Developing respect for the parents is the critical factor in child management. It is most important that a child respect his parents, not for the purpose of satisfying their egos, but because the child's relationship with his parents provides the basis for his attitude toward all other people. His view of parental authority becomes the cornerstone of his later outlook on school authority, police and law, the people with whom he will eventually live and work, and for society in general. The parent-child relationship is the first and most important social interaction an infant will have, and the flaws and knots in that interaction can often be seen in later relationships. For example, suppose a child wants some candy but his parents refuse, so he falls down on the floor and screams and bangs his head on the carpet. Mamma then becomes upset by the display and says,
"Here, Johnny, I guess one piece of candy won't hurt you. Now stop crying."
She has made it profitable for Johnny to react emotionally. His yelling paid a tasty dividend. He challenged the system and won the battle. If good-hearted mom follows that same approach to his protests during the next fourteen years, little Johnny may gradually grow up to become Big Bad John, expecting everyone else to yield to his demands as his weak old mamma did. When rebuffed later by a less pliable authority, the stage is set for a violent collision. Although this example is deliberately oversimplified, I could give many similar illustrations which would show how the early parent-child relationship is reflected in later human interaction.
Respect for the parent must be maintained for another equally important reason. If you want your child to accept your values when he reaches his teen years, then you must be worthy of his respect during his younger days. When a child can successfully defy his parents during his first fifteen years, laughing in their faces and stubbornly flouting their authority, he develops a natural contempt for them.
"Stupid old Mom and Dad! I've got them wound around my little finger. Sure they love me, but I really think they're afraid of me."
A child may not utter these words, but he feels them each time he outsmarts his adult companions and wins the confrontations and battles. Later he is likely to demonstrate his disrespect in a more open manner. His parents are not deserving of his respect, and he does not want to identify with anything they represent. He rejects every vestige of their philosophy. This factor is important for Christian parents who wish to sell their concept of God to their children. They must first sell themselves. If they are not worthy of respect, then neither is their religion or their morals, or their government, or their country, or any of their values. This becomes the "generation gap" at its most basic level. The chasm does not develop from a failure to communicate; we're speaking approximately the same language. Mark Twain once said about the Bible,
"It's not the things I don't understand that bother me; it's the things I do!"
Likewise, our difficulties between generations result more from what we do understand in our communication than in our confusion with words. The conflict between generations occurs because of a breakdown in mutual respect, and it bears many painful consequences.
The issue of respect can be a useful tool in knowing when to punish and how excited one should get about a given behavior. First, the parent should decide whether an undesirable behavior represents a direct challenge of his authority — to his position as the father or mother. Punishment should depend on that evaluation. For example, suppose little Walter is acting silly in the living room, and he falls into a table, breaking many expensive china cups and other trinkets. Or suppose he loses his bicycle or leaves Dad's best saw out in the rain. These are acts of childish irresponsibility and should be handled as such. Perhaps the parent should have the child work to pay for the losses — depending on the age and maturity of the child, of course. However, these examples do not constitute direct challenges to authority. They do not emanate from willful, haughty disobedience. In my opinion, spankings should be reserved for the moment a child (age ten or less) expresses a defiant "I will not!" or "You shut up!" When a youngster tries this kind of stiff-necked rebellion, you had better take it out of him, and pain is a marvelous purifier. When nose-to-nose confrontation occurs between you and your child, it is not the time to have a discussion about the virtues of obedience. It is not the occasion to send him in his room to pout. It is not appropriate to wait until poor, tired old dad comes plodding in from work, just in time to handle the conflicts of the day. You have drawn a line in the dirt, and the child has deliberately flopped his big hairy toe across it. Who is going to win? Who has the most courage? Who is in charge here? If you do not answer these questions conclusively for the child, he will precipitate other battles designed to ask them again and again. It is the ultimate paradox of childhood that a youngster wants to be controlled, but he insists that his parents earn the right to control him.
