Parents sat by watching as one teen after another filled cups with beer at a friend’s graduation party.
When one of the parents asked another if he saw what was going on, the man shrugged and replied, "It’s not my house.’’ About two hours later, that dad was carrying home his 12-year-old daughter who drank until she vomited in the host’s backyard.
On the other extreme, there’s the case of a middle school student whose parents grounded him for a month because he got one B, instead of straight A’s, on his report card.
Finding middle ground
The expression, "The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,’’ also applies to the sort of discipline parents impart on their children, experts say.
If one is raised too strictly, he or she tends to act that way as a parent. The same goes for parents who were raised too leniently.
The best solution for parents is to find a middle ground and stick to it.
Katharine Bensinger calls the down-the-middle type of parenting "The Guide.’’
"As parents, we should take into consideration that if we impose too many unexplained restrictions on our children, then they will rebel or simply will not listen," says Bensinger, Parenting Education Program director for Community Counseling Centers of Chicago the past 13 years. "If we allow them to do as they please, then our children will be spoiled and irresponsible."
Parents moving toward leniency
Roni Cohen-Sandler, a nationally known author, speaker and counselor who has lectured at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and has appeared on "Oprah," says she is seeing more parents becoming too lenient.
"They are so eager to preserve closeness with their kids that they are afraid to act like parents. Some want to be seen as cool, as one of the kids. Others are too busy with work or preoccupied with their own issues that they don’t make the effort to be effective parents.’’
In the opposite extreme, these parents impose harsh rules that come from "unrecognized fear and unrealistic expectations," she says. Parents, she adds, may be reacting to how they were reared, how they acted as teens or to their anxieties about raising children.
"What they don’t understand is that these extremes of parenting usually backfire," she says. "Lenient parenting can sometimes turn into neglect.’’
And Bensinger says she has witnessed borderline abuse cases on the part of too-strict parents.
Parenting with calmness
"Choices and consequences’’ is a key approach to handling discipline, Bensinger and Cohen-Sandler agree.
Robert*, a divorced Chicago father of a 15- and 7-year-old, says that philosophy works.
"I let them know there are positive and negative consequences to everything they do. My son told me he didn’t want to do something. I told him, ‘you don’t have to do anything but die, but here is the consequence if you make the choice not to do what I asked. It’s up to you.’ ’’
Robert says he grew up in a too-strict household and once ruled his home with an iron fist. These days, however, he says he’s more relaxed and easy going.
"I’m more confident in what I do and tell the kids. I may raise my voice sometimes, but there’s no more screaming or threatening.’’
Frank*, of Chicago, says he and his wife had to learn to strike a balance—he was too strict, she was too lenient.
"Now, we’re on the same page,’’ he says. They have children ages 1, 2 and 3 and subscribe to a "when-and-then’’ philosophy, akin to the "choices and consequences’’ idea.
"When you eat, then you can play. If you hit your sister, then you will do time out. When they come out of time out, I explain why they went in. The kids treat each other much better now,’’ he says.
Patricia*, whose children are 12, 15 and 16, says she used to be "a hitter.’’
"I didn’t know how to discipline the kids. I never gave them choices. I’ve learned you’ve got to let them talk, even if you don’t agree, and talk to them in a nice, calm voice.’’
These days, she employs the consequences approach.
"If they want to go to a party, they have to do their homework first, earn the privilege. If they come home an hour late, they must come in an hour early next time.
"You don’t have to be too strict, but you don’t have to let people step on you, either. You have to have a balance; be a guide.’’
Bill Bero is a father of two and freelance writer living in Northwest Indiana.
Guiding the way to better parenting
Rather than ruling children with an iron fist or letting the children rule the roost, parents should provide a strong, but guiding hand in their disciplinary practices.
• Stopping the screaming and listening to what children have to say.
• Abandoning the "my-way-or-the-highway’’ approach; treating children the way you want to be treated.
• Finding a middle ground and sticking to it.
• Realizing it never is too late to modify behavior.
• Adopting a "choices and consequences’’ approach—letting a child know what is expected and what his or her options are if expectations are not met.
• Realizing that too-lenient parenting can turn into neglect.
• Realizing that too-strict parenting can lead to abuse.
Sources: Roni Cohen-Sandler and Katharine Bensinger
ResourceFor information on parenting classes at Community Counseling Centers of Chicago call (773) 769-0205 or visit www.c4chicago.org.
* Because of the nature of the story, last names of parents have been withheld.
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