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Jewish World Review Nov. 7, 2003 / 12 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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Spare the rules, spoil the child | Attention, parents. Better yet, attention parents, grandparents, future parents and grandparents.

There are two just-out, must-read books on parenting.

Readers of this column may know I rarely recommend such books. But in this case, I'm suggesting you run, don't walk, run, to your nearest bookstore or on-line book-buying site to get them.

They are "The Epidemic: The Rot of American Culture, Absentee and Permissive Parenting, and the Resultant Plague of Joyless, Selfish Children" by Dr. Robert Shaw with Stephanie Wood (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) and "Children at Promise: 9 Principles to Help Kids Thrive in an At-Risk World" by Timothy Stuart and Cheryl Bostrom (Click HERE to purchase.).

Actually, the books make quite a pair.

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In "The Epidemic," Shaw, a practicing family psychiatrist and head of the Family Institute of Berkeley, Calif., writes, "Far too many children today are sullen, unfriendly, distant, preoccupied. . . They whine, nag and throw tantrums and demand constant attention from their parents . . ."

"Take a good look around you" he says. "Can you go into stores, restaurants, or libraries without seeing joyless children screaming, sulking, resisting their parents...?" It's an obviously rhetorical question. "Do you not notice all the whining, bickering, tantruming. . .while parents, in turn, nag, complain, and often try desperately to ignore their unruly, surly offspring?" Sigh. Another obviously, and I think frighteningly, rhetorical question.

Shaw writes that this destructive behavior is so common many parents don't even notice it anymore.

How true. Maybe I'm more conscious of it because of my own four little ones. But many times I have seen angry, miserable, out-of-control kids just become part of the fabric of family life.

The problem? It's a fabric that almost always, somewhere, unravels.

Shaw lists 15 ways to "ruin your children and your life," including "give in to your child's whims. . .let your child think he is the boss of the universe. . .and don't supervise your child's friendships." In contrast the antidote to the epidemic so many of us have witnessed is, Shaw writes, "a strong bonding experience, a routine, disciplined environment, moral training" and good old "down time." He says his book is not a "how-to" book but a "what is necessary" book.

I think one of Shaw's best observations is, "Today's parents seem to have absorbed the notion that a child's life should be totally serene, totally self-expressive, and totally free from frustration. But creating an atmosphere that feels satisfactory to the child all the time does her a disservice."

Ah, now we're at the crux of it _ our culture's devotion to the "cult of the always contented child." "Children at Promise" _ which seeks to reverse the common practice of seeing children as "at risk" _ takes on this very theme. The authors, award-winning educators writing from a Christian perspective, argue that in their studies of successful people, defined as people who "contribute positively to the moral and social fabric of society" there were always two things present: adversity and relationship.

They found that if a successful adult had a peaceful upbringing, he could point to some adversity which eventually entered his life which built his character and spurred him to success.

Conversely, the authors found that if a successful person was raised in a difficult or adverse situation, she could point to at least one key adult relationship, often a teacher or mentor if not a parent, who helped her to "interpret" that adversity rightly and not be overcome by it.

But, the authors say, as a society adversity scares us: "fear causes us to place our children on an enormous life-support system that hooks kids up to either stuff or programs as though their very breath depended on them." The authors maintain that a privileged upbringing, and they're not just talking about material wealth, can actually be a risk factor for a child if he does not learn to constructively handle adversity.

The "At Promise" authors do not argue we should go looking for adversity for our kids, only that when it inevitably presents itself, we shouldn't be frightened by it as much as we should help our children to think rightly about it, and grow into better people because of it. They offer nine principle to turn our kids into "at promise children," including things like building "perseverance," "optimism," "integrity" and understanding the need for "engaged play."

"The Epidemic" is more hard-hitting while "Children at Promise" takes a "kinder and gentler" approach. But they both accomplish the same worthwhile and too rarely found end: countering the destructive nonsense we get today from so many so-called "parenting experts."

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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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