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Practical Advice for Parenting Powerful Kids (Part 1 of 2)

Original Air Date 11/18/2013

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Psychologist Dr. Kevin Leman helps parents understand how your child manipulates, craves attention, and ultimately, how you can reduce the amount of power your child has over your home. (Part 1 of 2)

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Episode Transcript



Studio Audience Member: Hi, Dr. Leman thanks for coming to Focus on the Family. I have a twelve and a half year old who is unable to stay focused. Every time I ask her to do something, she either leaves the room or goes off to do something else. What should I do with her? 

Dr. Kevin Leman: I would UPS her to a far-off land. (Laughter) Oh! Oh, is this...oh...oh we’re on aren’t we? 

End of Excerpt 

John Fuller: Yeah we are on and that’s Dr. Kevin Leman. 

Kevin: We’re on Focus on the Family. 

John: This is - this is Focus on the Family. And Jim, I - I appreciate the correctness of the answer from you. 

Jim Daly: I like that! We asked for a short answer. That’s pretty short. UPS! That’s good. 

John: Well, this is “Focus on the Family” with Focus president and author Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller, and Jim, really, we’re here to solve parenting problems. Every child is different and every answer from our guest is probably going to be different as well.

Jim: Well, it’s so true. It’s always a pleasure and a joy to have Dr. Kevin Leman with us. Hey, today we wanna talk about that powerful child. Dr. Kevin Leman has a new book, ParentingYourPowerfulChild. And I like concept because most of us are blessed with maybe one or more powerful children in our families. Power comes in different packages, Dr. Leman says, that loud, strong-willed one, the quiet, passive-aggressive one, or perhaps even the procrastinating one. And he illuminates that it’s genes and environment and birth order - which of course, he authored the birth order book - that can influence these things. But today and next time we’re gonna talk about not only the problems, but the solutions.


Jim: Well, Dr. Kevin Leman, welcome back to “Focus on the Family.” And you’re not talking just about strong-willed children here. You’re talking about something far broader in the powerful child. What is it?

Kevin: Absolutely, and thank you Jim, and thank you John for having me once again.

You know, I think we’ve given the strong-willed child a bad rap – let’s start with that. I think you want your kids to be strong-willed. You want your kid to stand up in this world and do everything we do and be cool like us. You want that son, you want that daughter to be a daughter, a son of conviction. To know right from wrong, you know to do the right thing. But the powerful child has an agenda. The powerful child wants to win, control, dominate. If you’re a mommy today and you’re raising a son, let me be clear on this: if you have a powerful child, he is going to be a lousy husband because he’s gonna be a controller. And I’ve never heard a woman say, “Dr. Leman, I just love the way my husband controls me.” So the stakes are high.

And here’s the kicker: we as parents teach the kids how to be powerful. If you have a powerful child, I got news for ya, there’s a powerful parent somewhere nearby. 

Jim: You say about 99 percent of the children are powerful. Along with that, let me - you may have heard some of the giggles in background - we have about 25 women here to guide our discussion. We’re gonna ask you all some questions, so let me say to you, welcome to the studios of Focus on the Family.

Audience: (Cheers and Applause)

Jim: So we’re really gonna be tested here, Kevin.

Kevin: Well, you know, women are the - they’re the heartbeat of family. There’s no two ways about it. And you know, in so many cases - most cases in families - the kids are much more familiar with mamma. So they know how to punch up mommy’s buttons. They know how to pull her chain, get her going, and it’s amazing how a husband can say something once. And a mom finds herself saying it several times.

Jim: Well, that’s a good place to start. Why is that happening?

Kevin: Well, because again, I think we’ve trained kids how to be powerful. And by 18 months - now this is pretty young - by 18 months a kid has full understanding of great power that they have over the parent.

Jim: That’s hard to believe, though. 18 months?

Kevin: Well, let’s take a picture of a little guy - 17 months of age. Dad’s trying to get him into a high chair to have his dinner. Now this is a kid who has no intention of going in that high chair. If there was a sport in the Olympics called “arching your back,” this kid could win Olympic gold. Because a 17 month old kid does not want to go into that chair can contort their body in such a way, they look like a pretzel. Okay? And there’s dad battling, trying to get this kid in. And mommy just trying to be good mom, “Roger, just give him to me. I’ll take him, honey.” And she takes little Fletcher, and puts little Fletcher on her lap, and proceeds to feed little Fletcher spoon by spoon.

