The Heart of the Home

Photo of Dr. Dobson

Dear Friends,

You may know that of all the subjects that interest me, children are at the top of the list. I’ve devoted most of my professional life to their welfare, beginning as a professor of pediatrics in 1970 and continuing to this day here at Family Talk. In keeping with this lifelong fascination, let me share some excerpts this month from my New York Times bestseller, Bringing Up Boys. I hope you will find these comments relevant to the children in your family.

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I have the highest respect and admiration for those who are blessed to be called mothers. There are few assignments in human experience that require the array of skills and wisdom needed by a mom in fulfilling her everyday duties. She must be a resident psychologist, physician, theologian, educator, nurse, chef, taxi driver, fire marshal and occasional police officer. And if she succeeds in each of these responsibilities, she gets to do it all again tomorrow.

To understand the world in which a young mother lives, our male readers might want to join one of them on a midmorning visit to the pediatrician’s office. After sitting for 45 minutes with a cranky, feverish toddler on her lap, Mom and Baby are finally ushered into the examining room. The doctor checks out the sick child and then tells the woman with a straight face, "Be sure you keep him quiet for four or five days. Don’t let him scratch the rash. Make certain he keeps the medicine down, and you’ll need to watch his stool."

"Yeah, sure, Doc! Any other suggestions?"

"Just one. This disease is highly contagious. Keep your other four kids away from him. I’ll see you in a week."

The amazing thing about mothers is that most of them would get this job done, and they would do it with love and grace. God made ’em good at what they do. And He gave them a passion for their children. Most of them would quite literally lay down their lives to protect the kids entrusted to their care. Despite that commitment, however, many women admit that raising boys has been a special challenge. They remember what it was like to be a frilly little girl, but they have only a vague notion of how their sons feel, think and behave. Boys are bent on making messes, teasing the other siblings, racing through the house and challenging every decision and order that comes their way.

One of my colleagues, Dr. Tim Irwin, shared his observation that women who have not grown up with brothers are often shocked by the sheer physicality of boys — by the sights and sounds and smells they generate. Some admit they are completely "clueless" in knowing how to deal with them. One obvious suggestion is to help boys release their excess energy by getting them involved in activities where fighting, laughing, running, tumbling and yelling are acceptable. Soccer, karate, Little League and football are a few possibilities. Moms also need to keep boys’ little minds and hands busy. It’s in their best interest to do so. My father once said about our energetic toddler, "If you let that kid get bored, you deserve what he’s going to do to you." Shirley’s stepfather, who had a South Dakota accent, once said after baby-sitting our kids for a week, "Oh, der good kids. You just gotta keep ’em out in da open." Good advice!

There’s another characteristic of boys that I’ll bet you’ve noticed. They ain’t listening most of the time. They have a remarkable ability to ignore anything that doesn’t interest them. Men are like that too. My wife can’t understand how I am able to write a book, including this one, while a televised football game is blaring near me. I don’t actually watch and compose at the same time, but I can turn off the sound in my mind until I choose to hear it, such as when a replay appears on the screen. After watching for a moment, I go back to what I was doing.

This is a "talent" that drives women crazy. Their husbands can read a report from the office and miss everything being said three feet away. One frustrated lady actually held a match to the bottom of the newspaper being read by her husband, which finally got his attention when it flamed up in his face. She said the only other way to have awakened him would have been to dance provocatively on the dining room table. I’m not even sure that would have worked.

Alas, boys have that same ability to ignore their moms. They honestly don’t hear the words that are being poured into their ears. That is why I recommend that you as a mom reach out physically and touch your boys if you want to get their attention. When they turn to look at you, give them your message in short bursts. It beats yelling at them. For now, I want to discuss the various developmental milestones, beginning at birth.

Fathers play an essential role in boys’ early development, but moms are on the hook too. There is no way to overstate the importance of what is called "infant bonding" between mother and child of either sex. The quality of that relationship will have lifelong implications and can even determine life or death. Mary Carlson, a researcher from Harvard Medical School, recently studied an overcrowded Romanian orphanage, where row upon row of babies lay neglected in their cribs. The staff was hopelessly overworked, so the babies were rarely touched, even when feeding. What struck Carlson was the oppressive silence in the nursery. There was no crying, no babbling - not even a whimper. Upon physical examinations administered at age two, Carlson found that the babies had unusually high amounts of a stress hormone in the blood called cortisol, which in large amounts is known to damage the brain. Growth was stunted and the children acted half their age. Even those that survive will never fully recover.

But what are the implications of less tragic circumstances where the mother-boy relationship simply fails to jell? That specific question was also studied at Harvard University. Researchers found that early bonding is vital. It is even related to physical health 40 or 50 years later. Incredibly, 91 percent of college men who said they had not enjoyed a close relationship with their mothers developed coronary artery disease, hypertension, duodenal ulcers and alcoholism by the midlife years. Only 45 percent of the men who recalled maternal warmth and closeness had similar illnesses. Even more surprising is the fact that 100 percent of participants in this study whose parents were cold and distant went on to suffer numerous diseases in midlife. In short, the quality of early relationships between boys and their mothers is a powerful predictor of lifelong psychological and physical health. When certain needs are not met in infancy, trouble looms down the road.

