2009-08-13 / Church

Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson

Without Counseling Chances of Marital Failure Much Greater

Question: If you were a counselor who was helping someone manage a crisis situation, your recommendations to exercise tough love could potentially kill the marriage. Doesn't that make you nervous? Have you ever regretted taking a family in this direction?

Dr. Dobson: Before I answer that question you need to understand how I see my situation. My role is similar to that of a surgeon who tells a patient that he needs a coronary-artery-bypass operation. The man sits in his doctor's office, hearing the probabilities of success and failure. "If you undergo this operation," the doctor says, "research shows you'll have a 3 percent chance of not surviving the surgery." Wow! Three out of every hundred people who submit to the knife will die on the table! Why would anyone run that risk voluntarily? Because the chances of death are far greater without the surgery.

The "love must be tough" confrontations and ultimatums are like that. They may result in the sudden demise of a relationship. But without the crisis, there is a much higher probability of a lingering death. Instead of bringing the matter to a head while there is a chance for healing, the alternative is to stand by while the marriage dies with a whimper. I'd rather take my chances today, before further damage is done. A blowout is better than a slow leak.

Question: I am uncomfortable using rewards to influence my kids. It seems too much like bribery to me. I'd like to hear your views on the subject.

Dr. Dobson: Many parents feel as you do, and in response I say: don't use them if you are philosophically opposed to the concept. It is unfortunate however, that one of our most effective teaching tools is often rejected because of what I would consider to be a misunderstanding of terms. Our entire society is established on a system of rewards, yet we don't want to apply them where they are needed most: with young children. As adults, we go to work each day and receive a paycheck every other Friday. Getting out of bed each morning and meeting the requirements of a job are thereby rewarded. Medals are given to brave soldiers, plaques are awarded to successful businesspeople, and watches are presented to retiring employees. Rewards make responsible effort worthwhile.

The main reason for the overwhelming success of capitalism is that hard work and personal discipline are rewarded materially. The great weakness of socialism is the absence of reinforcement; why should a person struggle to achieve if there is nothing special to be gained? This system is a destroyer of motivation, yet some parents seem to feel it is the only way to approach children. They expect little Marvin to carry responsibility simply because it is noble for him to do so. They want him to work and learn and sweat for the sheer joy of personal accomplishment. He isn't going to buy it!

Consider the alternative approach to the "bribery" I've recommended. How are you going to get your five-year-old son to behave more responsibly? The most frequently used substitutes are nagging, complaining, begging, screaming, threatening and punishing.

The mother who objects to the use of rewards may also go to bed each evening with a headache, vowing to have no more children. She doesn't like anything resembling a bribe, yet later she will give money to her child when some opportunity comes along. Since her youngster never earns his own cash, he doesn't learn how to save it or spend it wisely or pay tithe on it. The toys she buys him are purchased with her money, and he values them less. But most important, he is not learning self-discipline and personal responsibility that are possible through the careful reinforcement of that behavior.

Yes, I do believe the judicious use of rewards can be very helpful to parents. But — they're not for everyone.

Dr. Dobson is founder and Chairman Emeritus of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family.

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