Now, everybody in the room, be little Fletcher for just a second. Would you rather sit on mommy’s warm lap and be spoon-fed or sit in the cheap plastic chair they bought at Walmart? So, in other words, we have reinforced the kid fussing the same way we do in the mall when a kid throws a temper tantrum because he wants a candy treat. And we say, “No. We’re not gonna get a candy treat and that’s that. That’s final.” Okay, there’s a big stir. People are watching. Okay and you feel pressure as a parent. “All right! All right! But then there’s no more candy for life! Do you understand me? No more candy for life!” So not only do we cave in to the kid, but we say stupid things to them.

Jim: Oh man, you’re hittin’ me right between the eyes. (Laughter) Guilty!

John: About the high chair or the candy or both?

Jim: Well, all of it! But it is true. Now why is parenting any different today than it was many years ago? Are we busier today so we’re giving in? Or are we just weaker?

Kevin: Well, I think there’s parents tonight who are lyin’ awake, looking at the crack in the ceiling, feeling like General Custer on his last day on this earth. If you’ve ever played whack-a-mole in an amusement park, being a young parent today with multiple children is like playing whack-a-mole. Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack! And as soon as you whack one, the other one pops up. So it’s tremendously different because the culture we live in has such great influence over our kids. Take something as innocent as playing soccer. And you find out that your little son, little Buford has just been selected for city-wide soccer. Ooh! And this means now that the next 10 weekends of your life are gonna be traveling to another city over the weekend. Okay? So all focus is on soccer. And where’s room for Almighty God in that kids’ life? Where’s room for anything that’s worthy on that Sunday in terms of attending church? And so I say culture dominates an awful lot of what we have to face as parents. Plus the cellphones, the Instagram, everything. It’s just changed so rapidly.

Jim: Now you’ve talked about children being those manipulators. Let’s apply that spiritual component. Why? Why are we all sinners that give birth to sinners? And why are these little rascals so good - at 18 months they can manipulate us the way you described?

Kevin: Well, the firstborn, let’s start with that, is the lab rat of family. You know we’re new at being parents. And we’re surrounded by women here in the Focus on the Family studio. And if you’ve given birth, that’s not a piece of cake to begin with, but that 19 ½ incher is laid across your lap. And the lactation nurse was supposed to visit you - you never saw the woman. Your insurance company throws you out the door within about 48 hours. And all of a sudden, you’re awestruck that you have this tremendous responsibility with this little child, whose little lip was quivering. And you instantly fell in love with this little girl or this little guy. And you go home and you’re trying to be the best mom you can possibly be. And this is where it starts because I think a lot of parents who have very powerful children have just erred in trying to do too way too much for their children. Trying to make sure they’re happy, happy, happy at every turn.

In my book, HaveaNewKidbyFriday, the best line in that book is “an unhappy child is a healthy child.” And there’s times your son or daughter has to be miserable, quite frankly, and unhappy. Why? Because they disobeyed you. They talked back to you. So part of the problem, Jim, is that we start off practicing on these little lab rats. We have high expectations. The kid’s new at being a kid. You’re new at being a parent, and that’s a perfect storm for a lot of excitement down the road.

Jim: In your book, ParentingYourPowerfulChild, you describe it this way, which I think is funny, one of the personality types: “aggressive, temperamental curve-ball manipulator.” That’s pretty good.

Kevin: Yeah, and some of these manipulators, the curve-ball guy in particular, is the one that – you know, here’s a kid that’s pretty obedient, seems to just sorta, you know, go with the flow. And all of a sudden, they hit age 10, age 11, age 12. The hormone group - the pubescent. And all of a sudden the grades drop off the shelf. The kid has an instant attitude. And you say, “Where’d this kid come from?” That’s why I call him the curve-ball. But then you’ve got the egg shell, the sensitive one. “Oh Dr. Leman, Melanie is a very sensitive daughter – very sensitive girl.” When I hear that, I reach for my wallet. (Laughter) I’m protecting my wallet ‘cause I don’t trust this kid. And when you talk to somebody and you hear that this kid is sensitive, be careful, because you have a powerful little buzzard on your hands. A kid who can use the sensitivity and the tears to work you. 