Given the delicate nature of infants, perhaps it is understandable why I remain unalterably opposed to the placement of babies in day-care facilities unless there is no reasonable alternative. Children may appear to be dealing adequately with a series of temporary caregivers, but they are designed to link emotionally with a mother and a father and to develop securely within the protection of their arms. That belief was rarely challenged for some 5,000 years, but many women today feel they have no choice but to get back to a job as soon as possible after giving birth. If you are one of them, let me say respectfully and compassionately that I understand the financial and emotional pressures you face. But to new mothers who have other options, I would strongly recommend that you not hand your babies over to child-care workers, many of whom are underpaid, untrained and who will not share your irrational commitment to that infant.

My opinion on this subject is based on hard data. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development conducted the most comprehensive study of this issue to date. More than 1,100 mothers and children at 10 premier child-care sites across the United States were evaluated when the children were 6, 15, 24 and 36 months of age. Preliminary results were reported in USA Today as follows:

"Working moms worry that if they leave their infants and toddlers in the care of others, relationships with their children will be affected. News from the federal government says they are right to be concerned. Longer hours spent in child care in the first three years of life tend to mean less positive interaction between mother and child." Preliminary findings confirm that leaving a very young child in a day-care facility is associated with less sensitive mothering and child engagement. The child also tends to react less positively to the mother. In other words, the bond between mother and child is affected negatively by early day-care experiences, especially if the mother tends by nature to be insensitive.

The data reported above were issued when the study was incomplete. When it was concluded in 2001, the researchers announced even more disturbing findings. They said that children who spend most of their time in child care were three times as likely to exhibit behavioral problems in kindergarten as those who were cared for primarily by mothers. These results were based on ratings of the children by their mothers, those caring for them and by kindergarten teachers. There was a direct correlation between the amount of time spent in child care and traits such as aggression, defiance and disobedience. The more time spent in these out-of-home settings, the more frequent the behavior problems. Dr. Jay Belsky, one of the study’s principal investigators, said children who spend more than 30 hours a week in child care "are more demanding, more noncompliant and more aggressive. They exhibited increased anti-social behaviors such as fighting, cruelty, bullying, meanness, as well as talking too much. They insist that their demands be met immediately." This is not good news for the 13 million preschoolers, including six million infants and toddlers, who are in child care in the United States.

After the release of this study, there was a hue and cry from the liberal community that has told us for years that children actually thrive better when raised in child-care centers. They attacked the methodology of the study and claimed its findings were invalid. Others demanded more federal money for quality child-care programs. No one doubts that better day-care options are needed by parents who must depend on them. However, I may have a better idea. Why not reduce the tax burden on parents so that mothers can do what most of them desperately want to do — stay at home with their children? That might be easier said then done.

When our firstborn was three years old, I was finishing my doctoral work at the University of Southern California. Every available dollar was needed to support my tuition and related expenses. Although we didn’t want Shirley to work when Danae was young, we felt we had no alternative. She taught school and our little girl was taken to a day-care center each morning. One day when we arrived at the facility, Danae began to cry uncontrollably. "No! No! No, Daddy!" she said to me. She clung to my neck as I carried her to the door and then begged me not to leave. Children at that age typically do not like to be left by parents, but this was something different. Danae had a look of terror in her eyes, and I suspected that she had been very upset the last time she was there. I could only imagine what had happened. I turned and walked back to the car carrying my precious daughter. When we were alone, I said, "Danae, I promise that you will never have to stay there again." And she never did.

Shirley and I talked about how we were going to keep my promise. We finally decided to sell and "eat" one of our two Volkswagens, which allowed her to stay home and take care of our daughter for a year. By the time the money was gone, I was out of school and we could afford for my wife to be a full-time mom. Not everyone can do what we did, and certainly, there are millions of single parents out there who simply must work outside the home. If that is your situation, you have to make the best of it. If a relative or a friend can keep your child during the day, that is better than a child-care facility, all things being equal. What is needed is continuity in the relationship between a child and the one who provides daily care.

The bottom line from many studies of infancy and early child development is consistent: babies have several essential emotional needs. Among them are touch, connection, permanence, nurturance and reassurance. I ache for the many abused and neglected children out there today whose needs are tragically ignored. There is nothing sadder in life than an unloved child or one who feels unloved. Sometimes I wish babies were born with signs hanging around their necks that warn, "Caution! Handle with care! Love me. Protect me! Give me a place in your heart."

Through toddlerhood, the elementary years and into adolescence, the goal of parenting is attachment. 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 with the words “love” on one side and “control” on the other. The key to successful parenting is to get those two ingredients into balance. Trouble brews if the scale tips in either direction, whether it is toward permissive and overprotective 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. In real life, 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 and moms who are so dedicated 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 themselves 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. Even when that connectedness is incomplete, children are resilient and usually manage to land on their feet. To all the moms and dads 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!

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Well, that’s my message this month. The work of Family Talk is going well, although quite honestly, we could sure use a little extra help financially. If you can provide that assistance, we would certainly appreciate a late summer boost.

Thanks for joining me again. It is an honor to be invited into your home. Why don’t you come visit our ministry when you are in our neighborhood? Our headquarters is located at 540 Elkton Drive in Colorado Springs, Colorado. We’d love to meet you.


Dr. Dobson Signature

James C. Dobson, Ph.D.
President and Founder


Bringing Up Boys. Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, IL. 2001.

Bringing Up Girls. Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, IL. 2010.

his letter may be reproduced without change and in its entirety for non-commercial and non-political purposes without prior permission from Family Talk. Copyright © 2012 Family Talk. All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Printed in the U.S.A. Dr. James Dobson’s Family Talk is not affiliated with Focus on the Family.

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