Motherhood: It Helps If You Smile


Mothers of children under 3 years of age are particularly in need of loving support from their husbands. It has certainly been true in our home. How well I remember the day my wife put Ryan, then 4 months old, on the dressing table to change his diapers. As soon as she removed the wet garments, he made like a fountain and initiated the wall and a picture of Little Boy Blue. Shirley had no sooner repaired the damage than the telephone rang. While she was gone, Ryan was struck by a sudden attack of projectile diarrhea, and he machine-gunned his crib and the rest of the nursery. By the time my patient wife had bathed her son and scoured the room, she was near exhaustion. She dressed Ryan in clean, sweet-smelling clothes and put him over her shoulder affectionately. At that moment he deposited his breakfast down her neck and into her undergarments. She told me that evening that she was going to re-read her motherhood contract to see if days like that were written in fine print. Needless to say, the family went out to dinner that night.

In the absence of parental leadership, some children become extremely obnoxious and defiant, especially in public places. Perhaps the best example was a 10-year-old boy named Robert, who was a patient of my good friend Dr. William Slonecker. Dr. Slonecker said his pediatric staff dreaded the days when Robert was scheduled for an office visit. He literally attacked the clinic, grabbing instruments and files and telephones. His passive mother could do little more than shake her head in bewilderment.

During one physical examination, Dr. Slonecker observed severe cavities in Robert’s teeth and knew the boy must be referred to a local dentist. But who would be given the honor? A referral like Robert could mean the end of a professional friendship. Dr. Slonecker eventually decided to send him to an older dentist who reportedly understood children. The confrontation that followed now stands as one of the classic moments in the history of human conflict.

Robert arrived in the dental office, prepared for battle.

“Get in the chair, young man,” said the doctor.

“No chance!” replied the boy.

“Son, I told you to climb on to the chair, and that’s what I intend for you to do,” said the dentist.

Robert stared at his opponent for a moment and then replied, “If you make me get in that chair, I will take off all my clothes.”

The dentist calmly said, “Son, take ’em off.” I

The boy forthwith removed his shirt, undershirt, shoes and socks, and then looked up in defiance.

“All right, son,” said the dentist. “Now get on the chair.”

“You didn’t hear me,” sputtered Robert. “I said if you make me get on that chair, I will take off all my clothes.”

“Son, take ’em off,” replied the man.

Robert proceeded to remove his pants and shorts, finally standing totally naked before the dentist and his assistant.

“Now, son, get in the chair,” said the doctor.

Robert did as he was told and sat cooperatively through the entire procedure. When the cavities were drilled and filled, he was instructed to step down from the chair.

“Give me my clothes now,” said the boy.

“I’m sorry,” replied the dentist. “Tell your mother that we’re going to keep your clothes tonight. She can pick them up tomorrow.”

Can you comprehend the shock Robert’s mother received when the door to the waiting room opened, and there stood her pink son, as naked as the day he was born? The room was filled with patients, but Robert and his mom walked past them and into the hall. They went down a public elevator and into the parking lot ignoring the snickers of onlookers.

The next day, Robert’s mother returned to retrieve his clothes, and asked to have a word with the dentist. However, she did not come to protest. These were her sentiments: “You don’t know how much I
appreciate what happened here yesterday. You see, Robert has been blackmailing me about his clothes for years. Whenever we are in a public place, such as a grocery store, he makes unreasonable demands of me. If I don’t immediately buy him what he wants, he threatens to take off all his clothes. You are the first person who has called his bluff, doctor, and the impact on Robert has been incredible!”

When my daughter was 2 years of age, she was fascinated the first time she watched me shave in the morning. She stood captivated as I soaped my face and began using the razor. That should have been my first clue that something was up. The following morning, Shirley came into the bathroom to find our dachshund, Siggie, sitting in his favorite spot on the furry lid of our toilet seat. Danae had covered his head with lather and was systematically shaving the hair from his shiny skull! Shirley screamed, “Danae!” which sent Siggie and his barber scurrying for safety. It was a strange sight to see the frightened dog with nothing but ears sticking up on the top of his bald head.

