My 6-year-old has suddenly become sassy and disrespectful in her manner at home. She told me to "buzz off" when I asked her to take out the trash, and she calls me names when she gets angry. I feel it is important to permit this emotional outlet, so I haven't tried to suppress it. Do you agree?
I'm afraid I don't. Your daughter is aware of her sudden defiance, and she's waiting to see how far you will let her go. If you don't discourage disrespectful behavior now, you can expect some wild experiences during the adolescent years to come.
With regard to your concern about emotional ventilation, you are right in saying your daughter needs to express her anger. She should be free to say anything to you provided it is said in a respectful manner. It is acceptable to say, "I think you love my brother more than me," or, "You weren't fair with me, Mom."
There is a thin line between what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior at this point. The child's expression of strong frustration, even resentment and anger, should be encouraged if it exists. You certainly don't want her to bottle it inside. On the other hand, you should not permit your daughter to resorting to name-calling and open rebellion. "Mom, you hurt my feelings in front of my friends" is an acceptable statement. "You stupid idiot, why didn't you shut up when my friends were here?" is obviously unacceptable.
If the child's viewpoint is approached rationally as described in the first statement, it would be wise for the parent to sit down and try to understand that viewpoint. The parent should be big enough to apologize to the child if he or she was wrong. If the parent feels he was right, however, he should calmly explain why he reacted as he did and tell the child how she can avoid a collision next time.
It is possible to ventilate feelings without sacrificing parental respect, and the child should be taught how to do it. This communicative tool will be very useful later in life, especially in a possible future marriage.
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?
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.
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 children 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.
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 books written by Dr. Dobson and published by Tyndale House.