Dr. James Dobson's March 2017 Newsletter


I want to get back to the basics this month about one of the subjects I care about most. It is children. For parents everywhere who are still dealing with one (or more) tough-as-nails strong-willed child, and for grandparents whose grown children have now given them a couple of difficult grandkids, it might be time for a brief refresher course. Specifically, let’s talk about how to understand and handle mischievous little rascals whose greatest pleasure seems to be in upsetting their guardians. Nearly every mother or father has dealt with one or more such youngsters during the growing-up years. So did Shirley and I.

When I am greeted in the public by moms and dads who pause to thank me for helping to raise their kids, they almost always mention my book, The Strong Willed Child. The principles I talked about therein are still relevant today. Some things, including human nature, just don’t change.

What Makes Them the Way They Are?

Having talked to thousands of parents from three generations who have struggled to control and manage their difficult children, one has to wonder why so many "experts" on child rearing have failed to notice that some kids are tougher to raise than others. Many of these advice-givers, psychologists, counselors, pediatricians, psychiatrists, and columnists for women's magazines, give the impression that raising kids is as simple as falling off a log. All parents need to do, they have been told, is give them a lot of space and love, treat them like adults, and if absolutely necessary, explain every now and then why they might want to consider behaving better. How nice it would be if that were true. Unfortunately, this rosy view is nonsense. It leaves Mom and Dad with the idea that every competent parent finds it easy to manage children, and those who are having trouble with it are failures. In most cases, it is not fair and it is not true.

Misguided advice on child rearing has been prominent in the literature for at least 100 years. For example, best-selling author of books for parents, John Caldwell Holt, wrote a foolish text in 1974 entitled Escape from Childhood. It was straight out of left field. Jim Stingley reviewed the book for the Los Angeles Times. He wrote:

In the latest one, [Holt] plainly advocates the overthrow of parental authority in just about every area. He sets forth that children, age whatever, should have the right to: experience sex, drink and use drugs, drive, vote, work, own property, travel, have a guaranteed income, choose their guardians, control their learning, and have legal and financial responsibility. In short, Holt proposed that parents discard “the protectorate position” they have held over their children in this and other countries over the past several hundred years, and thrust them, or rather let them thrust themselves—when they feel like they want to—into the real-life world.

Do you agree that Holt’s advice was utterly foolish? Even the Los Angeles Times reviewer, a supposedly unbiased journalist, implies that Holt's ideas are ludicrous. Can you imagine a six-year-old girl driving her own car to an escrow office, where she and her preschool male friend discussed the purchase of a new home over a martini or two? Can you visualize a teary-eyed mother and father standing in the doorway, saying good-bye to their five-year-old son who has decided to pack his teddy bear and go live with someone else? This is where the permissive notions of the past eventually led. The surprising thing is that this man and his cockamamie theories were taken seriously by many people during the revolutionary days of the late sixties and seventies. In fact, Holt was quoted in the Times article as saying:

"Oddly enough, the chapter on the matter of drinking and drugs, letting young people do whatever older people do, as well as manage their own sex lives, hasn't brought as much flack as I would have expected. . . . The understanding, sympathetic responses [from readers] have clearly outweighed the negative or hostile ones."

About the time the Holt book came along, an article appeared in Family Circle that also revealed the permissiveness of the day. Its title, "A Marvelous New Way to Make Your Child Behave," should have been the first clue as to the nature of its content. (If its recommendations were so fantastic, why hadn't they been observed in more than five thousand years of parenting?) The subtitle was even more revealing: "Rewards and Punishment Don't Work." Those two Pollyannaish headlines revealed the primrose path down which the authors were leading their readers. Instead, the examples given in the article focused on relatively minor incidents of childish irresponsibility, such as a child not washing his hands before dinner or wearing improper clothing or not taking out the garbage. Responsible behavior is a noble objective for our children, but let's admit that the more difficult task is shaping the child's will in moments of rebellion.

Another example of permissive approaches to child rearing is referred to as "positive discipline" or the "positive parenting" movement. It sounds good, but it is little more than repackaged permissive claptrap. Consider the following advice, featured on the Oklahoma State Department of Health's "Positive Discipline" web page. It read, "The goal of discipline is not to control children and make them obey but to give them skills for making decisions, gradually gaining self-control, and being responsible for their own behavior." Instead of telling a child, "Don't hit the kitty," or "Stop kicking the table," they suggest that parents say, "Touch the kitty gently," or "Keep your feet on the floor." The website goes on to assert, "Giving a child choices allows him some appropriate power over his life and encourages decision making." Parents were advised to "redirect" childish behavior. For example, if a child is throwing a truck around the house, instead of telling him to stop, they suggest you say to him or her, "I can't let you throw your truck, but you may throw the ball outside." Or if the child is kicking a door, you are to tell him, "You may not kick the door, but you may kick this ball or plastic milk jug." Their suggestion for dealing with willful defiance is to ignore it or to allow the child to engage in "something pleasant" until he cools off.

