My 5-year-old is one of those rambunctious kids who gives us fits. There are times when I think he's trying to take over the entire family. I've never really understood him before, but I guess he just doesn't want anyone telling him what to do.
That is precisely how he feels. It is surprising how commonly this basic impulse of children is overlooked. Indeed, I think the really tough kids understand the struggle for control even better than their parents, who are bogged down with adult responsibilities and worries.
Children devote their primary effort to the power game while we grown-ups play only when we must. Sometime you might ask a group of children about the adults who lead them. They will instantly tell you, with one voice, which grown-ups are skilled in handling them and which aren't. Every schoolchild can name the teachers who are in control and those who are intimidated by kids.
One father overheard his 5-year-old daughter, Laura, say to her little sister who was doing something wrong, "Mmmm, I'm going to tell Mommy on you. No! I'll tell Daddy. He's worse!" Laura had evaluated the authority of her two parents and concluded that one was more effective than the other.
This same child was observed by her father to have become especially disobedient and defiant. She was irritating other family members and looking for ways to avoid minding her parents. Her dad decided not to confront her directly but to punish her consistently for every offense until she settled down. Thus, for three or four days, he let Laura get away with nothing. She was spanked, made to stand in the corner and sent to her bedroom.
Near the end of the fourth day, she was sitting on the bed with her father and younger sister. Without provocation, Laura pulled the hair of the toddler who was looking at a book. Her dad promptly thumped her on the head with his large hand. Laura did not cry, but sat in silence for a moment or two, and then said: "Harrummph! None of my tricks are working!"
This is the conclusion you want your strong-willed son to draw: "It's too risky to take on Mom or Dad, so let's get with the program."
--Dr. James Dobson is president of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, P.O. Box 444, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80903; or www.family.org. Questions and answers are excerpted from "Solid Answers," published by Tyndale House.