Family

‘Best Preparation for Responsible Adulthood Is Training in Responsibility During Childhood’

For our young ones to grow into healthy, happy, well-prepared grown-ups, Dr. James Dobson shares key advice for parents

Let’s look at the threats to self-esteem that must come as your child matures.

From about three years of age, your little pride and joy begins making his way into the world of other people.

This initial “turning loose” period is often extremely threatening to the compulsive mother. Her natural reaction is to hold her baby close to her breast, smothering him in “protection.” By watching, guarding, defending, and shielding night and day, perhaps she can spare her child some of the pain she herself experienced growing up.

However, her intense desire to help may actually interfere with growth and development. Certain risks must be tolerated if a child is to learn and progress. He will never learn to walk if he is not allowed to fall down in the process.

About 20 years later, however, at the other end of childhood, we expect some radical changes to have occurred. That individual should then be able to assume the full responsibilities of young adulthood.

The adult is expected to spend money wisely, hold down a job, be loyal to his or her spouse, support the needs of a family, obey the laws of the land, and be a good citizen.

During the course of childhood, an individual should progress from a position of no responsibility to a position of full responsibility. Now, friends and neighbors, how do little John and Joan get from position A to position B? How does this magical transformation of self-discipline take place?

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There are many self-appointed experts on child raising who seem to feel it all should happen toward the latter end of adolescence, about 15 minutes before John or Joan leaves home permanently. Prior to that time, the child should be allowed to do whatever is desired at the moment.

I reject that notion categorically. The best preparation for responsible adulthood is training in responsibility during childhood.

This is not to say that the child is horsewhipped into acting like an adult. It does mean that the child should be encouraged to progress on an orderly timetable of events, carrying the level of responsibility appropriate for each age.

Enter again the emotional and physical threats of which I’ve spoken. They can easily cause an anxious mother to turn loose the rope in the tug-of-war. Her idea is: “If I keep him dependent on me as long as possible, I can better protect him from the cruel world.” Therefore, she won’t let him cross the street for several years after he could make it safely.

She does everything, requiring nothing in return. She enters into each neighborhood argument that occurs among his friends, taking his side regardless of who was right. Later she walks him to school, holding his hand with the proud assurance that she is being a good mother.

And heaven help the teacher who tries to discipline her little tiger! All through childhood ,she fosters a continuation of the infancy relationship, retaining all the responsibility on her back.

Does Junior prosper under this set-up? Of course not. Mother is giving of herself totally, which seems a loving thing to do. However, at the same time, she is allowing her overprotected child to fall behind in the normal timetable in preparation for ultimate release as a young adult.

As a 10-year-old, he can’t make himself do anything unpleasant, since he never has had any experience in handling things that are difficult. He does not know how to “give” to someone else, for he has only thought of himself.

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He finds it hard to make decisions or to exercise self-discipline. A few years later, he will be an adolescent completely unprepared for freedom and responsibility.

His future spouse is in for some surprises, I shudder to contemplate.

Marguerite and Willard Beecher, authors of an excellent book, “Parents on the Run,” first described the concept this scenario presents. They stated, and I strongly agree, that the parent must gain freedom from the child so that the child can gain freedom from the parent.

Think about that for a moment. If you never get free from your child by transferring responsibility, then the child remains bound to you as well. You have knotted each other in a paralyzing interdependency that stifles growth and development.

One young widow had been left with the terrifying task of raising a baby by herself. Her Davie was the only person left in the world she really loved. Her reaction was to smother him totally. The boy was seven years old when she came to me. He was afraid to sleep in a room by himself. He refused to stay with a babysitter and even resisted going to school. He did not dress himself, and his behavior was infantile in every regard.

Instead of waiting in the reception room while I talked to his mother, in fact, he found my office and stood with his hand on the doorknob for an hour, whimpering and begging to be admitted. His mother interpreted all this as evidence of his fear that she would die as his father had. In response, she bound him even more tightly, sacrificing all her own needs and desires.

She could neither go on dates nor bring any men into their home. She could not get involved in any activities of her own or have any adult experiences without her cling-along son.

She had never gained her freedom from her child, and he, in turn, had not gained his freedom from his loving mama.

Have you allowed your child to enjoy age-appropriate freedom and responsibility?

Each year a child should make more decisions. More routine responsibilities of living should fall on his shoulders as he is able to handle them.

Does your fear of emotional and physical hardships keep a child locked in your arms?

Are you afraid to make him work because he protests so loudly?

I have discovered that this process of dependency may not always be motivated by an admirable desire to protect the child. Very often, a mother (more frequently than the father) will foster a binding relationship to meet her own emotional needs.

Perhaps the romance has gone out of her marriage and a child is her only real source of love. Perhaps she has had trouble making lasting friendships. For whatever reason, she wants to remain at the center of the life of her child.

Thus, the parent fosters dependence, waiting on the child hand and foot. She refuses to obtain her freedom for the specific purpose of denying him his. I know one mother-daughter team that maintained this interlocutory relationship until the mother’s death at 94 years of age. The daughter, then 72, found herself unmarried, alone, and on her own for the first time.

It’s a frightening thing to experience in old age what other people endure in adolescence.

As indicated, this vital task of turning a child loose is not restricted to the early years. It is equally important all the way through the march toward young adulthood.

Related: ‘Parental Involvement Is the Key to Getting Kids Through Storms of Adolescence’

Each year a child should make more decisions. More routine responsibilities of living should fall on his shoulders as he is able to handle them.

A seven-year-old, for example, is usually capable of selecting clothing for the day, making the bed each morning, and keeping a bedroom straight. A nine- or 10-year-old may carry more freedom, such as the choice of television programs to watch (within reason).

I am not suggesting abdicating parental leadership. Instead, I believe we should give conscious thought to the reasonable, orderly transfer of freedom and responsibility so that we are preparing the child each year for that moment of full independence.

Dr. James Dobson is founder and president of Family Talk, a nonprofit organization that produces his radio program, “Dr. James Dobson’s Family Talk.” He is the author of over 30 books about the preservation of the family, including “The New Dare to Discipline”; “Love for a Lifetime”; “Life on the Edge”; “Love Must Be Tough”; “The New Strong-Willed Child”; and, most recently, “Your Legacy: The Greatest Gift.” He served as an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine for 14 years and on the attending staff of Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles for 17 years. He has been active in governmental affairs and has advised three U.S. presidents on family matters. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California (1967) in the field of child development. He holds 17 honorary doctoral degrees, and was inducted in 2008 into The National Radio Hall of Fame. He recently received the “Great American Award” from The Awakening. Dr. Dobson and his wife, Shirley, have two grown children and two grandchildren. This article appears in LifeZette by special permission. 

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