What ridiculous advice that is. Notice how hard the parent is supposed to work to avoid being the leader at home. What's wrong with explaining to a child exactly what you want him or her to do and expecting obedience in return? Why is it unacceptable for a parent to insist that a child engaging in destructive or irritating behavior immediately cease and desist? Why not tell the child, "Kitties have feelings just like you do. You will not hit the kitty"?

A youngster whose parent has never taken charge firmly is being deprived of a proper understanding of his mom's or dad's authority. It also keeps him from comprehending other forms of authority that will be encountered when he leaves the safety of his permissive cocoon. Sooner or later, that boy or girl is going to bump into a teacher, a police officer, a Marine Corps drill sergeant, or an employer who never heard of positive discipline and who will expect orders to be carried out as specified. The child who has only heard "suggestions" for alternative behavior through the years, which he may choose to accept or reject, is not prepared for the real world.

Somewhere along the way, parental leadership has to make a showing. Boys and girls must be taught what is and is not acceptable behavior; the responsibility to establish those boundaries is an assignment given to moms and dads by the creator of families. Parents can't always wait around for logical consequences to do a job they should be doing themselves.

Of course, logical consequences have a place in child rearing. But one very logical consequence of misbehavior might be sitting the boy or girl’s wiggly bottom on a chair with instructions to think about why they must never spit in Mommy's face or run down a busy street or drive nails in the furniture or try to flush baby sister down the toilet. The "positive-parenting" books don't admit that these misbehaviors and a thousand others do happen—regularly in some families. They won't acknowledge that some mothers and fathers go to bed at night with pounding, throbbing headaches, wondering how raising kids became such an exhausting and nerve-racking experience. My colleague, John Rosemond, with whom I am usually in strong agreement, gave the best assessment of the positive-parenting concept: "That's horse manure," he said, "and that's my most polite term. It's wimp parenting."

Let's examine now a more thorough answer to the fundamental question about willful defiance: Why is it that most children seem to have a need to take on those in authority over them? Why can't they just be satisfied with quiet discussions and patient explanations and gentle pats on the head? Why won't they follow reasonable instructions and leave it at that? Good questions.

The truth of the matter is that the inclination toward willful defiance is built into the nature of some kids. It is simply part of their emotional and intellectual package brought with them into the world. This aspect of inborn temperament is not something boys and girls learn. It is something they are. Mothers know this instinctively. Virtually every mom with two or more children will affirm that she noticed differences in their personalities—a different "feel"—the first time she held them. They'll tell you that some of them were tough and some were easy. God made them all unique. Indeed, if every grain of sand at the seashore is different, and every snowflake has its own design, how foolish to think that complex human beings are stamped out with a cookie cutter.

The early authorities in the field of child development denied what their eyes told them. They thought they had a better idea, concluding that babies come into the world devoid of individuality. Children, they said, are blank slates upon which the environment and experience will write. John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among others, promoted this notion and thereby confused the scientific understanding of children for decades. Most of the best-known psychologists in the world ascribed to this theory at one time or another, and many are still influenced by it. The more accurate view, however, based on careful research, recognizes that while experience is very important in shaping the human personality, the "blank slate" hypothesis is a myth. Children don't start life at the same place. They bring with them an individuality that is uniquely their own, different from that of every other individual who has ever lived. Let me say again that one of their innate characteristics is what I have termed "the strength of the will," which varies from child to child. If you have regular contact with children, you will be able to recognize this aspect of temperament, more or less, in living color.

A classic study of inborn temperaments was conducted more than twenty-five years ago by psychiatrists Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas and outlined in their excellent book, Know Your Child: An Authoritative Guide for Today’s Parents. The authors reported that not only do babies 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.

First, they referred to the "difficult child," who is characterized by negative reactions to people, intense mood swings, irregular sleep patterns and feeding schedules, frequent periods of crying, and violent tantrums when frustrated. This is the youngster I have designated the "strong-willed child." The difference is that I followed the antagonistic child into adulthood, and Chess and Thomas studied very young children.

These authors went on to describe the second category as the "easy child," who exhibits a positive approach to people, quiet adaptability to new situations, regular sleep patterns and feeding schedules, and a willingness to accept the rules of the game. The authors concluded, "Such a youngster is usually a joy to his or her parents, pediatrician, or teachers." Amen. My term for the easy child is "compliant."

