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 for parents and then I'll offer a system that can be used with the especially disagreeable child.
- 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 to the bill collector on the phone by saying, "Dad's not home." In these matters, our boys and girls instantly 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.
- 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, etc. And how are these time-honored principles conveyed to the next generation? The answer was provided by Moses as he wrote more than 3,000 years ago in the book of Deuteronomy: "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 6:7-9).
In other words, we can't instill these attitudes during a brief, two-minute bedtime prayer, or during formalized training sessions. We must live them from morning to night. They should be reinforced during our casual conversation, punctuated with illustrations, demonstrations, compliments and chastisements. This teaching task is, I believe, the most important assignment God has given to us as parents.
Finally, let me offer a suggested 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 the family miserable. He may slide his brakes for weeks and criticize the efforts of everyone nearby. The problem with such an individual is in defining the changes that are desired and then reinforcing 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.
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