Jim: Well, you’re talking about real manipulation, though. How does a parent, and at what age do you gauge to show that child that manipulating me that way is not gonna work?

Kevin: Let me ask you a question first: how do you feel when Jean cries?

Jim: Oh, tender. What can I do for ya?

Kevin: Yeah. 

Jim: Or what do I need to do to fix it? 

Kevin: Do you think that women can use tears to bring man to their knees and then some?

Jim: Well, ladies what do you think?

Audience: Yes. (Laughter)

Kevin: Yeah, and so I think we all had to pony up and understand that, you know, manipulation is very very possible, especially for youngest children in the family. Your oldest children tend to be more rule-oriented and more precise and perfectionistic. It’s us babies, you know, who could sell dead rats for a living if we had to. And they-and they earn a living looking up because your youngest child looks up and sees the middle child or sees the next child in line, and they go out of their way to be different. So that’s why I say most families have more than one powerful child in the family.

Jim: How does that parent though, how does that parent resist that urge to fight? You talked about the supermarket experience.

Kevin: Oh, yeah.

Jim: I remember I was out of town. Jean was at a local store that sells very inexpensive high chairs. (Laughter) And she’s in line, and I think it was Trent who saw a candy bar he wanted, and he just had a meltdown. And it was a uniformed military person that walked over and tried to sort him out, say “Listen to your mother, son.” And Jean was actually very thankful for that. I was mortified when I got home. It was kind of our first big “Oh my goodness! What kind of child do we have?”

Kevin: Well, here’s what we have to understand about powerful people: they bait us. And fighting is an act of cooperation. Ladies, when you fight with your husband, you know exactly what to say to escalate the battle. Mentioning your mother-in-law coming for the entire summer might just get you the next level. (Laughter) And so kids know same thing. And kids many times will throw out a bone so to speak to see if we’ll bite. And when we do, okay, game is on. We are gonna clash.

And here’s the other thing: the kid that’s most like you, mom, the kid that’s most like you, dad, is the one you’re probably gonna clash with. It’s the similarities. And that’s where birth order fits in this paradigm. That we tend to - mommies tend to hit it off better with sons. Daddies with daughters. There’s key relationship in families. So again, it’s the opposites that attract psychologically. So keep in mind that kids will bait you, and they’ll sucker you. And so one of the things that I like to teach parents is that when a kid says something really stupid and ridiculous - which is every day - you can take a look at that kid and say, “Wow, interesting, interesting.” Don’t go there. Don’t try to over control. Now again, we have authoritarian parents - which most of us in this room grew up with. “Alright, listen up. You are gonna do what I tell you to do as long as you live under this roof. Do you understand me? Hey! Don’t’ make me come over there! Hey! You want something to cry about? I’ll give you something to cry about!” Now, the laughter behind says, “Hey, I can identify with that!” And see, this is what people need to understand. That isn’t Godly. That doesn’t reflect God’s teaching. But neither does the permissive. You know?

Jim: Give us an example of that. What does that sound like? The permissive?

Kevin: Oh, permissive is, “Brittany, sweetheart, it’s 8 PM. Have you chosen to go to bed yet?” Or how about, “Hey, would you turn that music down, I’m trying to finish your science project!” (Laughter) So - so we have parents - and here’s the kicker - if you bring up kid in an authoritarian manner, they’re going to rebel. They’re gonna be powerful, rebellious kids. If you’re permissive with them - and here’s the kicker - they’re gonna rebel if they’re permissive. So the only way that really reflects God’s teaching, is to move toward the authoritative parent style.

Jim: Authoritative, not authoritarian.

Kevin: Not authoritarian. So you’re in healthy authority over your kid. You don’t let your son or your daughter run over you at any time, mom. Okay? You establish healthy authority. And I think that’s what Saint Paul was trying to tell us in Ephesians 6 when he says, “Children obey your parents. It’s the right thing to do ‘cause God has placed them in what? In authority over you.” So are we talking about being Mamby Pamby? No. Neither is God’s word ‘cause it says, “Every knee shall what? Shall bow!” That’s the goal. 

