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Opinion & Essays - May, 2000 Issue #69 

By: Lon Woodbury 

There are no more harmful and misleading phrases in the English language than, “It’s the parents’ fault” or “Parents don’t care.” The existence of a few irresponsible parents has given this concept enough validity to be plausible, but as a label it hides many truths. When these ideas become the basis for public policy, it has at times made things worse. 

Often these labels are used, and parental blame is associated with teens who are out-of-control and making self-destructive decisions. Such application of blame misinterprets situations in which parents have become so frustrated with their inability to impose discipline, and so lacking of effective help when approaching authorities and child professionals for help, parents have essentially given up! It also ignores situations where a teen “blackmails” his/her parents by threatening to report them to the authorities if the parent does not do what the child demands. Parents are also blamed in situations where a hard-nosed suspicious state social worker has in the past invaded a family’s privacy by investigating intimate details of the entire family, sometimes based on a simple allegation with no corroborating evidence, and the parents are in real fear of having the whole invasive process repeated. It is easy to blame parents while ignoring the fact that society enforces the contradictory demands of success with one’s children while at the same time, a work load resulting in less time at home and fewer extended family resources. 

One of the most common weaknesses I’ve seen in parents is that they have been too “permissive,” not imposing proper discipline on their child. Yet blaming the parent for this “permissiveness” relinquishes the responsibility of professionals who have emphasized the harm that can be done by telling the child “no.” I have worked with many parents who have listened to these professionals and worked very hard to raise their children so as to not squelch their creativity. But, on those occasions when their child as a teen goes out-of-control, these parents are totally unprepared to respond effectively, paralyzed by their inability to act due to the guilt and stigma from others’ automatic presumption that they are “bad parents” and are at fault. 

Part of the problem is a fuzzy understanding of the word “discipline.” It seems most people equate “discipline” with “punishment.” Actually, the primary meaning of discipline is “to instruct,” but to parents who want more than anything else, just to “love” their child, discipline represents harsh punishment, something to be avoided. Thus they sometimes go to the opposite extreme, facilitating their child’s growth in a way that can be termed “permissive,” which can then be accompanied by all the unintended problems that a lack of proper discipline can create. 

Another part of the problem is the direction taken by the so- called “self-esteem” movement. That is, instead of recognizing that self-esteem is built upon real accomplishment based on overcoming real challenges, this movement has emphasized helping the child avoid disappointment and failure. It too often takes the form of what could be called “permissive.”

A case can be made that the rapidly growing network of Emotional Growth schools and programs that are the focus of this newsletter, have emerged as a direct result of parents’ tendency to follow professional advice that advocates coddling a child’s “self- esteem,” avoiding anything in the early years that might be considered too harsh. 

Like anything else, the whole issue of parent responsibility is not as simplistic as the phrases: “The Parent’s are to blame,” and “Parents don’t care,” would suggest. In their attempt to be good parents, they followed the advise of professionals in the child- rearing field, while being pummeled by contradictory demands that wrecked havoc with their ability to provide stability. Some of the situations that occurred may be a direct result of how much they indeed cared, but perhaps were misguided. Raising a child is probably one of the most difficult, confusing and challenging jobs any adult will ever face. Parents need support, sympathy, common sense help and understanding, not a simple guilt inducing condemnation. 

Copyright © 2000, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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