Why Some Kids Turn Out Bad and Others Don't

Perhaps we can summarize our discussion of parenthood and its tougher dimensions by answering a question posed to me recently by a puzzled mother.  It went something like this:

"Tell me why it is that some kids with every advantage and opportunity seem to turn out bad, while others raised in terrible homes become pillars in the community?  I know one young man, for example, who grew up in squalid circumstances, yet he is such a fine person today.  How did his parents manage to raise such a responsible son when they didn't even seem to care?"

Curious cases of this type are not so uncommon around us. As we have seen, environmental influences in themselves will not account for the behavior we observe in our fellowman.  There is something else there--something from within that also operates to make us who we are.  Some behavior is caused and some plainly isn't.

Just last month, for example, I had dinner with two parents who have unofficially "adopted" a thirteen-year-old boy.  This youngster followed their son home one afternoon, and then asked if he could spend the night. As it turned out, he stayed with them for almost a week without so much as a phone call coming from his mother.  It was later learned that she works sixteen hours a day and has no interest in her son.  Her alcoholic husband divorced her several years ago and left town without a trace.  The boy had been abused, unloved and ignored through much of his life.

Given this background, what kind of kid do you think he is today--a druggie?  A foul-mouthed delinquent?  A lazy, insolent bum?  No.  He is polite to adults; he is a hard worker; he makes good grades in school and he enjoys helping around the house.  This boy is like a lost puppy who desperately wants a good home.  He has begged the family to adopt him officially so he could have a real father and a loving mother.  His own mom couldn't care less.

How is it that this teenager could be so well-disciplined and polished despite his lack of training?  I don't know.  It is simply within him.  He reminds me of my wonderful friend, David Hernandez.  David and his parents came to America illegally from Mexico more than forty years ago and nearly starved to death before they found work.  They eventually survived by helping to harvest the potato crop throughout the state of California. During this era, David lived under trees or in the open fields.  His father made a stove out of an oil drum half-filled with dirt.  The open campfire was their home.

David never had a roof over his head until his parents finally moved into an abandoned chicken coop.  His mother covered the boarded walls with cheap wallpaper and David thought they were living in luxury.  Then one day, the city of San Jose condemned the area and David's "house" was torn down.  He couldn't understand why the community would destroy so fine a place.

Given this beginning, how can we explain the man that Dave Hernandez became?  He graduated near the top of his class in high school and was granted a scholarship to college.  Again, he earned high marks and four years later entered Loma Linda University School of Medicine.  Once more, he scored in the top 10 percent of his class and continued in a residency in obstetrics and gynecology.   Eventually, he served as a professor of OB/GYN at both Loma Linda University and the University of Southern California Medical Schools.  Then at the peak of his career, his life began to unravel.

I'll never forget the day Dr. Hernandez called me on the telephone.  He had just been released from hospital care following a battery of laboratory tests.  The diagnosis?  Sclerosing cholangitis, a liver disorder that is invariably fatal.  We lost this fine husband, father and friend six years later at the age of forty-three.  I loved him like a brother and I still miss him today.

Again, I ask, how could such discipline and genius come from these infertile circumstances?  Who would have thought that this deprived Mexican boy sitting out there in the dirt would someday become one the most loved and respected surgeons of his era?  Where did the motivation originate?  From what bubbling spring did his ambition and thirst for knowledge flow?  He had no books, took no educational trips, knew no scholars.  Yet he reached for the sky.  Why did it happen to David Hernandez and not the youngster with every advantage and opportunity?  Why have so many children of prominent and loving parents grown up in ideal circumstances, only to reject it all for the streets of San Francisco or New York?  Good answers are simply not available.  It apparently comes down to this:  God chooses to use some individuals in unique ways.  Beyond that mysterious relationship, we must simply conclude that some kids seem born to make it and others are determined to fail.  Someone reminded me recently that the same boiling water that softens the carrot also hardens the egg.  Likewise, some individuals react positively to certain circumstances and others negatively.  We don't know why.

One thing is clear to me:  behavioral scientists have been far too simplistic in their explanation of human behavior.  We are more than the aggregate of our experiences.  We are more than the quality of our nutrition.  We are more than our genetic heritage.  We are more than our biochemistry.  And certainly, we are more than our parents' influence. God has created us as unique individuals, capable of independent and rational thought that is not attributable to any source.  That is what makes the task of parenting so challenging and rewarding.  Just when you think you have your kids figured out, you had better brace yourself!  Something new is coming your way.

