Pendulum Parenting

Too harsh or too lenient? How to avoid the parental extremes.

As a teenager, I experienced harsh and erratic discipline. I’m so afraid of doing the same to my kids (ages 14 and 15) that I tend toward being permissive and lax.

The opposite of harsh is not permissive. It is lovingly strong. The opposite of erratic is not lax. It is consistent.

The drive to parent opposite from any hurtful ways you experienced during your upbringing is a common and powerful one. In part, this is because emotional reactions of years ago may still linger today. They can evoke potent memories of feeling misunderstood and mistreated.

Consequently, to make sure that you don’t provoke the same feelings in your kids, you scrupulously seek to avoid disagreements or conflict. The primary goal of your parenting is peace, even when your better judgment says to stand your ground in the face of resistance.

There are two unavoidable traps lurking in this parenting style. One, it is not possible to avoid upsetting kids. The very reality of socializing a child means you must make many decisions — good ones — that they will find disagreeable, unfair, arbitrary or “mean.” And yes, at times they may even believe you are these things.

You must be ready to “cause” in your children some temporary feelings of being misunderstood or mistreated. Otherwise, you must pretty much let them decide for themselves how to run their own lives at ages 14 and 15.

Herein lies the second trap. Even if you can sidestep conflict for the moment, over time you will only cause more conflict. Quite simply, you can never parent in a way your kids will always find fair and agreeable. In due course, more and more of your decisions, no matter how compromising, will anger them.

Why? Because it’s a core law of human nature that you can’t consistently satisfy another person, big or little, by giving in to their every desire. They will only become harder to please, trickier to get along with, more demanding. They will become more easily reactive to the slightest whiff that you are not doing things their way.

The final irony? The very things you so desperately want to avoid — a harsh and erratic relationship with your children — you risk creating. They don’t appreciate your parenting looseness, as they’ve come to want more and more looseness in order to be pacified. At the same time, you fight feelings of frustration and impotence. No matter how much you try to see things their way, you never get credit for it.

So, how do you avoid this spiraling cycle? First, drive this notion into your head: The opposite of harsh parenting is strong parenting. It is calm, loving resolve. To be firm in your decisions is not in the least mean or dictatorial. It is doing good by your children.

Second, your kids’ unreasonable reaction to your limits and rules is not an automatic indicator that you are being unreasonable. There is a huge difference between unfair discipline and discipline that kids might think is unfair. In loving homes, a teen’s bad reactions to rules are not usually a reliable indicator that the rules are bad.

Finally, consider this: In all likelihood, your parents didn’t give much thought to their approach and its effect on you. They did what they did, for better or worse. The fact that you are so concerned about your behavior reflects a desire to be a good parent.

This is pretty good evidence that your style is not harsh or erratic.

The doctor is always in