Parenting books are popular because parents are always looking for help. This was not always the case. The only parenting book in my childhood home was Dr. Benjamin Spock's “Baby and Child Care,” and I think it was mostly used as a tool of discipline to swat my rear end.
As far as I can tell, my parents never suffered anxiety wondering whether they were effective parents. They were parents. That's what they did. They loved us. They disciplined us. They taught us what we needed to know. It seemed, at least in retrospect, simple and straight forward.
But today's bookshelves are crammed with how-to-parent books. At one end are books like Leonard Sax's “The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Children When We Treat Them Like Adults” that advocates parents should assert their authority. At the other end of the bookshelf is Katherine Lewis' “The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever And What to Do About It,” which champions collaborative parenting.
The “Good News” book recently was reviewed by CNN correspondent Elissa Strauss who is, herself, a parent seeking advice. Strauss found the “Good News” book refreshing in its call for a less authoritarian, more collaborative approach to parental discipline.
The key to getting today's children to behave is forgoing the fear-based methods of yesteryear and helping them learn how to self-regulate instead. Lewis' book wisely refrains from prescribing one particular method, and instead looks at a number of approaches to helping children learn self-control and how they play out in different scenarios. The one constant is finding a way to present them with consequences instead of punishment: the more natural the better.
Strauss went on to write that, at the book's suggestion, she “negotiated a consequence contract” with her 6-year-old son. They talked about what a proper consequence should be when the boy was too rough in his playing with his brother. Strauss had tried reprimanding and disciplining him without effect. So together, parent and child agreed that when the boy breaks the rules about roughhousing, he gets a “time out” in his room. Strauss declared the contract effective and this collaborative approach was better than the old “command and control” parenting.
While I do believe in allowing natural consequences to flow from child misbehavior, I would not advocate negotiating a behavior contract with a 6-year-old. I think parents need more of the Leonard Sax approach than the Katherine Lewis method. In “The Collapse of Parenting,” Sax urges parents to reassert their authority by limiting screen time, encouraging better habits at meal time and bed time, and imposing discipline when necessary.
For those parents looking for easy answers, stop looking. There aren't any. But if you'll be an intentional, engaged, loving parent who does not shy from exercising your proper authority, you'll greatly increase the chances of raising a respectful child and a responsible human being.
By Jim Priest