2009-10-01 / Church

Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson

The Key To Good Parenting Is Beyond Scientific Explanation

QUESTION: What does behavioral research tell us about the best way to raise children? Have scientific studies spelled out what works and what doesn't, especially regarding how to discipline properly?

DR. DOBSON: My answer may sound like heresy coming from a man who spent ten years of his life as a professor of pediatrics, responsible for medical and behavioral research, but I don't believe the scientific community is capable of determining the best parenting techniques. There have been some worthwhile studies, to be sure, but the subject of discipline almost defies definitive investigation.

Why? Because the only way to study this topic scientifically would be to place newborns randomly in "permissive" vs. "disciplined" families and then keep them under close observation for ten or fifteen years. Since it is impossible to do that, researchers have tried to tease out information where they could find it. But family relationships are so multidimensional and complicated that they almost defy rigorous scrutiny. Indeed, most of the studies reported in the literature are scientifically useless.

For example, the late Dr. David Larson, psychiatrist and a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, reviewed 132 articles in professional journals that purported to investigate the long-term consequences of corporal punishment. He found most of them flawed in design. Ninety percent of the studies failed to distinguish between good homes where spanking was administered by loving parents, and those bordering on (or actually inflicting) child abuse. This distinction is critical for obvious reasons. Dr. Larson concluded that the findings were invalidated by this failure to consider the overall health of family relationships.

To repeat, the consequences of various approaches to parental discipline appear to be beyond the reach of social research. It is simply not possible to study this complex subject scientifically without warping families to set up the research design. Even if such studies were conducted, the researchers would be studying contrived families — not typical parent-child relationships.

QUESTION: My wife and I are keenly aware of how difficult it is to be good parents, and at times, we feel very inadequate to do the job. How does a mom or dad know what's best for a child from day to day?

DR. DOBSON: The most dedicated parents go through times when they fear they aren't responding properly to their children. They wonder if they're overreacting or underreacting, being too strict or too lenient. They suspect that they're making major mistakes that will haunt them later on. Fortunately, parents don't have to do everything right. We all make thousands of little mistakes — and a few big ones — that we wish we could reverse. But somehow, most kids roll with these blunders and come out just fine anyway.

Let me give you what I consider to be the key to good parenting. It is to learn how to get behind the eyes of your child, seeing what he sees and feeling what he feels. When you know his frame of mind, your response becomes obvious. For example, when he's lonely, he needs your company. When he's defiant, he needs your help in controlling impulses. When he's afraid, he needs the security of your embrace. When he's happy, he needs to share his laughter and joy with those he loves. Raising healthy children, then, is not so much a science as it is a highly developed art, and most of us have the natural intuitive faculties to learn it.

Take the time to observe those kids who live in your house. If you tune in closely to what they say and do, the feelings behind those behaviors will soon become apparent. Then your reaction to what you've seen will lead to more confident parenthood.

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