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2009-11-26 digital edition

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2009-11-26 / Community News

Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson

Sometimes Responsibility is Learned the Hard Way

Question: How can I acquaint my twelve-year-old with the need for responsible behavior throughout his life? He is desperately in need of this understanding.

Dr. Dobson: One important objective during the preadolescent period is to teach the child that actions have inevitable consequences. One of the most serious casualties in a permissive society is the failure to connect those two factors, behavior and consequences. A three-year-old child screams insults at his mother, but Mom stands blinking her eyes in confusion. A first grader defies his teacher, but the school makes allowances for his age and takes no action. A ten-year-old is caught stealing candy in a store but is released to the recognizance of her parents. A fifteen-year-old sneaks the keys to the family car, but her father pays the fine when she is arrested. A seventeen-year-old drives his Chevy like a maniac, and his parents pay for the repairs when he wraps it around a telephone pole. All through childhood, loving parents seem determined to intervene between behavior and consequences, breaking the connection and preventing the valuable learning that could and should have occurred.

Thus, it is possible for a young man or woman to enter adult life not really knowing that life bites — that every move we make directly affects our future — and that irresponsible behavior eventually produces sorrow and pain. Such a person secures his first job and arrives late for work three times during the first week. Later, when he is fired in a flurry of hot words, he becomes bitter and frustrated. It was the first time in his life that Mom and Dad couldn’t come running to rescue him from the unpleasant consequences. (Unfortunately, many American parents still try to bail out the grown children even when they are in their twenties and live away from home.) What is the result? This overprotection produces emotional cripples who often develop lasting characteristics of dependency and a kind of perpetual adolescence.

How does one connect bebehavior with consequences? By being willing to let the child experience a reasonable amount of pain or inconvenience when he behaves irresponsibly. When Jack misses the school bus through his own dawdling, let him walk a mile or two and enter school in midmorning (unless safety factors prevent this). If Janie carelessly loses her lunch money, let her skip a meal. Obviously, it is possible to carry this principle too far, being harsh and inflexible with an immature child. But the best approach is to expect boys and girls to carry the responsibility that is appropriate for their age and occasionally to taste the bitter fruit that irresponsibility bears. In so doing, behavior is wedded to consequences, just like in real life.

Question: At what age should discipline begin?

Dr. Dobson: There should be no physical punishment for a child younger than fifteen to eighteen months old, regardless of the circumstance. An infant is incapable of comprehending his or her “offense” or associating it with the resulting consequences. Some parents do not agree and find themselves “swatting” a baby for wiggling while being diapered or for crying in the midnight hours. This is a terrible mistake. Other parents will shake a child violently when they are frustrated or irritated by incessant crying. Let me warn those mothers and fathers of the dangers of that punishing response. Shaking an infant can cause serious neurological damage, which can occur as the brain is slammed against the skull. Do not risk any kind of injury with a baby!

Especially during the first year, a youngster needs to be held, loved and calmed by a soothing human voice. He should be fed when hungry and kept clean and dry and warm. The foundation for emotional and physical health is laid during this twelve-month period, which should be characterized by security, affection and warmth.

Dr. Dobson is founder and Chairman Emeritus of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80995 (www.focusonthefamily.org).

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