Q: When discussing adolescence, why do you often focus your comments on parents? It's the kids who do crazy things.
A: I'm particularly concerned about idealistic and perfectionist moms and dads who are determined to make their adolescent perform and achieve and measure up to the highest standards. In so doing, they rock a boat that is already threatened by the rapids. Perhaps another child could handle the additional turbulence, but the unsteady kid -- the one who lacks common sense for a while and may even lean toward irrational behavior -- could capsize if you're not careful. Don't unsettle his boat any more than you must.
I'm reminded of a waitress who recognized me when I came into the restaurant where she worked. She was not busy that day and wanted to talk about her 12-year-old daughter. As a single mother, she had gone through severe struggles with the girl, whom she identified as being very strong-willed.
"We have fought tooth and nail for this entire year," she said. "It has been awful. We argue nearly every night, and most of our fights are over the same issue."
I asked her what had caused the conflict, and she replied: "My daughter is still a little girl but she wants to shave her legs. I feel she's too young to be doing that, and she becomes so angry that she won't even talk to me. This has been the worst year of our lives together."
I looked at the waitress and said, "Lady, buy your daughter a razor."
That 12-year-old was paddling into a time of life that would rock her canoe good and hard. As a single parent, Mom would soon be trying to keep this rebellious kid from getting into drugs, alcohol, sex and pregnancy, early marriage, school failure, and the possibility of running away. Truly, there would be many ravenous alligators in her river within a year or two. In that setting, it seemed unwise to make a big deal over what was essentially a non-issue. While I agreed with the mother that adolescence should not be ushered in prematurely, there were higher goals than maintaining a proper developmental timetable.
I have seen other parents fight similar battles over non-essentials such as the purchase of a first bra for a flat-chested preadolescent girl. For goodness' sake. If she wants it that badly, she probably needs it for social reasons. Run, don't walk, to the nearest department store and buy her a bra.
The objective, as authors Charles and Andy Stanley have written, is to keep your kids on your team. Don't throw away your friendship over behavior that has no great moral significance. There will be plenty of real issues that require you to stand like a rock. Save your big guns for those crucial confrontations.
Let me make it very clear, again, that this advice is not relevant to every teenager. The compliant kid who is doing wonderfully in school, has great friends, is disciplined in his conduct and loves his parents is not nearly so delicate. Perhaps his parents can urge him to reach even higher standards in his achievements and lifestyle. My concern, however, is for that youngster who could go over the falls. He is intensely angry at home and is being influenced by a carload of crummy friends. Be very careful with him. Pick and choose what is worth fighting for, and settle for something less than perfection on issues that don't really matter. Just get him through it.
Q: We have a 7-year-old son who has been doing some pretty awful things to dogs and cats in the neighborhood. We've tried to stop him but not successfully. I wonder if there's anything to be more concerned about here.
A: Cruelty to animals can be a symptom of serious emotional problems in a child, and those who do such things repeatedly are not typically just going through a phase. It should definitely be seen as a warning sign that must be checked out. I don't want to alarm you or overstate the case, but early cruelty is correlated with violent behavior as an adult. I would suggest that you take your son to a psychologist or psychiatrist for evaluation, and by all means, never tolerate any type of unkindness to animals.
James Dobson is chairman of the board for Focus on the Family, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of the home.