Q: My 16-year-old daughter is driving me crazy. She is sassy, noisy and selfish. Her room looks like a pigpen, and she won't work any harder in school than is absolutely necessary to get by. Everything I taught her, from manners to faith, seems to have sailed through her ears. What in the world do my husband and I do now?
A: I'm going to offer you some patented advice that may not make sense or seem responsive to the problem you've described. But stay with me. The most important thing you can do for your daughter is to "just get her through it." The concept is a bit obscure, so let me make an effort to explain it.
Imagine your daughter riding in a small canoe called "Puberty" on the Adolescent River. She soon comes to a turbulent stretch of white water that rocks her little boat violently. There is a very real danger that she will capsize and drown. Even if she survives today's rapids, she will certainly be caught in swirling currents downstream and plunge over the falls. That is the apprehension harbored by millions of parents with kids bouncing along on the wild river. It's the falls that worry them most.
Actually, the typical journey down the river is much safer than believed. Instead of the water becoming more violent downstream, it eventually transitions from frightening rapids to tranquility once more. I believe your daughter is going to be OK even though she is now splashing and thrashing and gasping for air. Her little boat is more buoyant than you might think.
Yes, a few individuals do go over the falls, usually because of drug abuse or other addictive behavior. But even some of them climb back in the canoe and paddle on down the river. Most will regain their equilibrium in a few years. In fact, the greatest danger of sinking a boat could come from ... parents.
Q: Just how much opportunity do parents have to remake the personalities of their children? Can they change characteristics that they dislike? My son is painfully shy, and I'd like him to be strong and assertive. Can we redesign him?
A: You can teach new attitudes and modify some behavioral patterns, but you will not be able to redesign the basic personality with which your child was born. Some characteristics are genetically programmed; they will always be there. For example, some kids appear to be born to lead and others seem to be made to follow. And that fact can be a cause of concern for parents at times.
One mother told me that her compliant, easygoing child was being picked on and beat up every day in nursery school. She urged him to defend himself, but it contradicted his very nature to even think about standing up to the bullies. Finally, his frustration became so great that he decided to heed his mother's advice. As they drove to school one day, he said, "Mom, if those kids pick on me again today ... I'm ... I'm ... I'm going to beat them up -- slightly!"
How does a kid beat up someone slightly? I don't know, but it made perfect sense to this compliant lad.
Like you, some parents worry about an easygoing, passive child -- especially if he's a boy. Followers in this society are sometimes less respected than aggressive leaders and may be seen as wimpy or spineless. And yet, the beauty of the human personality is seen in its marvelous uniqueness and complexity. There is a place for the wonderful variety of temperaments that find expression in children. After all, if two people are identical in every regard, it's obvious that one of them is unnecessary.
My advice to you is to accept, appreciate and cultivate the personality with which your little child was born. He does not need to fit a preconceived mold. That youngster is, thankfully, one of a kind.
James Dobson is chairman of the board for Focus on the Family, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of the home.