Archive for Friday, September 29, 2000

Teach children to use manners at home

September 29, 2000


Do you think a child should be required to say "thank you" and "please" around the house?

I sure do. Requiring these phrases is one method of reminding the child that his is not a "gimme-gimme" world. Even though his parents are cooking for him and buying for him and giving to him, he must assume a few attitudinal responsibilities in return. Appreciation must be taught and this instructional process begins with fundamental politeness at home.

My 7-year-old son has just recently begun demonstrating some rather cruel behavior toward animals. We've caught him doing some pretty awful things to neighborhood dogs and cats. Of course, we punished him, but I wonder if there is anything to be more concerned about here?

Cruelty to animals is often a symptom of serious psychological dysfunction to be evaluated by a professional. Children who do such things are not typically just going through a phase. It should be seen as a warning sign of possible emotional problems that could be rather persistent. It also appears to be associated with sexual abuse in childhood.

I don't want to alarm you or overstate the case, but adults committed to a life of violent crime were often cruel to animals in their childhood. This fact was verified in a recent study by the American Humane Assn. I suggest that you take your son to a psychologist or other behavioral specialist who can evaluate his mental health. And by all means, do not tolerate unkindness to animals.

I've heard that attention deficit disorder (ADD) is controversial and that it may not even exist. You obviously disagree and believe that ADD does exist.

Yes, I disagree, although the disorder has become faddish, and it tends to be overdiagnosed. But when a child actually has this problem, I assure you his or her parents and teachers don't have to be convinced.

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?

My answer may sound like heresy coming from a man who spent 10 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 10 or 15 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, Dr. David Larson, psychiatrist and formerly 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. Larson concluded that the findings were invalidated by this failure to consider the overall health of family relationships.

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.

Dr. James Dobson is president of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, P.O. Box 444, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80903; or Questions and answers are excerpted from books written by Dr. Dobson and published by Tyndale House.

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