Q: How can I acquaint my 12-year-old with the need for responsible behavior throughout his life? He is desperately in need of this understanding.
A: One important objective during the pre-adolescent period is to teach a child that actions have inevitable consequences. One of the most serious casualties in a permissive society is the failure to connect those two factors, behavior and consequences.
A 3-year-old child screams insults at his mother, but Mom stands blinking her eyes in confusion. A first-grader defies his teacher, but the school makes allowances for his age and takes no action. A 10-year-old is caught stealing candy in a store, but is released to the recognizance of her parents. A 15-year-old sneaks the keys to the family car, but her father pays the fine when she is arrested. A 17-year-old drives his Chevy like a maniac, but his parents pay for the repairs when he wraps it around a telephone pole.
All through childhood, loving parents seem determined to intervene between behavior and consequences, breaking the connection and preventing the valuable learning that could, and should, have occurred.
Thus, it is possible for a young man or woman to enter adult life not really knowing that life can bite back -- that every move we make directly affects our future, and that irresponsible behavior eventually produces sorrow and pain. Such a person secures his first job and arrives late for work three times during the first week. Later, when he is fired in a flurry of hot words, he becomes bitter and frustrated. It was the first time in his life that Mom and Dad couldn't come running to rescue him from the unpleasant consequences. (Unfortunately, many American parents still try to "bail out" grown children even when they are in their 20s and live away from home.)
What is the result? This overprotection produces emotional cripples who often develop lasting characteristics of dependency and a kind of perpetual adolescence.
How does one connect behavior with consequences? By being willing to let the child experience a reasonable amount of pain or inconvenience when he behaves irresponsibly. When Jack misses the school bus through his own dawdling, let him walk a mile or two and enter school in midmorning (unless safety factors prevent this). If Janie carelessly loses her lunch money, let her skip a meal.
Obviously, it is possible to carry this principle too far, being harsh and inflexible with an immature child. But the best approach is to expect boys and girls to carry the responsibility that is appropriate for their age, and occasionally to taste the bitter fruit that irresponsibility bears. In so doing, behavior is wedded to consequences, just as in real life.
Q: Could you summarize your philosophy of child rearing in a single paragraph? What's the bottom line?
A: Let me emphasize my approach by stating its opposite. I am not recommending that your home be harsh and oppressive. I am not suggesting that you give your children a spanking every morning with their ham and eggs, or that you make your boys sit in the living room with their hands folded and their legs crossed. I am not proposing that you try to make adults out of your kids so you can impress your adult friends with your parental skill, or that you punish your children whimsically, swinging and screaming when they didn't know they were wrong. I am not suggesting that you insulate your dignity and authority by being cold and unapproachable. These parental tactics do not produce healthy, responsible children.
By contrast, I am recommending a simple principle: When you are defiantly challenged, win decisively. When the child asks, "Who's in charge?" tell him. When he mutters, "Who loves me?" take him in your arms and surround him with affection. Treat him with respect and dignity, and expect the same in return. Then begin to enjoy the sweet benefits of competent parenthood.
James Dobson is chairman of the board for Focus on the Family, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of the home.