When Ryan was the same age, he had an incredible ability to make messes. He could turn it over or spill it faster than any kid I’ve ever seen, especially at mealtime. (Once while eating a peanut butter sandwich he thrust his hand through the bottom side. When his fingers emerged at the top they were covered with peanut butter, and Ryan didn’t recognize them. The poor lad nearly bit off his index finger.) Because of his destructive inclination, Ryan heard the word “mess” used repeatedly by his parents. It became one of the most important words in his vocabulary. One evening while taking a shower, I left the door ajar and got some water on the floor. And as you might expect, Ryan came thumping around the corner and stepped in it. He looked up at me and said in the gruffest voice he could manage, “Whuss al this mess in hyere?”

My mother had an unusual understanding of good disciplinary procedures. She was very tolerant of my childishness, and I found her reasonable on most issues. If I was late coming home from school, I could just explain what had caused the delay, and that was the end of the matter. If I didn’t get my work done, we could sit down and come to some kind of agreement for future action. But there was one matter on which she was absolutely rigid: She did not tolerate “sassiness.” She knew that back talk and “lip” are the child’s most potent weapons of defiance, and they must be discouraged. I learned very early that if I were going to launch a flippant attack on her, I had better be standing at least 10 or 12 feet away. This distance was necessary to avoid being hit with whatever she could get in her hands. On one occasion she cracked me with a shoe; at other times she used a handy belt.

The day I learned the importance of staying out of reach shines like a neon light in my mind. I made the costly mistake of “sassing” her when I was about four feet away. She wheeled around to grab something with which to hit me, and her hand landed on a girdle. She drew back and swung that abominable garment in my direction, and I can still hear it whistling through the air. The intended blow caught me across the chest, followed by a multitude of straps and buckles, wrapping themselves about my mid-section. She gave me an entire thrashing with one blow! From that day forward, I cautiously retreated a few steps before popping off.

The young mother of a defiant 3-year-old girl approached me in Kansas City recently to thank me for my books and tapes. She told me that a few months earlier her little daughter had become increasingly defiant and had managed to “buffalo” her frustrated mom and dad. They knew they were being manipulated but couldn’t seem to regain control.

Then one day they happened to see a copy of my first book, Dare to Discipline, on sale in a local bookstore. They bought the book and learned therein that it is appropriate to spank a child under certain well-defined circumstances. My recommendations made sense to these harassed parents, who promptly spanked their sassy daughter the next time she gave them reason to do so. But the little girl was just bright enough to figure out where they had picked up that new idea. When the mother awoke the next morning, she found her copy of Dare to Discipline floating in the toilet! That darling little girl had done her best to send my writings to the sewer, where they belonged. I suppose that is the strongest editorial comment I’ve received on any of my literature.

When my daughter was 3 years of age, I began to teach her some pre-reading skills, including the alphabet. By planning the training sessions to occur after dinner each evening, her dessert (bits of chocolate candy) provided the chief source of motivation. Late one afternoon I was sitting on the floor drilling her on several new letters when a tremendous crash shook the neighborhood. The whole family rushed outside immediately to see what had happened, and observed that a teenager had wrecked his car on our quiet residential street. The boy was not badly hurt, but his automobile was a mess. We sprayed the smoldering car with water to keep the dripping gas from igniting, and made the necessary phone call to the police.

It was not until the excitement began to lessen that we realized our daughter had not followed us out of the house. I returned to the den where I found her elbow deep in the two-pound bag of candy I had left behind. She had put at least a pound of chocolate into her mouth, and most of the remainder was distributed around her chin, nose and forehead. When she saw me coming, she managed to jam another handful into her chipmunk cheeks. From this experience, I learned one of the limitations of using material, or at least edible, reinforcement.

The city of Los Angeles was paralyzed with fear in 1969 when Charles Manson and his “family” murdered Sharon Tate and her friends and then butchered Leno and Rosemary La Bianca in cold blood. Residents wondered who would be next. My mother was quite convinced that she was the prime candidate. Sure enough, Mom and Dad heard the intruder as they lay in bed one night. “Thump!” went the sound from the area of the kitchen.

“Did you hear that?” asked my mother.

“Yes, be quiet,” said my father.

They lay staring at the darkened ceiling, breathing shallowly and listening for further clues. A second “thump” brought them to their feet. They felt their way to the bedroom door, which was closed. At this point, we are shown a vast difference between how my mother and my father faced a crisis. Mom’s inclination was to hold the door shut to keep the intruder from entering the bedroom. Thus, she propped her foot against the bottom of the door and threw her weight against the upper section. My father’s approach was to confront the attacker head on. He reached through the darkness and grasped the doorknob, but his pull met the resistance from my mother.