Mr. Holloway was the father of a teen-age girl named Becky. He came to see me in desperation one afternoon and related the cause for this concern. Becky had never been required to obey or respect her parents, and her early years were hectic for the entire family. Mrs. Holloway was confident that Becky would eventually become more manageable, but that improvement never came. This child held her parents in utter contempt from her youngest childhood. She was sullen, disrespectful, selfish, and uncooperative. Mr. and Mrs. Holloway did not feel they had the right to make demands on their daughter, so they smiled politely and pretended not to notice. Their magnanimous attitude became more difficult to maintain as Becky steamrolled into puberty and adolescence. She was a perpetual malcontent, sneering at her family in disgust. Mr. and Mrs. Holloway were afraid to antagonize her in any way because she would throw the most violent tantrums imaginable. They were victims of emotional blackmail. They thought they could buy her cooperation, which led them to install a private telephone in her room. She accepted it without gratitude and accumulated an $86 bill during the first month of usage. They thought a party might make her happy. Mrs. Holloway worked very hard to get the house decorated and the refreshments prepared. On the appointed evening, a mob of dirty, profane teen-agers swarmed into the house, breaking and destroying the furnishings as they came. During the course of the evening, Mrs. Holloway said something that angered Becky. Mr. Holloway had been away from home, and he returned to find his wife lying in a pool of blood in the bathroom. Becky had struck her down and left her helpless on the floor; he found his unconcerned daughter in the backyard, dancing with her friends. He spoke with tears in his eyes as he described for me the details of their private nightmare. Mrs. Holloway was still in the hospital contemplating her parental failures. The greatest tragedy in this incident lies in the permanence of the problem; no simple therapy can eradicate the scars that are burned into the lives of these three unfortunate, people. They have paid an exorbitant price for underestimating the importance of respect in Becky's early childhood.
Much sound advice has been written about the dangers of inappropriate discipline, and it should be heeded. A parent can absolutely destroy a child through the application of harsh, oppressive, whimsical, unloving, and/or capricious punishment. I am certainly not recommending such. However, you cannot inflict permanent damage to a child if you follow this technique: identify the rules well in advance; let there be no doubt about what is and is not acceptable behavior; when the child cold-bloodedly chooses to challenge those known boundaries in a haughty manner, give him good reason to regret it; at all times, demonstrate love and affection and kindness and understanding. Discipline and love are not antithetical; one is a function of the other. The parent must convince himself that punishment (as outlined above) is not something he does to the child; it is something he does for the child. His attitude towards his disobedient youngster is this, "I love you too much to let you behave like that." For the small child, an illustration can carry the message most clearly:
I knew of a little birdie who was in his nest with his mommie. The mommie bird went off to find some worms to eat, and she told the little bird not to get out of the nest while she was gone. But the little bird didn't mind her, and he jumped out of the nest and fell to the ground where a big cat got him. When I tell you to mind me, it is because I know what is best for you, just as the mother bird did with the little birdie. When I tell you to stay in the front yard, it's because I don't want you to run in the street and get hit by a car. I love you and I don't want anything to happen to you. If you don't mind me, I'll have to spank you to help you remember how important it is. Do you understand?
My own mother had an unusual understanding of good disciplinary procedures. She was very tolerant of my childishness, and I found her reasonable on most issues. If I was late coming home from school, I could just explain what had caused the delay, and that was the end of the matter. If I didn't get my work done, we could sit down and come to some kind of agreement for future action. But there was one matter on which she was absolutely rigid: she did not tolerate "sassiness." She knew that backtalk and "lip" are the child's most potent weapons of defiance and they must be discouraged. I learned very early that if I was going to launch a flippant attack on her, I had better be standing at least ten or twelve feet away. This distance was necessary to avoid being hit with whatever she could get in her hands. On one occasion she cracked me with a shoe; at other times she used a handy belt. The day I learned the importance of staying out of reach shines like a neon light in my mind. I made the costly mistake of "sassing" her when I was about four feet away. She wheeled around to grab something with which to hit me, and her hand landed on a girdle. She drew back and swung that abominable garment in my direction, and I can still hear it whistling through the air. The intended blow caught me across the chest, followed by a multitude of straps and buckles, wrapping themselves around my mid-section. She gave me an entire thrashing with one massive blow! From that day forward, I cautiously retreated a few steps before popping off.
Respect is unsuccessful as a unilateral affair; it must operate on a two-way street. A mother cannot require her child to treat her with dignity if she will not do the same for him. She should be gentle with his ego, never belittling him or embarrassing him in front of his friends. Punishment should usually be administered away from the curious eyes of gloating onlookers. The child should not be laughed at unmercifully. His strong feelings and requests, even if foolish, should be given an honest appraisal. He should feel that his parents "really do care about me." Self-esteem is the most fragile attribute in human nature; it can be damaged by a very minor incident and its reconstruction is often difficult to engineer. A father who is sarcastic and biting in his criticism of children cannot expect to receive genuine respect in return. His offspring might fear him enough to conceal their contempt, but revenge will often erupt in late adolescence. Children know the wisdom of the old axiom which recommends, "Don't mock the alligator until you are across the stream." Thus, a vicious, toothy father may intimidate his household for a time, but if he does not demonstrate respect for its inhabitants, they may return his hostility when they reach the safety of early adulthood.
