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Jewish World Review Jan. 6, 2004 / 12 Teves, 5764

Betsy Hart

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Consumer Reports

Pushover parents | Is the parenting culture poised to come to its collective senses in the new year?

Well, probably not. But at least common sense is getting some attention in some quarters.

In the article "Are You a Parent or a Pushover?" in the January ('04) issue of Parents magazine, author Kellye Carter Crocker reported on a Parents survey that showed most mothers expressing "deep concern over today's discipline methods." For starters, 88 percent said parents "let children get away with too much."

Magazine surveys may be notoriously inaccurate, but still this reveals some level of angst over how kids are being raised.

As Crocker writes, parents may be "sensing what mounting evidence is starting to reveal: some of the discipline strategies that have been in vogue in recent years just aren't working. Elaborate systems that give kids multiple chances, prolonged discussions about the 'feelings' behind bad behavior, negotiations about consequences and so on are often ineffective."

Well, excuse me, but, um, "duh."

Time magazine, in its Dec. 15 edition, ran a compelling piece titled, "Does Kindergarten Need Cops?" It was subtitled, tellingly, "The Youngest School Kids are Acting Out in Really Outrageous Ways. Why?"

As the authors, led by Claudia Wallis, put it, "Temper tantrums are nothing new in kindergarten and first grade, but the behavior of one little 6-year-old in Fort Worth, Texas, had even the most experienced staff members running for cover. Asked to put a toy away, the youngster began to scream. Told to calm down, she knocked over her desk and crawled under the teacher's desk, kicking it and dumping out the contents of the drawers. Then ... she began hurling books at her terrified classmates, who had to be ushered from the room to safety."

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A child with "oppositional defiant disorder"? Well, no. As Time reveals, this kind of outrageous behavior is escalating dramatically among so-called normal, healthy, middle-class kids, like this one.

Time reports that the child-advocacy group Partnership for Children just completed a survey of child-care centers, elementary schools and pediatricians throughout the Fort Worth area. It shows that 93 percent of 39 schools responding said kindergartners today "'have more emotional and behavioral problems than were seen just five years ago." A majority of day-care centers, which host the tiniest tots, revealed that "incidents of rage and anger" have increased over the past three years.

Ronald Stephens, director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., said this is true across the country. He told Time that "violence is getting younger and younger."

Time cites problems like "economic stress," though youngsters have lived through far more stressful times without 3-year-olds stabbing classmates with forks, as the authors describe one tyke doing. Time suggests there may be too much time in child care, a politically incorrect but at least sane observation, and the authors look to academic pressure, though it's helpful to note that that's waxed and waned for a century.

The authors largely blame violence in the media. Well, OK. But then why do many kids who see the same images not act this way, and how is it then that adult criminal activity has been on a significant downward spiral for years?

What the Time authors didn't do is give anything more than a glancing nod to parents and how they raise their kids.

Talk about a root cause.

As Ronald Simons, a sociologist at the University of Georgia in Athens, told Parents: "without structure, children become self-absorbed, selfish and unhappy _ and they make everyone around them miserable, too." He cites studies that show kids raised by authoritative parents, meaning loving moms and dads who set firm limits and stick to them, "excel academically, develop better social skills, feel good about themselves, and are happier overall" than peers raised by lax or excessively harsh parents.

Interestingly, Simons echoes other research that finds that the longer the child behaves poorly the more permissive parents become, setting in place a terrible cycle that ends _ who knows where? With a healthy 6-year-old attacking her teacher?

I call it a modern-day commitment to the "cult of the always-contented child." We parents are committed to our own pleasure, and to the constant pleasure of our kids, too. We worry they won't like us if we give them anything less. Tragically, we don't worry about the consequences of sending them down such a self-destructive path.

In more technical terms, Simons told Parents that "there's an (unfortunate) fear that it's traumatic for a child to be disciplined and to hear 'no' too often."

Ah, a slim ray of commonsense advice on parenting. 2004 may already be looking up.

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JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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