My father assumed someone was holding the door shut from the other side. My terrified mother, on the other hand, could feel the killer trying to force the door open. My parents stood there in the pitch blackness of midnight, struggling against one another and imagining themselves to be in a tug of war with a murderer. Mother then decided to abandon ship. She released the door and ran to the window to scream at the top of her lungs. She took a great breath of air with which to summon the entire city of Pasadena, when she realized a light was on behind her. Turning around, she saw that my dad had gone into the other part of the house in search of their attacker. Obviously, he was able to open the door when she released it. In reality, there was no prowler. The thumps were never identified, and Charles Manson never made his anticipated visit.

The late Bishop Fulton Sheen reported entering a greasy spoon restaurant for breakfast one morning. The waitress, who seemed half asleep, asked what he wanted to eat.

“Bring me some ham and eggs and a few kind words for the day,” he said.

She returned 15 minutes later and set the food before him.

“There,” she said.

“What about the kind words?” he asked.

The waitress looked him over for a moment then replied, “I’d advise you not to eat them eggs!”

To be sure, on some occasions it seems impossible to get a kind word from anyone. Often, the first few events of the morning make it clear that bad news is coming down the pike, and there’s no stopping it. Someone with a great sense of humor described a few of those circumstances that let us know “its gonna be a bad day when . . .”

1. You wake up face down on the pavement.

2. You call Suicide Prevention and they put you on hold.

3. You see a “60 Minutes News Team” waiting in your office.

4. Your birthday cake collapses from the weight of the candles.

5. You turn on the news and they’re displaying emergency routes out of your city.

6. Your twin sister forgets your birthday.

7. You wake up to discover that your water bed broke and then you realize that you don’t have a water bed.

8. You’re following a group of Hell’s Angels down the freeway when suddenly your horn goes off and remains stuck.

A father told me recently about a 5-year-old boy who was sitting on the toilet at the precise instant an earthquake rocked Los Angeles County on February 9, 1971. The jolt was so severe that it knocked this
lad off the potty. But never having been in an earthquake before, he thought the rumble had been caused by his own bathroom activity. “What did I do, Mom?” he asked, with childlike wonder.

I was walking toward my car outside a shopping center a few weeks ago, when I heard a loud and impassioned howl.

“Auggghh!” groaned the masculine voice.

I spotted a man about 50 feet away who was in great distress (and for a very good reason). His fingers were caught in the jamb of a car door, which had obviously been slammed unexpectedly. Then the rest of the story unfolded: Crouching in the front seat was an impish little 3-year-old boy who had apparently decided to “close the door on Dad.”

The father was pointing frantically at his finger with his free hand, and saying, “Oh! Oh! Open the door, Chuckie . . . please . . . open . . OPEN!”

Chuckie finally got the message and unlocked the door, releasing Dad’s blue fingers. The father then hopped and jumped around the aisles of the parking lot, alternately kissing and caressing his battered hand. Chuckie sat unmoved in the front seat of their car, waiting for Pop to settle down.

I know this incident was painful to the man who experienced it, but I must admit that it struck me funny. I suppose his plight symbolized the enormous cost of parenthood.

One summer, I examined a swing set that was on display in a local toy store. It was shiny and well constructed, so I purchased an identical model for my children. When the delivery men arrived, however, they left me with a long box containing 6,324 pipes, 28,487,651 bolts, 28,487,650 screws, and a set of instructions that would make Albert Einstein swear and bite his nails. For the next 48 hours, I sweated to accommodate bent parts, missing parts, and parts from a 1948 Ford thrown in just to confuse me. Finally, the wobbly construction sat upright, though by this time I had mauled the knuckles on my right hand while trying to force a l/2″ screw through a 3/8″ hole. However, the crusher came as I read the final line printed on the back side of the instructions; it said, “Please retighten all bolts on this apparatus every two weeks to ensure its safety and durability.” What better example of materialistic slavery could there be? Along with everything else which I dare not forget, I now have to devote every other Saturday to this tin monster, or else it’ll gobble up my children! That, friends and neighbors, is the price of ownership.

The Dobson household consists of a mother and father, a boy and girl, one hamster, a parakeet, one lonely goldfish and two hopelessly neurotic cats. We all live together in relative harmony with a minimum of conflict and strife. But there is another member of our “family” who is less congenial and cooperative. He is a stubborn 12-pound dachshund named Sigmund Freud (Siggie), who honestly believes he owns the place. All dachshunds tend to be somewhat independent, I’m told, but Siggie is a confirmed revolutionary. He’s not vicious or mean; he just wants to run things–and the two of us have been engaged in a power struggle for the past 12 years.