Chess and Thomas called the third personality pattern "slow to warm up" or "shy." Youngsters in this category respond negatively to new situations and 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 explode with anger and rebellion.

Not every child fits into one of these categories, of course, but according to Drs. Chess and Thomas, approximately 65 percent do. The researchers also emphasized that babies are fully human at birth, being able immediately to relate to their parents and learn from their environment. Blank slates at birth? Hardly! Where are the “experts” who misunderstood the human personality for more than 200 years?

We know now that heredity plays a much larger role in the development of human temperament than was previously understood. This is the conclusion of meticulous research conducted over many years at institutions like the University of Minnesota. The researchers there identified more than one hundred sets of identical twins that had been separated near the time of birth. They were raised in varying cultures, religions, and locations. They did not know each other, however, until they were grown. Because each set of twins shared the same DNA, or genetic material, and the same architectural design, it became possible for the researchers to examine the impact of inheritance by comparing their similarities and their differences on many variables. From these and other studies, it became clear that much of the personality, perhaps 70 percent or more, is inherited. Our genes influence such qualities as creativity, wisdom, loving-kindness, vigor, longevity, intelligence, and even the joy of living.

Consider the brothers known in the Minnesota study as the "Jim twins," who were separated until they were thirty-nine years old. Their similarities were astonishing. Both married a woman named Linda. Both had a dog named, Toy. Both suffered from migraine headaches. Both chain-smoked. Both liked the same brand of beer. Both drove Chevys, and both served as sheriff's deputies. Their personalities and attitudes were virtual carbon copies. Though this degree of symmetry is exceptional, it illustrates the finding that most identical twins reveal surprising similarities in personality that are linked to heredity.

A person's genetic structure is thought to even influence the stability of his or her marriage. If an identical twin gets a divorce, the risk of the other also divorcing is 45 percent. However, if a fraternal twin, who shares only half as many genes, divorces, the risk to the other twin is only 30 percent.

What do these findings mean? Are we mere puppets on a string, playing out a predetermined course without free will or personal choices? Of course not. Unlike birds and mammals that act according to instinct, humans are capable of rational thought and independent action.

We don't act on every sexual urge, for example, despite our genetic underpinnings. What is clear is that heredity provides a nudge in a particular direction—a definite impulse or inclination—but one that can be brought under the control of our rational processes. In fact, we must learn early in life to do just that.

What do we know specifically about children with particularly strong wills? That question has intrigued me for years. There has been very little written about these youngsters and almost no research on which to base an understanding. That dearth of information left parents of difficult children to muddle through on their own. In response, I conducted a survey of thirty-five thousand parents to learn what their experiences have been. It was not a "scientific" investigation, since there was no randomized design or availability of a control group. Nevertheless, what I learned was fascinating to me and, I hope, will be useful to you. One of my other books, Parenting Isn’t for Cowards, summarizes a huge volume of information that was provided by the people who have the most knowledge of kids who are as hardheaded as mules—the parents who live with them every day.

We found that there are nearly three times as many strong-willed kids as those who are compliant. Nearly every family with multiple children has at least one who wants to run things. Male strong-willed children outnumber females by about five percent, and female compliant children outnumber males by about six percent. Thus, there is a slight tendency for males to have tougher temperaments and for females to be more compliant, but it can be, and often is, reversed. Birth order has nothing to do with being strong-willed or compliant. These elements of temperament are basically inherited and can occur in the eldest child or in the baby of the family.



There is so much more, but I am running out of time and space. If you want to know what happens to a strong-willed child when he reaches age 20 or after, or where his strengths and weaknesses are likely to show up, you’ll have to find the information in Parenting Isn’t for Cowards or The Strong Willed Child. God made us wonderfully unique and fascinating. No one among the eight billion human beings on earth has a pattern of DNA anything like that of each of your children. Cherish that individuality, even with his or her quirks and shortcomings. Your boy or girl has an eternal soul. Prepare that child for the crown of righteousness through a relationship with our Savior, Jesus Christ. That is Job One for moms and dads.

I hope you enjoyed this exploration of individual temperaments. Family Talk is dedicated to your family, and we will do whatever we can to contribute to it. Help us financially if you can. Let us hear from you if you have the time to contact us.

God bless you all,

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This letter may be reproduced without change and in its entirety for non-commercial and non-political purposes without prior permission from Family Talk. Copyright, 2017 Family Talk. All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Printed in the U.S.A.

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