But why have we stressed the necessity of bringing a strong-willed child into subjection during the younger years? Can't it be accomplished later if necessary? Yes, it can, but as Susannah Wesley said, the cost becomes much higher even at four or five years of age. Why is that true?
Perhaps we can explain the process this way: Have you ever wondered why young children can learn to speak perfect Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Hebrew or any other language to which they are exposed? No trace of an accent will be manifested. But twenty or more years later, most individuals will only be able to approximate the sounds made by natives of the particular region. Researchers now know why this is true. It is explained by a process known as "phoneme contraction" (or "sound dropout"). The larynx of a young child assumes a shape necessary to make the sounds he is learning to use at the time. It then solidifies or hardens in those positions, making it impossible or very difficult to make other sounds later in life. Thus, there is a brief window of opportunity when anything is possible, linguistically. It will soon be history.
A child's attitude toward parental authority is also like that. He passes through a brief window of opportunity during late infancy and toddlerhood when respect and "awe" can be instilled. But that pliability will not last long. If his early reach for power is successful, he will not willingly give it up--ever.
Before we leave this topic of early discipline, let me issue a warning about a common mistake made by parents of more than one child. Psychologist Bruce Baldwin calls it "sibling drift." By that he refers to the tendency of parents to require more of first-or secondborn children. They must earn or fight for everything they get. But as subsequent children come along, the parents begin to wear down. They are preoccupied elsewhere. We obtained definite evidence of this sibling drift from our survey of parents. With the arrival of each new child, the discipline of parents tended to loosen. Tables 10 and 11 display this weakening of authority by compliant mothers and fathers. The pattern was not quite so pronounced among strong-willed parents, but it occurred nevertheless.
Without seeing these findings, Dr. Baldwin wrote, "The net effect is less stringent parental discipline and consequently diminished self discipline in younger children. As a parent, you must exert constant energy to counter this trend so younger children grow up as responsible adults, too." (2) We obviously agree.
2 Bruce A. Baldwin, "Growing Up Responsible (Part 2), Parental Problem with Discipline Procedures," "Piedmont Airline" (December 1985): 11.
By James Dobson