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Archive for Saturday, July 17, 2004

Gradual transfer of responsibility prepares daughter

July 17, 2004

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My sister's daughter went off to college at 18 and immediately went a little crazy. She had always been a good kid, but when she was on her own, she drank like a lush, was sexually promiscuous, and flunked three of her classes. My daughter is only 12, but I don't want her to make the same mistakes when she is beyond our grasp. How can I get her ready to handle freedom and independence?

Well, you may already be 12 years late in beginning to prepare your daughter for that moment of release. The key is to transfer freedom and responsibility to her little by little from early childhood, so she won't need your supervision when she is beyond it. To move suddenly from tight control to utter liberty is an invitation to disaster.

I learned this principle from my own mother, who made a calculated effort to teach me independence and responsibility. After laying a foundation during the younger years, she gave me a "final examination" when I was 17. Mom and Dad went on a two-week trip and left me at home with the family car and permission to have my buddies stay at the house. Wow. Fourteen slumber parties in a row. I couldn't believe it. We could have torn the place apart -- but we didn't. We behaved rather responsibly.

I always wondered why my mother took such a risk, and after I was grown, I asked her about it. She just smiled and said, "I knew in one year you would be leaving for college, where you would have complete freedom with no one watching over you. I wanted to expose you to that independence while you were still under my influence."

I suggest that you let your daughter test the waters of freedom occasionally as she's growing up, rather than tossing her into the big, wide ocean all at once. It takes wisdom and tact to pull that off, but it can be done. If you do the job properly, the time of release in six or seven years will be a gentle transition rather than a cataclysmic event.

If you had to choose between a very authoritarian style of parenting vs. one that is permissive and lax, which would you prefer? Which is healthier for kids?

Both extremes leave their characteristic scars on children, and I would be hard pressed to say which is more damaging. At the oppressive end of the continuum, a child suffers the humiliation of total domination. The atmosphere is icy and rigid and he lives in constant fear. He is unable to make his own decisions, and his personality is squelched beneath the hobnailed boot of parental authority. Lasting characteristics of dependency, deep, abiding anger, and serious adolescent rebellion often result from this domination.

But the opposite extreme is also damaging to kids. In the absence of adult leadership the child is her own master from her earliest babyhood. She thinks the world revolves around her heady empire and often has utter contempt and disrespect for those closest to her. Anarchy and chaos reign in her home. Her mother is often the most frazzled and frustrated woman on her block. It would be worth the hardship and embarrassment she endures if her passivity produced healthy, secure children. It typically does not.

The healthiest approach to child rearing is found in the safety of the middle ground between disciplinary extremes. Children tend to thrive best in an environment where the two ingredients, love and control, are present in balanced proportions. When the scale tips in either direction, problems usually begin to develop at home. Unfortunately, parenting styles in a culture tend to sweep back and forth like a pendulum from one extreme to the other.

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