Discipline Makes For Spoiled Kids?
by Michelle Quinn, Detroit Free Press, February 6, 2004
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them. Terrorist toddlers screaming at the supermarket. Kamikaze
kindergartners with anger issues on the playground. Surly
adolescents with no respect for anyone over 18.
And you've wondered: Have kids always been this way and I'm just
getting crankier? Or are today's parents spineless saps
producing an inordinate number of brats?
Talk to parenting experts, school principals and teachers and
you'll get an earful. Most think children behave more poorly
than they did in the past -- some even call it a crisis in
discipline -- but they disagree about why. Theories range from
the absenteeism of working parents, to the loosening of morals,
to the violence and flippancy seen on TV shows.
However, there's one area of agreement: Many parents abandoned
the top-down, authoritarian style of past eras, but they haven't
found a sure-footed way to discipline their children that always
"I'm not sure about everything," says Kandi Praska, a Santa
Clara, Calif., single mother of three. "I'm looking at them as
children under my care and supervision who need to be
disciplined, but I don't want to go too far in the discipline so
that I encroach on who they are as people."
Child-rearing experts add to parents' insecurity. No two agree
on how to raise children. And new parenting theories pop up
Spanking is bad. Spanking is good. Teach your child the word
"no" early and use it often. Saying "no" will stifle your
child's creativity. Even yelling is over-analyzed. According to
one researcher recently, yelling is "psychological aggression."
"There's too much information out there," says Karen Friedland-Brown,
parent education coordinator at Parent's Place on the Peninsula,
a center that offers parenting classes. "And maybe kids are
pushing more and pushing harder because there aren't models of
extreme authority. That's good, but it makes parenting harder."
Parenting angst leaves schools having to play a greater role in
disciplining children, says James McDonald, principal of Britton
Middle School in Morgan Hill, Calif. "Some parents are very
confused about what they can and can't do in terms of
discipline. We're finding ourselves, as a school, taking on the
roles of parents."
So what is at the root of parental ambivalence about
disciplining? Dr. Robert Shaw, a Berkeley child psychiatrist and
author of a new parenting book, thinks American parents left the
shores of sanity in the 1960s. That's when the "epidemic," as he
calls it, began. "There's a lot of intellectual conviction that
you shouldn't over-regulate your kids," Shaw says.
"The most pernicious part is that parents aren't doing what they
feel is right," he says. "They are always thinking what ought I
do? They are looking for the politically correct way of being.
They are alienated from their inner guidance system."
Shaw says parents don't discipline their children early and
often enough. Permissiveness is flourishing like a virus
everywhere, he says, particularly in California's Bay Area. That
region prizes creativity and individuality at the expense of
respect, politeness and other values that used to be more in
vogue. Here, more than elsewhere, parents worry inordinately
about stifling their children and how best to encourage
independence and resourcefulness. The results are creative
mini-thugs, Shaw says, with no respect for adults and little
Of course, other child-rearing experts disagree. Martha Heineman
Pieper, another author of a parenting book, thinks people
discipline their children too much and too harshly. "They are
trying to socialize children way too young," she says. "It's
based on the idea that children should act like mini-adults."
Some say today's parents pick extreme parenting styles, from
permissiveness to rigidity -- often in response to the
upbringing they had. Others whipsaw between poles, perhaps
depending on what parenting advice book or article they read
that day. Many just go with their instincts, eschew consistency
and yet wonder if they should have some overarching philosophy
And maybe a middle-of-the-road approach has some benefits.
"Parents are too permissive in the name of love and too
controlling in the name of love," says Jane Nelsen, author of
"The key is to be kind and firm at the same time," she says.
But that reasonable advice doesn't always jump to mind in the
trenches. Praska, a library assistant, doesn't have someone at
home she can talk to about discipline.
When one daughter whined and talked back recently, Praska sent
her to her room. But then came the worries. Maybe she made a
mistake. Maybe her daughter was trying to communicate something
was wrong. "I don't want to hurt her," Praska says.
Second-guessing is, of course, just another job hazard of
parenting these days. Self-doubt often hits outside of the home,
where parenting can turn into a spectator sport -- the public
watching the live event of a child's meltdown and how it's
Not surprisingly, parents often are on the defensive, especially
in public settings. "When I started as a principal, I would call
a parent and they would thank me and be right here to help with
the discipline," McDonald says. "Now there's a growing number
who say, 'It's got to be the teacher's fault.' Or. 'It's not
Rennu Dhillon faces parental denial at the Fremont, Calif.,
preschool she runs, Genius Kids.
When one 3 1/2-year-old boy refused to color and pushed another
child, he lost his lollipop -- Dhillon's reward for good
behavior. But the mother bought him a lollipop rather than put
up with a tantrum, Dhillon said.
It took three weeks of no lollipops and timeouts (and the child
kicking and throwing crayons at Dhillon) before the child began
to comply with the school's rules.
"Kids don't fear anything," says Dhillon, who has two teenage
daughters. "They don't fear parents. They don't fear teachers.
If you talk to parents, they at first don't want to accept that
their child isn't perfect."
In the San Jose, Calif., home of the Castle Pietrzaks, two
parenting philosophies are at work and sometimes at odds. There
is common ground: Both parents are opposed to spanking, prefer
the term "consequences" to "punishments," and want their
children to feel they can speak up.
But there are differences. "She believes that fear has no place
in a relationship between a child and a parent," says Michael
Castle Pietrzak, the father and a painting contractor. "I
believe in healthy fear."
Stacy Castle Pietrzak, the mother and director of parent
education at the YWCA of Santa Clara Valley, puts their
differences this way: She believes children should be controlled
and restricted most at the youngest age and given bits of
freedom as they get older. Her husband thinks the opposite --
young children should be indulged until they show signs of
understanding. Older children need to be reined in and given
clear rules with consequences.
These two parenting beliefs sometimes collide among the couple's
three older children, ages 10, 12 and 14, from Stacy's first
marriage and their 16-month-old daughter. The older kids,
Michael thinks, need more guidance. And "with the youngest, what
my husband thinks is cute, I don't think is cute," Stacy says.
The couple says they talk constantly about every situation,
perhaps too much for Michael. But they feel they have to discuss
it all because they are inventing parenting as they go.
"Most people think, 'I was parented, I'm OK. I'll do what comes
naturally to me,' " Stacy says. "You can't. It's such a huge
responsibility that we take so lightly."
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