John: Well, we’re right in middle of a very interesting conversation with Dr. Kevin Leman on today’s Focus on the Family with Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and Jim, you and I have children that fit the categories that Dr. Leman has identified.

Jim: Speak for yourself, John. (Laughter) We do.

John: And I’ve appreciated the overview of some of the parenting styles because I’ve - I’ve been guilty of finger-in-face saying, “You gotta do what I say”.

Jim: We all have

John: There’s something for every parent here and some ways to deal with pretty much every child. Because your premise Dr. Leman, is that every child is powerful. You may not see it on the surface, but they’re all trying to manipulate.

Kevin: Every kid starts off an attention-getter. You have to understand that all kids want attention. The question is: does the child get attention positively or negatively? Once they get negative attention, then they’ll escalate to be a powerful child. So the powerful child again, says, “I only count life when I win, control, when I dominate.” The attention-getter says, “I only count life when I’m noticed.” So your own feelings, this is unique about this book, your own feelings as a mom or a dad can tell you if you have a powerful child or not. Do you feel annoyed by the behavior? If you do, you have an attention-getter; but if you feel like you’d like to take that little nose and rub it in it - so to speak - and “You can’t do that to me! Do you know who I am? I am your mother! I am your dad!” You’ve got a powerful child on your hands. That’s the problem.

Jim: Well, and you’ve talked about that. You’ve talked about the aggressive temperament. You’ve talked about that sensitive, egg-shell temperament, that stubborn procrastinator manipulator, you’re touching on that. But I think our boys are more in that category.

Kevin: Probably the tougher.

Jim: Yeah.

Kevin: There’s kids, Jim, you could beat ‘em with a stick!

Jim: Well, does this come down to, you know, we asked to clean your room at 9 o’clock and it’s now 2 in the afternoon. Did you get it done? “Oh, yeah, I forgot.”

Kevin: But here’s what we do: most of us ask kids questions. No if you want something controversial, Leman says in ParentingYourPowerfulChild, “Don’t ask your kids questions.” Now again...

Jim: Make statements.

Kevin: ...we’re surrounded by women. I’m surprised we haven’t been attacked to this moment. Because that’s like asking a fire not to burn - because women love to ask questions. “Oh, Dr. Leman, I’ve heard you on Focus on the Family over the years, and I’ve read a few of your books, and I really appreciate your wisdom, but when you say don’t ask questions, I respectfully disagree with you. Because like when - when Melissa comes home from school, I always ask her, “Honey, how was your day?” I want to show interest.

Jim: Well that’s a good question!

Kevin: Okay, yeah, but what does a kid say? “Fine.” What’d you do in school today? “Nothing.” Teenager, where’ve you been? “Out.” What’d you do? “Nothin’.” You wanna ask questions, go ahead - here’s the kicker - “Tell me more about that.” Now ladies - I’m speaking for every man - Okay, I’m looking at women, so those of you listening, you know, over the internet or the radio, bear with me. I’m looking at women’s faces right now. I’m gonna give them a little add-on for this discussion. Speaking for every husband in the world, we don’t like it when you ask us questions. And put away the “Why” word.

So there’s similarities between kids and husbands. In fact, in that little book, HaveaNewHusbandbyFriday, I said, “Ladies think of your husband as 4-year-old that shaves.” So it’s a new way of talking to your kid. If a kid says something interesting, you say, “Well honey, tell me more about that.” Now I think it’s ironic because “tell me more about that” is a command in English language. So the question thing needs to be tucked away. And you’ll be surprised if you just back off a little bit, kids want to be affirmed by you. They want you to enjoy them, and they want you to be happy. So an obvious conclusion is sometimes you look at a kid and say, “I am very unhappy with what just went down here.” Give them look, turn your back, and walk away. You’re raking coals over the kids when you do that.

Jim: Okay now, but I’m gonna bring you back to the procrastinator. So let’s say that you don’t ask a question but you’ve asked them to get, you know, make sure you get homework done. That’s not a question.
Kevin: Let me give you two examples and then I’ll add you something else. In rearing 5 kids, I never asked any of my kids, “Do you have homework?” I never asked that question. And they all did well and the last one won an $80,000 scholarship to school, okay? Let’s start with that.

Jim: Are you guaranteeing this?

