Question: You have told us what kinds of homes produce children with the greatest intellectual potential.
Are there other studies that would tell us how to raise kids with the healthiest attitudes toward themselves and others?
Answer: A study designed to answer that precise question was conducted some years ago by Dr. Stanley Coopersmith, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis.
He evaluated 1,738 normal middle-class boys and their families, beginning in the preadolescent period and following them through to young manhood.
After identifying those boys having the highest self-esteem, he compared their homes and childhood influences with those having a lower sense of self-worth.
He found three important characteristics which distinguished them:
1. The high-esteem children were clearly more loved and appreciated at home than were the low-esteem boys.
2. The high-esteem group came from homes where parents had been significantly more strict in their approach to discipline.
By contrast, the parents of the low-esteem group had created insecurity and dependence by their permissiveness.
Their children were more likely to feel that the rules were not enforced because no one cared enough to get involved.
Furthermore, the most successful and independent young men during the latter period of the study were found to have come from homes that demanded the strictest accountability and responsibility.
And as could have been predicted, the family ties remained the strongest not in the wishy-washy homes but in the homes where discipline and self-control had been a way of life.
3. The homes of the high-esteem group were also characterized by democracy and openness.
Once the boundaries for behavior were established, there was freedom for individual personalities to grow and develop.
The boys could express themselves without fear of ridicule, and the overall atmosphere was marked by acceptance and emotional safety.
Question: You obviously have a great empathy for kids who are in the junior-high years especially those who are rejected and ridiculed by their peers.
Have you always felt that way about that age group?
Answer: My concern for early adolescents dates back to the years I spent teaching in junior high school.
I was only 25 years old at the time and I fell in love with 250 science and math students.
The day I left to accept other responsibilities I fought back the tears.
Some of the kids were hurting badly, and I developed a keen sensitivity to their plight. Let me illustrate how I saw them.
Years later, I was sitting in my car at a fast-food restaurant eating a hamburger and French fries. I happened to look in the rearview mirror.
There I saw the most pitiful, scrawny, dirty little kitten on a ledge behind my car.
I was so touched by how hungry she looked that I got out, tore off a piece of my hamburger, and tossed it to her.
But before this kitten could reach it, a huge gray tomcat sprang out of the bushes, grabbed the morsel, and gobbled it down. I felt sorry for the kitten, who turned and ran back into the shadows, still hungry and frightened.
I was immediately reminded of those kids I used to teach. They were just as needy, just as deprived, just as lost as that little kitten.
It wasn’t food that they required; it was love and attention and respect that they needed, and they were desperate for it.
And just when they opened up and revealed the pain inside, one of the more popular kids would abuse and ridicule them, sending them scurrying back into the shadows, frightened and alone.
We, as adults, must never forget the pain of trying to grow up and of the competitive world in which many adolescents live today. Taking a moment to listen, to care, and to direct such a youngster may be the best investment of a lifetime.
James Dobson is founder and Chairman Emeritus of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80995 (www.family.org).