Sunday, March 1, 2009

Parenting Stuff

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I like to dabble in the great parenting debate. You might have heard some of the synopsis of the different child-rearing techniques:
- I'm OK, your OK
- spare the rod, spoil the child
- helicopter parents
- aggro-mom
- let's be best friends

In the last year or so I've read a couple of books on parenting written by psychologists who have active practices counselling children, adolescents and their parents. I can't remember most of what I read (my brain is mush these days). But there was one nugget that caught my attention.

What sparked my curiosity is that these psychologists (generally liberal in outlook), through observation in their practices and through scientific studies, each concluded (much to their consternation and surprise) that children who grow up in homes with strict, even authoritarian parents become happier adults.

They attribute this outcome to the principle that children must have boundaries to feel safe. When children understand that they belong in a hierarchy (and that they are not at the top or center of it!) they feel safe. I guess feeling safe is a condition for children to experience the world in a realistic way. Their relationship with reality is truer than kids who are always catered to, protected and praised. They are not so prone to delusion and disappointment.

I think that many parents of my generation need to hear this, so let me repeat.

Studies in child psychology have shown that children in strict, hierarchical homes grow up to be happier adults.

I'm not advocating for harsh punishments, cruelty or any of that garbage. Strict limits and teaching children their place in the family must be done with tons of love, patience and compassion. But I am pleased, because I always thought the "children are innocent - we just need to let them find their own way" parenting style was stupid. Children are innocent, but they are also supremely self-centered and needy. If no limits are placed on their desires and needs as little ones, they won't learn the life lesson that "You don't always get what you want". They'll grow up thinking they are the center of the universe, that anything less than "my way" is wrong, disappointing or failure. They can never mature into an understanding of their proper, interconnected and interrelated role in the universe.

I used to worry that I was "squashing his spirit" when I enforced limits on little ARG. I used to silently criticize friends and family that were more strict with their kids. But now I think that I was working from a wrong assumption: that kids must always be allowed to express themselves, and have input on all decisions affecting them in order to blossom.

Hope I'm not sounding preachy. It's something I've though a lot about, so I have strong feelings. And please, don't think I'm holding myself up as the standard of perfection here. Far, far from it! I'm still waiting for the magic pill, or parenting bible that will tell me how to do this.

But you know what? It's no fun being around a kid who thinks she is the bees knees. Who thinks and behaves as if she is equal to all the adults around. But worse than no fun, it's a disservice to the kid - and that's sad.


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Mike said...

I totally agree. The kid gets input on some things, but other things are rules for her to follow. When she's wiser (and pays some of the bills), she gets to make more decisions and control more of her destiny.

Beth said...


I agree that boundaries and consistency are important, but "authoritarian" has some bad connotations for me. I too have read numerous parenting books, most of which never stuck and I kept oscillating between "Don't crush that dwarf" and "I'm in charge here."

What I had never learned, because I was raised in a loving but authoritarian environment, was how to set boundaries without attacking/controlling the other person. My approach had always been, I don't like what is happening here so I am going to change you. This "worked" when the kids were smaller and relatively dependent and devoted to me. This tactic failed miserably when my oldest reached the "independence and separation" stage of adolescence.

Suddenly (or so it seemed) it was no longer essential to him that he maintain my good opinion. The establishment of himself took on a greater strength and urgency. Our relationship deteriorated and I watched myself have less and less influence over him--and seemingly had to rely more and more on threats and consequences (which often were basically retributions and punishments.) At that age, he was able to shut me out, and he did. Both of us were miserable, but I was the only one willing to admit I cared.

Time for a new approach.

I sought help from Connie Allen who is a parenting counselor. She is WONDERFUL and who helped me reclaim my relationship with my son.

I had a few private counseling sessions with her, but what really helped me turn the corner was a 12 week phone-in course my husband and I took this fall.

What did I learn? She pointed out that if I do not have a positive relationship with my son, I will never be able to have any influence over him and so learning how to achieve that positive relationship was more important than any individual behavior issue.

From her, I learned how to speak up for myself and to set boundaries without attacking or trying to change my son (or anyone else for that matter.)

I learned to once again see the good and the wonderful in my son, which I had pretty much lost touch with through my constant irritation, resentment and anger.

I learned how to honor the point of view of my children while at the same time not sacrificing my needs and desires.

I strongly encourage you to check out her site Joy with Children, although it doesn't come close to getting across those essential lessons which I learned in her course.


Sue said...

Beth - it does seem the rules change a bit at "teenagerhood". And you are right that if you don't have a positive relationship with you kid, you won't have much of an effect.

I think I read once that there should be 7 positive interactions for every 1 discipline / correction. That is a worthy goal! But so hard when they push every limit, every day.

We should talk more about what you learned thru the classes. I am curious about the degree of difference between "consequences for actions" and "punishment" in your mind.

Beth said...

RE: punishment and consequences

I think much of it is in intent and delivery.

Punishment is aimed at retribution and 'changing the behavior of the perpetrator."

Consequences has more to do with me---protecting myself from the negative outcomes of another's actions. What are my boundaries? How did the behavior effect me (or those I am responsible for like younger siblings)? What actions do I need to take to protect myself?
Examples: What ways of speaking to me am I unwilling to accept or tolerate? How much mess am I willing live with in my house before it has a negative impact on my sense of well-being? How much help around the house do I expect so I do not end up having to do it all?
What activities am I willing to pay for or subsidize?

I used to get into a lot more struggles than now because I was trying to direct and control things that weren't really my business: how he spends his free time (video games) when he goes to bed (way too late) what he eats (almost no vegetables)practicing harp. For all those things he knows what I think is healthy and smart---now it's up to him.

It's pretty interesting in that we have had almost no struggles about things I would put up a fight over if he did try to claim control over: when he has to be home at night, where he drives the truck, letting me know where he is when he's not at home. He pretty much is just telling me what he is up to, but has never asked for anything unreasonable.

So all lot of it comes down to consequences are what occur to you in the world if you act irresponsibly, unwisely or inappropriately and I am part of that world. Punishments are artificial contrivances aimed at "teaching a lesson" or "changing behavior."
Consequences speak from the deepest truth of who I am and how someone's behavior is impacting me. Punishment is rooted in the desire or need to control another individual.

Is this making any sense?

David said...

If you're interested in discovering your parenting style based on the latest research, please check out the Parenting Style Application by Signal Patterns on

The underlying model developed by our team of psychologists reveals an underlying complexity far richer than just 'strict' or 'relaxed' classifications.

And what's particularly interesting is that you can take the test for a spouse and see where potential conflicts might lie and get advice on how to deal w/them. You can also compare results to your friends'.