A smart way to raise children

Family: Discipline and permissiveness are out. Parents should seek the middle ground by modeling ways to solve problems, authors say.

May 16, 1999|By Gracie Bonds Staples | Gracie Bonds Staples,Knight Ridder/Tribune

Forget potty training and letting your newborn cry himself to sleep. Forget timeouts and spankings.

And for heaven's sake, forget tough love.

Want happier and more caring children? Forget discipline altogether and apply smart love, a new alternative to rigid discipline and the unstructured permissiveness that has dominated child-rearing since the '60s.

"This way of parenting uses your head but allows you to trust your heart," said Dr. Martha Heineman Pieper, co-author of the new book "Smart Love: The Compassionate Alternative to Discipline That Will Make You a Better Parent and Your Child a Better Person." "It saves parents from the discipline trap, which makes children and parents miserable."

Smart love doesn't mean parents shouldn't regulate their children's behavior, but rather they should model for them a way to settle disputes without showing anger or aggression.

Pieper and her husband, Dr. William Pieper, have been using the smart love concept in their therapy practice for years. They began work on it a few years ago after deciding that prevailing clinical theories and child-rearing books were not helpful, and could even be harmful.

Smart-loved children, Pieper said, become happy and easy to be with. Those without the benefit of this type of nurturing, who are disciplined often, can become unhappy and difficult, believing that's what their parents want.

Instead of disciplining children, Pieper said, parents should apply what she and her husband call loving regulation.

"Discipline means that you attach unpleasant consequences -- disapproval, time out, restriction of privileges and even spanking," said Pieper. "Loving regulation allows you to control behavior that needs to be controlled without adding unpleasant consequences."

For instance, if a parent discovers her 10-year-old breaking the rules and riding her bike in the street, Pieper suggests that instead of taking away the privilege, insist that for a given period of time she may ride her bike only when you are with her.

And, contrary to popular wisdom that says you should let a baby cry himself to sleep, Pieper said, parents should always respond to their infants' cries immediately, gently and positively. To do otherwise teaches the infant to respond to discomfort by crying more intensely.

Until now, Pieper said, parents have always assumed that they had to discipline, and the only alternative to discipline was permissiveness.

"But based on our research, we said you can separate discipline from regulation. Discipline causes children to learn to treat themselves and others harshly when there's a disagreement, and taken to the extreme you can end up with a tragedy like that in Littleton, Colo."

Two students -- 17-year-old Dylan Klebold and 18-year-old Eric Harris -- went on a four-hour rampage at Columbine High School last month, killing 13 people before taking their own lives.

Pieper said that an unfortunate result of such a tragedy is that people will respond by saying that we're letting our kids have too much.

"Kids who reach for a gun to solve problems are kids who have been come down on harshly when adults didn't like their behavior," she said. "It would be really tragic if we come down harder on children."

Pieper said that children are more unhappy and troubled nowadays because parents have "gotten really bad parenting advice."

"We're producing child after child who needs to be unhappy because parents are told to come down hard on behavior that is really age-appropriate."

For instance, expecting babies to sleep through the night or getting upset when a 1-year-old clings to your leg is counterproductive, because all these behaviors are normal.

"We say you always offer a child a positive relationship," Pieper said. "Sometimes unconditional love gets defined as permissiveness, but you can always love a child and feel close to a child. This really is the middle ground."

Tips to happiness

To raise happy and resilient children, Martha Pieper offers these tips:

* You cannot spoil your children with too much love and affection.

* Whenever possible, give your child what your child wants. The child will copy you and become generous, not selfish and narcissistic.

* Babies and young children cannot fake unhappiness, and they are never manipulating you. If they cry, try to respond to them.

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