A mother can expect her child to challenge her authority regularly from the time he is about fifteen months of age, if not earlier. The toddler is the world's most hard-nosed opponent of law and order, and he can make life miserable for his harassed mom. In his own innocent way, he is vicious and selfish and demanding and cunning and destructive. Comedian Bill Cosby must have had some personal losses at the hands of a toddler; he is quoted as saying, "Give me 200 active two-year-olds and I can conquer the world." The child between fifteen and thirty months of age does not want to be restricted or inhibited in any manner and he is not inclined to conceal his viewpoint. He resents every nap imposed on him, and bedtime becomes an exhausting ordeal to be dreaded. He wants to play with everything he sees, particularly fragile and expensive ornaments. He prefers using his pants rather than the potty, and he insists on eating with his hands. When he breaks loose in a store, he invariably runs as fast as his fat little legs will carry him. He picks up the kitty by her ears, and then screams in protest when he gets scratched. He wants his mamma to be within three feet of him all day long, preferably serving as his full-time playmate. Truly, the toddler is a tiger! Even if his parents do everything right in disciplining him, they are still likely to find him hard to control. For this reason, they should not hope to make their two-year-old act like an adult. A controlling but patient hand will eventually succeed in settling the little tyrant, but probably not until he is about four years of age. Unfortunately, however, the child's attitude toward authority can be severely damaged during his toddler years. The parent who loves her cute little butterball so much that she cannot risk antagonizing him, may lose and never regain his control.
I dealt with the mother of a rebellious thirteen-year-old who was totally beyond her parental authority. He would not come home at night until 2:00 A.M. or later and he deliberately disobeyed every request she made of him. I asked if she could tell me the history of this problem, since I correctly assumed that her lack of control was a long-standing difficulty. She said she clearly remembered where it all started. Her son was less than three years old at the time. She carried him to his room and placed him in his crib, and he spit in her face to demonstrate his usual bedtime attitude. She attempted to explain the importance of not spitting in mommie's face, but her lecture was interrupted by another moist missile. This mother had been told that all confrontation could be resolved by love and understanding and discussion. She wiped her face and began again, at which point the youngster hit her with another well-aimed blast. She began to get frustrated by this time, and she shook him, but not hard enough to throw off his aim for the next contribution. What could she do then? Her philosophy offered no honorable solution to this embarrassing challenge. Finally, she rushed from the room in utter exasperation, and her little conquerer spat on the back of the door as it shut. She lost; he won! She said she never had the upper hand with her child after that night!
When a parent loses the early confrontations with the child, the later conflicts become harder to win. The parent who never wins, who is too weak or too tired or too busy to win, is making a costly mistake that will come back to haunt him during the child's adolescence. If you can't make a five-year-old pick up his toys, it is unlikely that you will exercise any impressive degree of control during his adolescence, the most defiant time of life. It is important to understand that adolescence is a condensation or composite of all the training and behavior that has gone before. Any unsettled matter in the first twelve years is likely to fester and erupt during adolescence. The proper time to begin disarming the teen-age time-bomb is twelve years before it arrives. Perhaps the most difficult problems referred to me occur with the rebellious, hostile teen-ager for whom the parents have done everything wrong since he was born. He hates them and they do not know why, because they love him thoroughly. Since adolescence is the age of natural rebellion, antagonism is added to antagonism. His relationship with his parents has long since reached a solidified stage where change is unlikely. For a psychologist, this problem must be approached as a physician views terminal cancer:
"I can't cure it now; it's too late. Perhaps I can make its consequences less painful."
I must point out the fact that some rebellious behavior is distinctly different in origin from the "challenging" defiance I've been describing. A child's antagonism and stiff-lipped negativism may emanate from frustration, disappointment, 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 two distinct motives. A child's resistant behavior always contains a message to his parents which they must decode before responding. That message is often phrased in the form of a question: "Are you in charge or am I? " A forceful reply is appropriate to that query as a discouragement to his future attempts to overthrow constituted government in the home. On the other hand, Junior's antagonism 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 meaning underlies the rebellion, the parents should move quickly to pacify its cause. The most successful parents are those who have the skill to get behind the eyes of the child, seeing what he sees, thinking what he thinks, feeling what he feels. Unless they can master this ability, they will continually react in a harmful manner. For example, when a two-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 meaning behind behavior.
Repeating the first point, the most vital objective of disciplining a child is to gain and maintain his respect. If the parents fail in this task, life becomes complicated, indeed.