AUSTIN, TEXAS — Ann Cobern has seen all styles of parenting among the customers at her day-care center in Leander, Texas. Some parents are firm about mischief. Others teeter at the abyss of permissiveness. The most unfortunate seem confused altogether about discipline.
On some days it's enough to give Mrs. Cobern conniptions. But the school massacre in Littleton, Colo., and the copycat threats and attacks that have followed, have given Cobern more reason for concern about the children she looks after and the issue of parental discipline.
"Sometimes I hear parents say they don't take a stand on curfew because little Johnny won't like it," says Cobern. "Excuse me? Who is the adult here and who is the child?"
Like many communities across the country, folks here are rethinking how far they should go in disciplining kids - and their rights and responsibilities in doing so.
Some observers say that stronger child-welfare laws and high-profile court cases dealing with abuse and child custody have unwittingly left many parents reluctant to clamp down harder on misbehaving children.
Others say the hesitancy to be stern has deeper cultural roots, as baby-boomer parents struggle to define their own values of right and wrong, which are different from their parents' values and approach to discipline.
It's an issue that reaches into schools, courthouses, and even the thin air of presidential politics. And considering the demographic and cultural forces that brought the country to this point, it is an issue that may linger for some time.
"Many of today's parents ... live in mortal dread of being exposed as not being cool," says Daniel Wattenberg, a syndicated columnist. Instead of disciplining their kids, he says, many baby-boomer parents prefer to alter their children's behavior through a "buddy buddy" relationship. "They're just not willing to punish."
Some politicians say child-welfare advocates and lawyers have exacerbated this problem by confusing parents as to what their rights are in disciplining their children. Some, like former Vice President Dan Quayle, say the solution lies in giving parents more rights in disciplining their kids - and not allowing the state to intervene in how they do it. (In a recent speech in San Francisco, Mr. Quayle attacked the "legal aristocracy" in weakening parental rights, and said of the Littleton tragedy, "It's not just gun control, it's self-control.")
What rights parents have
But local officials, like County Attorney Gene Taylor, say the answer may lie in just informing parents of the rights they have. "Life was a whole lot simpler when you had 10 Simple Rules to follow rather than a big old book of laws and regulations," says Mr. Taylor, who handles juvenile cases in Williamson County, north of Austin. Now, "you have parents who aren't disciplined themselves and who don't want you to do it to their kids either." He pauses. "It's a big old pile of confusion."
Recently, Taylor and other county officials held a meeting with school principals, law-enforcement officers, and juvenile-justice authorities to try to allay some of the confusion and to coordinate their response to juvenile violence. Most of the participants agree that a growing number of parents have no idea where to draw the line with their own children.
"Many kids, in my opinion, are hopelessly spoiled," says Bob Carswell, a therapist who teaches court-ordered parenting classes for people whose kids have gotten into trouble. "I feel a lot of parents are prepared to give anything to their kids to feel loved. They cannot spend time with them, so they'll give kids things instead."
By the time an undisciplined child grows into a misbehaving teen, Mr. Carswell adds, it is often too late for a parent to reassert authority. "This is like trying to catch the horse when the stall has been open for 10 years," he says.
The trend of indiscipline is felt in principals' offices as well. Brenton Hughes, an assistant principal at Georgetown Middle School, north of Austin, says he still gets parents coming in to tell him that their kids could never do anything wrong, rather than listening to the evidence of misbehavior. "That is sending a signal to the kid," says Mr. Hughes. "Now they feel they can do anything they want, and their parent is going to back them up."
But it's an attitude that's been brewing awhile. A decade ago, when Hughes was a football coach, he sent a note home with all the players, telling parents that each boy had to have his hair cut so that it wouldn't fall below the line of the helmet. "One parent sent me back a note saying, 'Thank you for making my kid get a haircut,' " he chuckles. "That's a non-parent."
Mark Kincaid, principal of Leander High School in Williamson County, says many parents are simply afraid of disciplining their kids. "It started when people started buying into the notion that 'everybody's doing it,' " he says. "People were not saying, 'Wait a minute, I'm the adult here. I make the call.' I don't understand how that didn't get passed on" to this generation of parents.
The odd thing about this confusion is that the law is fairly straightforward on parental rights. Every state, including Texas, allows parents to spank a child. (The theory is that, unlike physical abuse, spanking doesn't injure or leave marks.) Both state and federal law also give parents the right to control their kids' behavior, from the way they wear their hair to the time they go to bed.
"Parents have the right to control the education, discipline, and upbringing of their children," says Robert Sedler, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. In addition, "schools have control over the moral conduct of the students, except at the point they violate clearly established constitutional rights, such as the right to express ideas."
When discipline becomes abuse
Although this right to expression allows some children to buck school dress codes, as a pony-tailed boy in New Braunfels, Texas, did last year, experts say that children can rarely buck the authority of their own parents, unless the parents have shown signs of severe abuse or neglect. And at a time of increasing child fatalities due to maltreatment, some child-welfare advocates argue that giving parents more rights isn't the answer.
"Parents have plenty of rights - what they don't have a right to do is abuse their kids," says Victoria Weisz, a clinical psychologist at the University of Nebraska's Center for Children, Families, and the Law in Lincoln. "It's true that parents need to set limits of behavior and set models of right and wrong. But the problem is not a lack of discipline. It's a lack of connection with adults."
With parents spending more time working and less time at home, more kids "are living in a world all their own."
At the state level, child-welfare agencies are often criticized for interfering in parental decisions, especially discipline. But Marla Sheely, spokeswoman for Texas Child Protective Services in Austin, says her agency is too overworked to be looking for frivolous cases. "People have the image of Child Protective Services of getting into people's homes and interfering with their lives," says Ms. Sheely. "Quite frankly, we don't have the resources for that. When CPS gets a case, things are already pretty bad."
For his part, Mr. Wattenberg says he's pessimistic about reasserting parental control on this generation. He pins his hopes on Generation Xers, who may have learned from their elders' mistakes: "A lot of Generation X grew up with this tolerance, and they are determined to do it differently."