Kevin: Well, I’m telling you, there’s - we spend our time trying to micromanage kids. Kids need to know that they have homework to do etcetera. But here’s the kid who’s 9-years-old, who’s supposed to clean his room on Tuesday and Saturday. It’s not done. No reminders in this system. None. It’s not done on Tuesday and 9-year-old has neglected to do what she’s supposed to do, and you as money manager of the home, you go and you hire 7-year-old to go in and clean 9-year-old’s room. You pay for it without fanfare out of 9-year-old’s allowance. 

Jim: So don’t put it in their face, you just do it. 

Kevin: Right. But when they find out they lost money to their sister or brother who they really don’t care for that much to begin with, you’ve made some inroads.

The 17-year-old who’s supposed to clean the garage he was supposed to do it last spring and now the snow is about to fly. He’s lookin’ for the car keys at 6 o’clock that night. He was supposed to clean the garage. He doesn’t do a lick, and now he’s got a date. He’s got plans. “Dad, where’s my keys?” “Honey, you’re not gonna find the keys. They’re right here in my pocket.” “Well, give them to me! I’m late!” “Honey, you were supposed to clean the garage today. I see you didn’t do a lick.” He’ll promise you anything at that point. He’ll promise you he’ll - he’ll repair the roof, he’ll paint the garage, he’ll pull weeds for life - just give me the keys to that car. And that’s what I call that sticking to your guns without shooting yourself in the foot. And that’s how you establish authority. God didn’t put us on this earth to be run over by you, 17-year-old. So don’t be afraid to pull rug out. 

Jim: Now the one issue there – so many parents, that’s hard to do. Why is that hard to stick to your guns? What are we doing as parents to manipulate our environment?

Kevin: Well, which one’s the monkey, and which one’s the organ grinder? As I look at kids today, kids shorter than the yard stick are in full control of adults. And they whine. Whining doesn’t continue unless it’s paid off. Maladaptive behavior doesn’t continue unless it’s paid off. We remind and coax. Many listeners are - are the human alarm clocks for their kids to try to get them out the door in the morning. If you had Kevin Leman with you for a day, I’ll tell you what would happen. You wouldn’t wake the kid up. You say, “Leman, wait a minute. I don’t wake him up, he’ll be late for school.” Oh, how soon you catch on! But yeah, he’s not gonna be happy, but you tell him, “Hey, I’m not playing this game any longer. I’m done.” How do you feel after you scream and yell at your kid all morning to get ‘em out the door? So why not do some rug-pulling, write a note to teacher or principal that says, “Anthony has absolutely no reason to be late today to school. He chose to sleep in. Feel free to do whatever you do to kids who are illegally tardy. Love, Mom.” And put the tennis ball life on his side of the court.

John: It seems awfully abrupt if we have, say, a teenager who’s been procrastinating for their entire life. We’ve trained them to do this. Should there be a re-entry? I have a friend whose child doesn’t clean their room. And time and again they’re told, “Clean your room.” So here’s a 12-year-old who doesn’t clean the room. Shouldn’t we be gentle here?

Kevin: Well, you could clean it for them like it’s never been cleaned before just like the kid who refuses to brush his teeth at age 4. I could brush his teeth like they’ve never been brushed before. That might get his attention. So yeah, it is abrupt and when you have a kid who’s had 14 years of procrastination, please don’t think that reading ParentingYourPowerfulChild and listening to Kevin Leman is gonna instantly change this kid who’s procrastinated for 14 years. But what’s gonna happen is you’re gonna take the joy out of procrastinating in his life. And that’s what you need to focus on. And those behaviors can turn. Okay? 

I wrote all those books on HaveaNewKidbyFriday and HaveaNewTeenager. I always told people they’re scams. Because it doesn’t take 5 days. You can do it by Wednesday - two days. And most behaviors you can turn around. When you have these kids who are just driven toward defeating themselves - and that’s what these procrastinators do - and a lot of them don’t measure up because they feel if they measure up, you’re always gonna make them measure up, and there’s the pressure. So these are your slobs. These are your kids who live in piles. And you adults, you know who I’m talking about, in your desk, you have piles all over your desk. Someone asks you to find something, you know exactly which pile to look in with equal ease. Well, why is that? Because you grew up with a critical-eyed parent, a parent who could spot a flaw at 50 paces. So do you want to be a flaw-picking mom or dad? No. You want to be an encourager, give that kid vitamin E, and stand with your kid. 

