Monday, April 21, 2008

Children: Setting Healthy Boundaries vs. Breaking Their Spirits

Last night while out driving, I tuned into the Focus on the Family show, to see if they'd say something that I could use as ranty blogging fodder. Most of the show was the usual, unremarkable fundie nonsense, but one segment set me off sufficiently for me to create this entry.

James Dobson was talking about kids who don't always obey their parents, using an incident with a three year old as an example. Dobson made the comment that challenging a parent's authority is the original inborn sin, i.e. evil. He elaborated that adults still carry around this "inborn sin" and the inability to obey without question is one of the things that destroys a society.

My first reaction was to wonder if Dobson thinks that God can't tell the difference between humans and sheep. Because, surely, if God wanted sheep, then there was no need for human beings to exist.

Secondly, a three year old challenging a parent's authority may be annoying, but it's neither evil nor sinful. It's the beginning of the process in which a child develops a separate identity from one's parents and is primarily a learning process. Children naturally test their boundaries in order to learn what their parents will permit. Challenging authority is also part of a child's natural curiosity to know why about everything in their world. Personally, I'd worry about a child's mental health if they were too docile.

It's a parent's role to set boundaries for their children that become increasing wider the older the child becomes. By responding to the inevitable challenges to their authority in a teaching spirit, rather than in a punitive one, it helps a child make sense of their world, to learn to reason, and to acquire a mature sense of ethics and morality that isn't based on fear of punishment. And, it enables them to stand up for what is right, rather than blindly following authority for its own sake.

Parents setting healthy, common-sense boundaries for their children does not involve breaking their spirits as Dobson seems to believe. Indeed, the prevalence of an authoritarian parenting style in Germany in the early 20th century was no doubt a large part of why Hitler was able to take over the country and control it for 12 years, as most Germans had been conditioned as children to obey authority unquestioningly.


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