Q

I fear my wife is expecting too much of my children. She's too strict. She says there's no such thing as “too strict.” Is there?

A

Yes and no. We shrink types are trained to make these kinds of definitive pronouncements.

Yes, a parent can be too strict, if strict means mean. No, she can't, if strict means high moral standards.

Commonly, strict is confused with volume, or strong emotions, or verbal barrage. Consider an argumentative adolescent. Think of the neighbor kid if you have to. As the dueling interchange begins, we hear, “Young man, are you arguing?” “No,” followed by more arguing. Then, “That is just about enough!” followed by yet more.

As the words escalate, so too do our tone and emotions. We appear to be standing strong. But no discipline has occurred. We may have looked, even sounded, tough. But in reality, we were weak and permissive, placing no consequences on Buck's misconduct.

Nowadays, the word strict sounds bad. It conjures up all sorts of other bad sounding words: rigid, unyielding, dictatorial. In essence, it evokes a you'll-do-it-my-way-kid-because-I'm-the-boss style.

Of course, the parent is the boss, but that's not the prime motive for discipline. Forming morals and character is. Bossiness for bossiness' sake is too strict. Being the boss in order to teach is not too strict. It's ultimately kind.

Within a loving home, being too strict shouldn't be a worry, if strict means expecting good conduct. Indeed, when are we “expecting too much” in terms of moral goals? How high are standards that are too high?

Suppose you have a house rule: All family members show respect toward all family members. How do you ensure that you're not overly frustrating the kids with your rule? Would you allow a few exceptions? “OK, children, you are each allowed three snotty outbursts, two name callings, and one kick below the neck per day towards your siblings. Anything over that will be disciplined. We want to keep our standards realistic here.”

If protecting little Nielsen from amoral television is a parenting priority, do you shield him from all nasty stuff? Or do you allow one sexy sitcom, two brutal local news stories, and one afternoon talk show just to make sure he won't react too negatively to your decision, or feel too much like a misfit compared to his peers?

Raising a great kid requires setting the moral bar high — likely much higher than most parents around you. Certainly, this does not mean your children will always, or even consistently, reach that bar. The most grownup of grown-ups don't clear the moral bar much of the time. Still, we all need something to stretch for.

Jesus said, “Be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I've looked for an asterisk after the verse, saying — wink, wink — “I know you can't do it, so I'm not really even asking you to try.” There is none.

Dr. Ray Guarendi is a clinical psychologist and author.

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