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Rosemond: A parent's role isn't to be a helicopter
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A journalist recently asked me to name the No. 1 problem facing today's family. I think she expected me to address education, the economy or some other "hot" topic. To her surprise, I said, "A confusion of roles."

In today's parenting universe, married women with children think of themselves first and foremost as mothers, and married men with children think of themselves first and foremost as fathers. This is confusion. If you are married with children, you are first and foremost a wife or a husband. In your wedding vows, you did not say, "I take you to be my (husband, wife) until children do us part." Those vows, many generations old, read the way they do for a reason.

I've been telling recent audiences that parenting has become bad for the mental health of women. Today's all-too typical mother believes that whether her child experiences success or failure in whatever realm is completely up to her. If she is sufficiently attentive to her child's needs and sufficiently proactive in his life, he will succeed. If not, he will have problems. The natural consequence of this state of over-focus is anxiety, self-doubt and guilt.

Symptomatic of this ubiquitous state of bad mental health is mother-to-mother conversation, which will almost invariably be all about their children: what they're doing for their children, their children's latest magnificent accomplishments, and so on. That today's mothers cannot seem to think of anything else to talk about is rather, well, sad. My mother once told me that when mothers got together in the 1950s, they talked about everything but their children.

"We talked about interesting things," was the way she put it.

The more attention you pay a child, the less attention the child will pay to you. The 1950s mother went about her child rearing with an almost casual attitude. It was "all in a day's work," as opposed to being all of her day's work. She exuded a sense of confidence in her authority; therefore, her child recognized her authority. She established a clear boundary between herself and her child (as in, "I don't have time for you right now, so go find something of your own to do") that today's mother feels prohibited from doing. Thus, today's mother often feels as if she is under assault from her children from the time they wake up until they consent to occupy their beds.

In any relationship, a well-defined boundary is necessary to respect. For example, men may "like" women who do not establish clear boundaries, but they have no respect for them. In this regard, it is no mystery why so many of today's kids seem to have no respect for their mothers, or any other adult for that matter.

A father told me that his minister often spoke from the pulpit of the need for parents to be involved with their children. This bit of conventional wisdom is rarely if ever questioned. If I ask someone to explain why a high level of parent involvement is good, the typical response is along these lines: "Well, I mean, they need to know you care about them, right?" I knew my mother cared about me, but she wasn't involved with me. She was involved with other adults, and when she remarried she was primarily involved with her husband, my stepfather. I always knew that I could depend on her, but there was enough of a boundary in the relationship to prevent me from ever becoming dependent.

This state of affairs is healthy for both parent and child.

Most of the discipline problems today's parents experience with their children have their genesis in this nouveau and very dysfunctional family model. These discipline problems, therefore, are not going to be corrected by manipulating reward and punishment with clever behavioral methods. They will correct themselves when the dysfunction is corrected. The problem here is that it's difficult to accept that what one is doing is dysfunctional when everyone is doing it.

John Rosemond is a family psychologist. Questions of general interest may be sent to Affirmative Parenting, c/o The Times, 345 Green St. NW, Gainesville, GA 30503.