Putting too much pressure on kids is counterproductive

If beauty is the most important attribute in determining personal worth in this culture, what is in second place?

Question: If beauty is the most important attribute in determining personal worth in this culture, what is in second place?

Answer: It is intelligence as expressed in scholastic aptitude. When the birth of a firstborn child is imminent, his parents pray that he will be normal … that is, “average.”

But from that moment on, average will not be good enough. Their child must excel. He must succeed.

He must triumph. He must be the first of his age to walk or talk or ride a tricycle.

He must earn a stunning report card and amaze his teachers with his wit and wisdom. He must do well in Little League, and later he must be a track star or first-chair trombone or the valedictorian.

His sister must be a cheerleader or the senior-class president or the soloist or the best pupil in her advanced-placement class.

Throughout the formative years of childhood, parents give their kids the same message day after day: “We’re counting on you to do something fantastic. Now don’t disappoint us!”

The hopes, dreams and ambitions of an entire family sometimes rest on the shoulders of an immature child. And in this atmosphere of fierce competition, the parent who produces an intellectually gifted child is clearly holding the winning sweepstakes ticket.

Unfortunately, exceptional children are just that — exceptions. Seldom does a five-year-old memorize the King James Version of the Bible or play chess blindfolded or compose symphonies in the Mozart manner.

To the contrary, the vast majority of our children are not dazzlingly brilliant, extremely witty, highly coordinated, tremendously talented or universally popular! They are just plain kids with oversized needs to be loved and accepted as they are.

Thus, the stage is set for unrealistic pressure on the younger generation and considerable disappointment for their parents.

Question: Isn’t it our goal to produce children with self-discipline and self-reliance? If so, how does your approach to external discipline imposed by parents get translated into internal control?

Answer: There are many authorities who suggest that parents take a passive approach to their children for the reason implied by your question: They want their kids to discipline themselves. But since young people lack the maturity to generate that self-control, they stumble through childhood without experiencing either internal or external discipline.

Thus, they enter adult life having never completed an unpleasant assignment or accepted an order that they disliked or yielded to the leadership of their elders.

Can we expect such a person to exercise self-discipline in young adulthood? I think not. That individual doesn’t even know the meaning of the word.

My belief is that parents should introduce their children to discipline and self-control by any reasonable means available, including the use of external influences, when they are young.

By being required to behave responsibly, he gains valuable experience in controlling his own impulses and resources.

Then as he grows into the teen years, responsibility is transferred year by year from the shoulders of the parent directly to the child.

He is no longer required to do what he has learned during earlier years in hopes that he will want to function on his own initiative.

To illustrate, a child should be required to keep his room relatively neat when he is young.

Then somewhere during the midteens, his own self-discipline should take over and provide the motivation to continue the task. If it does not, the parent should close the door and let him live in a dump, if that is his choice.

In short, self-discipline does not come automatically to those who have never experienced it. Self-control must be learned, and it must be taught.

James Dobson is founder and chairman of the board of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, CO 80995(www.family.org).

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