Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson
Dr. Dobson: It’s helpful to avoid circumstances that compare them unfavorably with each other. They are extremely sensitive to the competitive edge of their relationship. The question is not “How am I doing?” it is “How am I doing compared with John or Steven or Marion?” The issue is not how fast I can run, but who crosses the finish line first. A boy does not care how tall he is; he is vitally interested in who is tallest.
Each child systematically measures himself against his peers and is tremendously sensitive to failure within his own family. Accordingly, parents should guard against comparative statements that routinely favor one child over another.
Perhaps an illustration will help make the case. When I was about ten years old, I loved to play with a couple of dogs that belonged to two families in the neighborhood. One was a black Scottie who liked to chase and retrieve tennis balls. The other was a pug bulldog who had a notoriously bad attitude. One day as I was tossing the ball for the Scottie, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to throw it in the direction of the ol’ grouch. It was not a smart move. The ball rolled under the bulldog, who grabbed the Scottie by the throat when he tried to retrieve it. It was an awful scene. Neighbors came running as the Scottie screamed in pain. It took ten minutes and a garden hose to pry the bulldog’s grip loose, and by then the Scottie was almost dead. He spent two weeks in the hospital, and I spent two weeks in “the doghouse.” I regret throwing that ball to this day.
I have thought about that experience many times and have begun to recognize its application to human relationships. Indeed, it is a very simple thing to precipitate a fight between people. All that is necessary is to toss a ball, symbolically, under the more aggressive of the two and prepare for the battle that ensues. This is done by repeating negative comments one has made or by baiting one in the presence of the other. It can be accomplished in business by assigning overlapping territory to two managers. They will tear each other to pieces in the inevitable rivalry. Alas, it happens every day.
This principle is also applicable to siblings. It is remarkably easy to make them mortal enemies. All a parent must do is toss a ball in the wrong direction. Their natural antagonism will do the rest.
Question: How early in life is a child capable of making a strongwilled stand in defiance against his or her parents?
Dr. Dobson: Depending on the temperament of the individual, defiant behavior can be displayed by very young children. A father once told me of taking his threeyear old daughter to a basketball game. The child was, of course, interested in everything in the gym except the athletic contest. The father permitted her to roam freely and climb on the bleachers, but he set up definite limits regarding how far she could stray. He took her by the hand and walked with her to a stripe painted on the gym floor.
“You can play all around the building, Janie, but don’t go past this line,” he instructed her.
Dad had no sooner returned to his seat than the toddler scurried in the direction of the forbidden territory. She stopped at the border for a moment, then flashed a grin over her shoulder to her father and deliberately placed one foot over the line as if to say, “Whacha gonna do about it?” Virtually every parent the world over has been asked the same question at one time or another. That’s the way some kids are made.
Dr. Dobson is founder and Chairman Emeritus of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80995 (www.focusonthefamily.org).