Question: We have an adopted girl who came to us when she was four years old. She is very difficult to handle and does pretty much what she pleases. For us to make her obey would be very unpleasant for her, and frankly, we don’t feel we have the right to do that. She has been through a lot in her short life. Besides, we’re not her real parents. Do you think she’ll be OK if we’ll just give her a lot of love and attention?
Answer: I’m afraid you have a formula for serious problems with this girl later on. The danger is in seeing yourselves as substitute or “stand-in” parents who don’t have the right to lead her. That is a mistake.
Since you have legally adopted this child, you are her “real” parents, and your failure to see it that way may be setting up the defiant behavior you mentioned. It is a common error made by parents of older adopted children. They pity their youngsters too much to confront them. They feel that life has already been too hard on them, and they must not make things worse by discipline and occasional punishment. As a result, they are tentative and permissive with a child who is crying out for leadership.
Transplanted children have the same needs for guidance and discipline as those remaining with their biological parents. One of the surest ways to make them feel insecure is to treat them as though they are different, unusual or brittle. If the parents view such a child as an unfortunate waif to be shielded, he will tend to see himself that way, too.
Parents of sick and handicapped children often make this same mistake. They find discipline harder to implement because of the tenderness they feel for that child. Thus, a boy or girl with a heart condition or some serious illness can become a little terror, simply because the usual behavioral boundaries are not established and defended.
It must be remembered that the need to be led and governed is almost universal in childhood, and it isn’t lessened by other problems and difficulties in life. In some cases, the desire for boundaries is actually increased by other troubles, for it is through loving control that parents build security and a sense of personal worth in a child.
Returning to the question, I advise you to love that little girl like crazy – and hold her to the same standards of behavior that you would your own flesh and blood. Remember, you are her parents!
Question: I have a friend whose children drive me crazy when I’m around them. They are the most undisciplined brats I’ve ever seen. We can’t even talk when they are around. I would love to help my friend with a few disciplinary tips. How can I do this without offending her?
Answer: When you want to point out a flaw or shortcoming in someone else’s behavior or character, you do it the way porcupines make love: very, very carefully. Otherwise, you’re likely to lose a friend.
Pointing out parenting mistakes in others is even riskier. You’re liable to get your ears pinned back for trying it – even when your motives are honorable and you have a child’s interest at heart. That’s why I never offer unsolicited advice about other people’s children, no matter badly it is needed.
If you insist on telling the other mother what she doesn’t want to hear, let me suggest that you first invest some time and effort in your friend.
When a relationship of confidence has been carefully constructed, you’ll have then earned the right to offer her some gentle advice.
There are no shortcuts to this process.
James Dobson is founder and chairman emeritus of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80995 (www. focusonthefamily.org). Questions and answers are excerpted from Complete Marriage and Family Home Reference Guide and Bringing Up Boys.