Psychologist tells parents to give children choices

April 25, 1993|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Staff Writer

Government has evolved from autocracies to democracies. It's time parenting techniques followed suit, says psychologist and author Michael Popkin.

As the keynote speaker at the fifth annual mayor's conference on child care at the Baltimore Convention Center, Dr. Popkin insisted that autocratic or dictator-style parenting is as ill-suited to a democratic society as kings and nobles would be.

Autocracies of all kinds do not respect the individual. Today's children, Dr. Popkin said, do not respond well to absolute dictums.

"We've got to find better techniques than laying down the law," Dr. Popkin said. A steady barrage of scolding and humiliation "just falls on deaf ears or, worse yet, falls on rebellious ears, much like those 13 colonies."

Dr. Popkin's advocacy for parenting that emphasizes encouragement and choices rather than punishment and strict control is not particularly novel. He is a pioneer, though, in the method of spreading his message. In 1984, he began marketing his techniques in a series of interactive videos, one of which, "Active Parenting," is now being presented to parents of students at Baltimore's "Tesseract" schools, the city's nine-school experiment in privatizing education.

Dr. Popkin's hourlong speech culminated Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's child-care conference, where as many as 1,200 workers attended seminars on child-rearing.

The subjects ranged from the concrete -- diet and exercise -- to the complex -- juvenile violence and drug abuse. The theme that threaded through all the seminar discussions was the primacy of building self-esteem during a child's earliest years as the best prevention to later destructive behavior.

Dr. Popkin, who lives in Atlanta, reiterated the point.

Punishment, he insisted, may cause a child to avoid bad behavior, but it will also breed resentment and anger. On the other hand, he said, enhancing a child's self-esteem prompts the child to make the right choices for the right reasons, to be cooperative, contributing members of society.

Rather than the autocratic approach, Dr. Popkin strongly urged parents to give their children choices so they will learn independ ence and gain confidence. But he warned parents that the children must also be exposed to the consequences of the choices they make.

While stressing the need to give children liberties, Dr. Popkin railed against the permissive or "doormat" parents, who give in ,, to their children's every whim to avoid confrontation. Parents must establish limits, he said, but "freedom within those limits."

Another benefit of self-esteem, Dr. Popkin said, is that it helps build a characteristic disappearing from the American character: courage, the willingness to take risks. Children must learn to take "known risks for known purposes." Only then, he said, will they have the best chance to succeed.

"We don't want our children to live lives of regret because of fear not to risk," he said.

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