I've spent more than half my life studying children, yet my own kids continue to surprise and fascinate me.  I remember calling home some years ago from a city in Georgia where I had traveled for a speaking engagement.  Danae, who was then thirteen years of age, picked up the phone and we had a warm father-daughter chat. Then she said, "Oh, by the way, Dad, I'm going to be running in a track meet next Saturday."

"Really?" I said. "What distance have you chosen?"

"The 880," she replied.

I gasped. "Danae, that is a very grueling race. Do you know how far 880 yards is?"

"Yes," she said. "It's a half mile."

"Have you ever run that far before?" I asked.

She said that she hadn't, even in practice. I continued to probe for information and learned that nine schools would be competing in the meet, which was only three days away.  My daughter intended to compete against a field of other runners who presumably had been training for weeks.  I was concerned.

"Danae," I said, "you've made a big mistake.  You're about to embarrass yourself and I want you to think it over.  You should go to your coach and ask to run a shorter race.  At that speed 880 yards will kill you!"

"No, Dad," she said with determination. "No one else signed up for the 880 and I want to run it."

"Okay," I replied, "but you're doing it against my better judgment."

I thought about that beloved kid the rest of the week and wondered what humiliation was in store for her.  I called again on Saturday afternoon.

"Guess what, Dad!" Danae said cheerfully. "I won the race today!"  She had indeed finished in first place, several yards ahead of her nearest competitor.  The following year, also without training, she won the same race by 50 yards and set a school record that may still be standing.

Wow!  I said to myself.  The kid has talent.  She'll be a great runner someday.  Wrong again.  She ran and won two races in the ninth grade, came in second in the next, and then lost interest in track.  End of story.

So much for fatherly wisdom in all its glory.

Obviously, I am deeply respectful of the human personality and the stunning complexity of even our youngest members.  In a sense, this has been a testimony to them and to those of you as parents who are dedicated to their care.  I admire each of you greatly and I hope we have been of assistance in fulfilling your awesome responsibility.  Now in these concluding paragraphs, I would like to express two or three final thoughts directly to the mothers and fathers of very rebellious kids.  I am especially concerned about you.

First, I know your task is difficult and there are times when you feel like throwing in the towel.  But you must remain steady.  Someday, you will look back on this difficult period of conflict and be thankful that you stayed on course--that you continued to do what was right for those children whom God loaned to you for a season.  This era will pass so quickly, and the present stresses will seem insignificant and remote. What will matter to you then will be the loving relationships you built with your family, even when other parents ran away or buried themselves in work.  You will also have the knowledge of a job well done in the eyes of the Creator Himself.

Therefore, I hope you will resist the temptation to feel cheated or deprived because of the difficult temperament of your son or daughter. You are certainly not alone.  In an earlier survey of 3,000 parents, we found that 85 percent of families had at least one strong-willed child. So, you are not an exception or the butt of some cruel cosmic joke.  This is parenthood.  This is human nature.  Most of us who have raised two or more kids have gone through some of the same stresses you are experiencing.  We survived, and you will too.  You can handle the assignment.

Let me review the concepts we have considered in our meandering discussion of children:

1. You are not to blame for the temperament with which your child was born.  He is simply a tough kid to handle and your task is to rise to the challenge.

2. He is in greater danger because of his inclination to test the limits and scale the walls.  Your utmost diligence and wisdom will be required to deal with him.

3. If you fail to understand his lust for power and independence, you can exhaust your resources and bog down in guilt.  It will benefit no one.

4. If it is not already too late, by all means, take charge of your babies.  Hold tightly to the reins of authority in the early days, and build an attitude of respect during your brief window of opportunity.  You will need every ounce of "awe" you can get during the years to come.  Once you have established your right to lead, begin to let go systematically, year by year.

5. Don't panic, even during the storms of adolescence.  Better times are ahead.  A radical turnaround usually occurs in the early twenties.

6. Stay on your child's team, even when it appears to be a losing team. You'll have the rest of your life to enjoy mutual fellowship if you don't overreact to frustration now.

7. Give him time to find himself, even if he appears not to be searching.

8. Most importantly, I urge you to hold your children before the Lord in fervent prayer throughout their years at home.  I am convinced that there is no other source of confidence and wisdom in parenting.  There is not enough knowledge in the books, mine or anyone else's, to counteract the evil that surrounds our kids today.  Our teenagers are confronted by drugs, alcohol, sex and foul language wherever they turn. And, of course, the peer pressure on them is enormous.  We must bathe them in prayer every day of their lives.  The God who made your children will hear your petitions.  He has promised to do so.  After all, He loves them more than you do.

From Parenting Isn't for Cowards, by Dr. James Dobson

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