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Good parents know how to interpret behavior

June 19, 1997

Good parents know how to interpret behavior

- by Dr. James Dobson

Question: You have described the nature of willfully defiant behavior and how parents should handle it, but does all unpleasant behavior result from this deliberate misbehavior?

Dr. Dobson: No. Disobedience can be very different in origin from the "challenging" response I've been describing. A child's antagonism and negativism may emanate from frustration, disappointment, fatigue, illness or rejection and must be interpreted as a warning signal to be heeded. Perhaps the toughest task in parenthood is to recognize the difference between these behavioral messages. A child's resistant behavior always contains a message to his parents that they must decode before responding.

For example, he may be saying, "I feel unloved now that I'm stuck with that yelling baby brother. Mom used to care for me; now nobody wants me. I hate everybody." When this kind of message underlies the rebellion, the parents should move quickly to pacify its cause.

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When a 2-year-old screams and cries at bedtime, one must ascertain what he is communicating. If he is genuinely frightened by the blackness of his room, the appropriate response should be quite different than if he is merely protesting about having to go nighty-night. The art of good parenthood revolves around the interpretation of behavior.

Question: What part does intelligence play in the self-esteem of adults?

Dr. Dobson: It has been said that "a boy is the father of the man," meaning we "grown-ups" are direct products of our own childhood. Everything I have written about self-esteem in children applies to adults as well. We are all graduates of the educational "fail factory," and few have escaped completely unscathed. Furthermore, our self-worth still is being evaluated on the basis of intelligence.

Dr. Richard Herrnstein, a Harvard University psychologist, predicts that a caste system founded on IQ is coming to America. He believes people soon will be locked into rigid intellectual classes that will determine careers, earning power and social status. Dr. Herrnstein's expectation is based on the disintegration of racial and sexual barriers to success, leaving only intelligence as the major remaining source of discrimination.

I don't agree fully with Dr. Herrnstein, although I am certain we will see the continuing importance of mental ability to self-esteem in our technological world.

James Dobson is a psychologist, author and president of Focus on the Family, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of the home. Write to him in care of The Herald-Mail Co., P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md. 21741.

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