Jim: Kevin, this is great, great stuff. When you look at a parent that feels like you’re giving up the right to be right, how do you calm yourself down in that moment? Because I know even in our household, when we have some conflict with the boys over something, so often Jean, she will get to that point where man, she’s so frustrated. You moms like that? You get to that point and you’re just so frustrated! 

Kevin: We cave, we give in. But I think sometimes you say to a kid “You know, you could be right.” ‘Cause they’ll throw stupid things out to you. Okay? And a kid who, you know, you remind every day: “The bus gonna be here in 19 minutes.” You know? And you do that whole dog-and-pony show. You might walk in very glibly some morning and say, “Honey, I don’t know if you’re interested or not but it’s 8:20.” Turn around and walk away. You call him for breakfast, and he comes out 20 minutes later. Okay? And he says, “These pancakes are cold.” “Really? Mine were warm and tasty.” Do you see what I’m saying? You can learn to talk to kids differently. And I think that’s the encouraging thing. And again, for those of you who don’t know, I graduated 4th from bottom of my class in high school, was going nowhere fast, I was thrown out of Cub Scouts. So you can imagine what kind of kid I was.

Jim: Thrown out of cub scouts!

Kevin: Thrown out of 4th grade. I did a lot of things. But I had a mom who loved me anyway. And isn’t that true of Almighty God? Doesn’t he love us anyway? And I think there’s times you wanna string your kids up. Let’s face it. They just - they’re a little too much. And I said in book that sold well over a million copies years ago, MakingChildrenMindwithoutLosingYours. I said, “We have seen the enemy and they are small.” (Laughter) And today they’re unionized. And you better have a game plan. And all I’m trying to do it teach parents to have a game plan because kids by their nature are hedonistic little suckers. They do not come in this world with concern for other people. But that’s our job is to train them up - not train them down, and most of us train kids down - train ‘em up in such a way, that they feel encouraged and loved, no matter what.


John: That’s a great place to pause in this conversation with Dr. Kevin Leman about powerful children: they are small. I like that line. There’s so much more to come, tomorrow. 

Jim: In fact, John, we’re gonna hear from some moms who have questions for Dr. Leman. They were there in the studio with us. And I think you will not want to miss those questions ‘cause they’ll be speaking for many of you. You know this program is right at the heart of what we do here at Focus on the Family. We wanna help you be the best parent you can be, especially as a Christian. That’s one reason we created our 7 Traits of Effective Parenting assessment. It’s a great tool that will give you an honest look at your unique strengths and give you a little, you know, insight into where you may need to shore up some weaknesses. We also have other resources available to you like the book we mentioned today, ParentingYourPowerfulChild by Dr. Kevin Leman. 

We’re here to help families like yours with encouragement and Godly advice, but we can’t do that without your support. Your prayer and financial contributions allow us to be a shining light for families in need of answers. And I would like to ask you to be a partner with us in this ministry. Now is a great time to give. We have some generous Friends of Focus who will match your donation, dollar-for-dollar. So your contribution will help twice as many families. So let me say thank you for partnering with us!  

John: And when you donate today, a gift of any amount, we’ll send a copy of Dr. Leman’s book ParentingYourPowerfulChild as our way of saying thank you for joining the support team and helping parents and families worldwide by supporting the ministry of Focus on the Family. 

Donate and get your copy of ParentingYourPowerfulChild and take that parenting assessment as well at Or when you call 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY, we can tell you more. 

On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team here, thanks for listening to Focus on the Family. I’m John Fuller inviting you back tomorrow as we hear more from Dr. Leman and once again, help you and your family thrive in Christ.

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Kevin Leman

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Dr. Kevin Leman is an internationally known family psychologist and an award-winning, New York Times best-selling author. He is also a popular public speaker and media personality who has made countless guest appearances on numerous radio and TV programs. Dr. Leman has written more than 50 books including The Birth Order Book, Have a New Kid by Friday and Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours. He and his wife, Sande, reside in Tucson, Ariz., and have five children and several grandchildren. Learn more about Dr. Leman by visiting his websites, and