Siggie is not only stubborn, he doesn’t pull his own weight in the family. He won’t bring in the newspaper on cold mornings; he refuses to “chase a ball” for the children; he doesn’t keep the gophers out of the garden; and he can’t do any of the usual tricks that most cultured dogs perform. Alas, Siggie has refused to participate in any of the self-improvement programs I have initiated on his behalf. He is content just to trot through life, watering and sniffing and stopping to smell the roses.

Furthermore, Sigmund is not even a good watchdog. This suspicion was confirmed the night we were visited by a prowler who had entered our backyard at three o’clock in the morning. I suddenly awoke from a deep sleep, got out of bed, and felt my way through the house without turning on the lights. I knew someone was on the patio and Siggie knew it too, because the coward was crouched behind me! After listening to the thumping of my heart for a few minutes, I reached out to take hold of the rear doorknob. At that moment, the backyard gate quietly opened and closed. Someone had been standing three feet from me, and that “someone” was now tinkering in my garage. Siggie and I held a little conversation in the darkness and decided that he should be the one to investigate the disturbance. I opened the back door and told my dog to “attack!” But Siggie just had one! He stood there throbbing and shaking so badly that I couldn’t even push him out the back door. In the noise and confusion that ensued, the intruder escaped (which pleased both dog and man).

Please don’t misunderstand me; Siggie is a member of our family, and we love him dearly. And despite his anarchistic nature, I have finally taught him to obey a few simple commands. However, we had some classic battles before he reluctantly yielded to my authority. The greatest confrontation occurred a few years ago when I had been in Miami for a three-day conference. I returned to observe that Siggie had become boss of the house while I was gone. But I didn’t realize until later that evening just how strongly he felt about his new position as captain.

At 11 o’clock that night, I told Siggie to go get 12 into his bed, which is a permanent enclosure in the family room. For six years Siggie had obeyed. On that occasion, however, he refused to budge. You see, he was in the bathroom, seated comfortably on the furry lid of the toilet seat. That is his favorite spot in the house, because it allows him to bask in the warmth of a nearby electric heater. Incidentally, Siggie had to learn the hard way that it is extremely important that the lid be down before he leaves the ground. Ill never forget the night he learned that lesson. He came thundering in from the cold, sailed through the air–and nearly drowned before I could get him out.

When I told Sigmund to leave his warm seat and go to bed, he flattened his ears and slowly turned his head toward me. He deliberately braced himself by placing one paw on the edge of the furry lid, then hunched his shoulders, raised his lips to reveal the molars on both sides, and uttered his most threatening growl. That was Siggie’s way of saying, “Get lost!”

I had seen this defiant mood before, and knew there was only one way to deal with it. The only way to make Siggie obey is to threaten him with destruction. Nothing else works. I turned and went to my closet and got a small belt to help me “reason” with Mr. Freud. My wife, who was watching this drama unfold, tells me that as soon as I left the room, Siggie jumped from his perch and looked down the hall to see where I had gone. Then he got behind her and growled.

When I returned, I held up the belt and again told my angry dog to go get into his bed. He stood his ground so I gave him a firm swat across the rear end, and he tried to bite the belt. I hit him again and he tried to bite me. What developed next is impossible to describe. That tiny dog and I had the most vicious fight ever staged between man and beast. I fought him up one wall and down the other, with both of us scratching and clawing and growling and swinging the belt. I am embarrassed by the memory of the entire scene. Inch by inch I moved him toward the family room and his bed. As a final desperate maneuver, Siggie jumped up on the couch and backed into the corner for one last snarling stand. I eventually got him to bed, but only because I outweighed him 200 to 12!

The following night I expected another siege of combat at Siggie’s bedtime. To my surprise, however, he accepted my command without debate or complaint, and simply trotted toward the family room in perfect submission. In fact, that fight occurred more than four years ago, and from that time to this, Siggie has never made another “go for broke” stand.

A mother complained to me recently that her preschooler was like a human jet engine, flying at top velocity during every waking hour. She said trying to get him to hold still was like trying to sew a button on a poached egg. My deepest sympathies are with her. I have seen similar children in my practice who threatened to destroy my office during the course of a brief visit.

