How to Shape Your Child's Attitudes

How does one shape the attitudes of children? Most parents find it easier to deal with outright disobedience than with unpleasant characteristics of temperament or personality. Let me restate two age-old suggestions, and then I'll offer a system that can be used with the especially disagreeable child.

1. There is no substitute for parental modeling of the attitudes we wish to teach. Someone wrote, "The footsteps a child follows are most likely to be the ones his parents thought they covered up." It is true. Our children are watching us carefully, and they instinctively imitate our behavior. Therefore, we can hardly expect them to be kind and giving if we are consistently grouchy and selfish. We will be unable to teach appreciativeness if we never say please or thank you at home or abroad. We will not produce honest children if we teach them to lie over the phone to someone trying to collect payment from us by saying, "Dad's not home." In these matters, our boys and girls quickly discern the gap between what we say and what we do. And of the two choices, they usually identify with our behavior and ignore our empty proclamations.

2. Most of the favorable attitudes that should be taught are actually extrapolations of the Judeo-Christian ethic, including honesty, respect, kindness, love, human dignity, obedience, responsibility, reverence, and so forth. And how are these time-honored principles conveyed to the next generation? The answer was provided by Moses in the words he wrote more than 3,000 years ago in the book of Deuteronomy: "These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates" (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).

In other words, we can't instill these attitudes during a brief, two-minute bedtime prayer or during formal training sessions. We must live them from morning to night. They should be reinforced during our casual conversation, being punctuated with illustrations, demonstrations, compliments and chastisement. Finally, let me suggest an approach for use with the strong-willed or negative child (age 6 or older) for whom other forms of instruction have been ineffective. I am referring specifically to the sour, complaining child who is making himself and the rest of his family miserable. The problem in disciplining such a child is the need to define the changes that are desired and then reinforce the improvements when they occur. Attitudes are abstractions that a 6- or 8-year-old may not fully understand, and we need a system that will clarify the target in his mind.

Toward this end, I have developed an attitude chart that translates these subtle mannerisms into concrete, mathematical terms. Please note: The system that follows is not appropriate for the child who merely has a bad day or displays temporary unpleasantness associated with illness, fatigue, or environmental circumstances. Rather, it is a remedial tool to help change persistently negative and disrespectful attitudes by making the child conscious of her problem.

The attitude chart shown should be prepared and then reproduced, since a separate sheet will be needed each day. Place an X in the appropriate square for each category and then add the total points "earned" by bedtime. Although this nightly evaluation process has the appearance of being objective to the child, it's obvious that the parents can influence the outcome by considering it in advance (it's called cheating). Mom and Dad may want Michael or Rebecca to receive 18 points on the first night, barely missing the punishment but realizing he or she must stretch the following day. I must emphasize, however, that the system will fail miserably if a naughty child does not receive the punishment she deserves or if she hustles to improve but does not receive the family fun she was promised. This approach is nothing more than a method of applying reward and punishment to attitudes in a way that children can understand and remember.

I don't expect everyone to appreciate this system or to apply it at home. In fact, parents of compliant, happy children will be puzzled as to why it would ever be needed. However, mothers and fathers of sullen, ill-tempered children will comprehend more quickly. Take it or leave it, as the situation warrants.

This material is excerpted from Dr. Dobson's book The The New Strong-Willed Child (copyright © 1978, 2004 by James Dobson, Inc.), published by Tyndale House Publishers, and is used by permission.

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