to my knowledge, since we have only recently admitted that temperamental differences exist. It was this dearth of information that led me to initiate a large-scale inquiry of my own into the subject.

Initially, a questionnaire was developed for use with parents. By completing this research instrument, parents provided extensive information regarding their own temperaments and those of their children. Specifically, they were asked to evaluate each member of the family on a five-point scale as follows: (1) very compliant; (2) rather compliant; (3) average; (4) rather strong-willed; (5) very strong-willed. No effort was made to define these categories because my interest was only in those children at the extremes, (categories [1] and [5]). The other records were ignored, except for the provision of demographic information.

I then asked detailed questions about the children and how their parents felt about raising them. More than 35,000 families participated in the study and the data were analyzed at the University of Southern California Computer Center. I was assisted in the analysis by my good friend, Malcolm Williamson, Ph.D., whose specialties are measurement and statistics. We generated a mountain of computerized information that could fill five books this size, but we will just hit the highlights here. Let me say that this has been a fascinating journey into human nature, and I wish to express appreciation to the families who shared their experiences with me. I believe the information I have learned through this effort is available nowhere else in the world.

* I recognize that this is deep water theologically speaking. Jacob was not rejected by God, and yet he, like Esau, was sinful and disobedient. Who among us can explain God's greater judgment on one than the other? In reference to the analogy between Jacob and Esau and the temperaments of children, I want to make it clear that the strong-willed child is no more evil or ungodly than his compliant sibling. His inclination toward disobedience may be greater, but I am certainly not casting them in terms of "good" vs. "bad." They are simply different, and one is more difficult to handle than the other.

From Dr. Dobson’s book Parenting Isn’t for Cowards.

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