One such youngster was a 7-year-old boy named Kurt who was afflicted with Down’s syndrome (a form of mental retardation that was originally called mongolism). This little fellow was frantically active, and literally “attacked” my furniture when he entered the room. He scrambled over the top of my desk, knocking over pictures and files and paper weights. Then this lad grabbed for the telephone and held it in the direction of my ear. I humored him by faking a conversation with a mythical caller, but Kurt had other purposes in mind. He jumped from my desk and scurried into the office of a psychologist next door, insisting that my colleague play the same game. As it happened, our two phones were on the same extension, and this little 7year-old boy had succeeded in outsmarting the two child development “experts.” There we were, talking to each other on the phone without anything relevant to say. It was a humbling experience.

I heard a story the other day of a little boy and girl who had just been introduced. They were trying to decide what games to play, and the little boy said, “I have an idea–let’s play baseball.”

But the little girl said, “Oh, no, I wouldn’t want to do that; baseball is a boy’s game. It’s not feminine to run around on a dusty vacant lot. No, I wouldn’t want to play baseball.”

So the boy replied, “Okay, then, let’s play football.”

She answered, “Oh, no, I wouldn’t play football. That’s even less feminine. I might fall and get dirty. No, that’s not a girl’s game.”

He said, “Okay, I’ve got an idea. Ill race you to the corner.”

She replied, “No, girls play quiet games; we don’t run and get all sweaty. Girls should never race with boys.”

The boy then scratched his head, trying to think of what she might want to do, and finally he said, “Okay, then, let’s play house.”

She said, “Good! Ill be the daddy!”

I was at home alone with Ryan one morning when I suddenly realized that it had been approximately two minutes since my little explorer had made any noise. (When one baby-sits with Ryan, silence is definitely not golden.) I immediately began looking for him, searching each room of the house, but he was not to be found. Finally, I glanced through the kitchen window and saw that Ryan had managed to crawl into the back of a truck that some builders had parked in our driveway.

The bed of the truck was taller than Ryan’s head, and it is still a mystery as to how he climbed so high. When I found him, he was trying desperately to get down. He was hanging off the back of the truck from his waist downward, yet his feet were still suspended 12 to 15 inches above the ground. Seeing that he was going to fall, I slipped up behind him without him hearing me coming and placed my hands outward to catch him when he fell. But as I drew nearer, I heard him talking to himself. He was not crying. He didn’t complain or scream in terror. He was simply probing empty space with one foot and saying softly, “Somebody help the boy! Won’t somebody come help the boy?” His words characterized his way of life, for “helping the boy” has become a full-time job for Ryan’s loving mother and me.

Shortly after the truck-bed experience, little Ryan let me see another side of his sparkling personality. My wife, Shirley, broke her leg while skiing, thereby granting me the chance to do her thing for a few weeks. I learned a great deal during that time about the color of grass on the other side of the fence: It not only wasn’t any greener . . . it wasn’t even edible! The very first morning that I was on the job, Ryan began teaching me the rules to the game called motherhood. He awakened me with a loud cry at 6 a.m. Being jarred from a deep, dreamy sleep, I staggered from my bed and began feeling my way across the house toward Ryan’s room. All this time he was crying at the top of his lungs. (That sound has much the same effect on the nerves as fingernails scratching a chalkboard.) When I reached his door and pushed it open, the crying suddenly stopped and a cheery little voice said, “Is breakfast ready?” I said, “I’m doing the best I can, Ryan!”

So I went into the kitchen to fix the kid something palatable to eat, but was still at least 80 percent asleep. I stood there staring into the cabinets with unfocused eyes, hoping something quick and simple would tumble out. Meanwhile, Ryan had climbed down from his bed and followed me into the kitchen. He tried repeatedly to engage me in conversation-which was the last thing on earth that his sleepy father wanted or needed at that moment.

He was saying, “Are we having bacon?” and “Why isn’t the milk poured?” and “Is it almost ready?”

But I was ignoring his inquiries. He must have asked me a dozen questions, all of which went unanswered. Then I “tuned in” just in time to hear him sigh and say, “I’m getting so tired of you!”

So what’s a mother to do, folks? I don’t know! I went back and re-read my book Dare to Discipline, but it didn’t say anything about handling the pre-sunrise activities of an ambitious toddler. I told my wife if she would just come back to work I would rise up and call her blessed each day, as I sit among the elders in the gates.