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Advice on Parenting Switches From Laxity To Tighter Discipline

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 26, 1998


Mary McCall had wanted to try cross-country skiing for 10 years. So when she finally planned a ski outing with her two sons this winter, the family's enthusiasm was running high.

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But after they arrived at the trails, Ms. McCall's younger son, Corby, threw himself on the ground and refused to try. No amount of gentle coaxing worked.

"I knew it would be easier in the short run to appease him and go back inside," says McCall, of Oakland, Calif., a college professor. "Then I thought, well, OK, I can give in to what he wants to do, but what does he know about this? He's only six years old. He's not going to spoil it for us."

McCall held her ground and began skiing on a trail 50 feet away, within sight of her son. Before long, he joined her. "Within 10 minutes," she recalls, "he was just breezing along, having a great time."

Experiences like this warm the hearts of a growing band of family experts who say that after years of increasingly permissive child rearing, American parents must reclaim their authority. Through books and lectures, they are spreading a brave new message: Laxity is out. Good discipline is in.

"Parents go overboard and do too much, which includes letting kids rule the roost," says Diane Ehrensaft, author of the just published "Spoiling Childhood: How Well-Meaning Parents Are Giving Children Too Much - But Not What They Need." She describes this as a generation of adults who want to be friends with their children and thus tend to renege on authority.

Fred Gosman, an author and lecturer in Milwaukee, puts it even more bluntly. "If a telemarketer called and asked to speak to the head of the household, we'd often have to give the phone to the child," he says. "They select the movie we rent, select the radio station in the car, choose the restaurant we go to, and the vacation spot."

Yet slowly, Dr. Ehrensaft, Mr. Gosman, and others see heartening signs of change - a new willingness on the part of parents to take a firmer stand.

Three years ago, when William Damon first published "Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in America's Homes and Schools," his call for parents to take charge met with "stunned silence or lack of understanding."

Today Dr. Damon, a professor at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, Calif., observes "an enormous change in the discourse and dialogue that adults are having about kids. There's a much greater emphasis on the need for guidance, structure, limits in parenting, and more rigor in education." He notes a shift toward child-rearing experts who emphasize standards and away from those who advocate a permissive approach. "You're seeing John Rosemond being quoted a lot rather than Penelope Leach," he says.

Gosman, author of "Spoiled Rotten: Today's Children & How to Change Them," agrees, saying, "It's getting better."

Americans, Ehrensaft emphasizes, are not bad parents, they're just confused. One problem involves what she calls "parenting by guilt." She says, "The primary area of guilt is that there's just no time. Parents are not around, and when they are they're just exhausted." Divorce can compound their guilt and permissiveness.

To change these patterns, Ehrensaft, a Northern California psychologist, encourages parents to adopt an attitude of "less is more," meaning less indulgence, less lenience. Warning that lenience actually backfires, she says, "Children love us less when we cower in front of them because we fear they won't love us."

Other challenges arise when parents vacillate, sometimes talking to children as though they're twentysomething, other times coddling them like babies. Ehrensaft has coined a word, "kinderdult," to describe a new kind of child who is "half miniature adult, half innocent cherub." Such confusing treatment, she says, makes discipline difficult and inconsistent.

McCall understands those contradictions. "As parents, we get caught in the conflict of teaching them to survive in the cold hard world, but also looking back with fondness on our own childhood," she says. "We want to provide that free, innocent, true childhood experience."