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Kids behaving badly: Is it because parents are clueless?


You've seen them. Terrorist toddlers screaming at the supermarket. Kamikaze kindergartners with anger issues on the playground. Surly adolescents with no respect for anyone over 18.

And you've wondered: Have kids always been this way and I'm just getting crankier? Or are today's parents spineless saps producing an inordinate number of brats?

Talk to parenting experts, school principals and teachers and you'll get an earful. Most think children behave more poorly than they did in the past -- some even call it a crisis in discipline -- but disagree on why. Theories range from the absenteeism of working parents, to the loosening of morals, to the violence and flippancy seen on TV shows.

However, there's one area of agreement: Many parents have abandoned the top-down, authoritarian style of past eras, but they haven't found a sure-footed way to discipline their children that always seems right.

Spanking is bad. Spanking is good. Teach your child the word "no" early and use it often. Saying "no" will stifle your child's creativity.

Parenting angst leaves schools having to play a greater role in disciplining children, says James McDonald, principal of Britton Middle School in Morgan Hill, Calif. "Some parents are very confused about what they can and can't do in terms of discipline. We're finding ourselves, as a school, taking on the roles of parents."

So what is at the root of parental ambivalence over disciplining? Dr. Robert Shaw, a Berkeley child psychiatrist and author of a new parenting book, thinks American parents left the shores of sanity in the 1960s. That's when the "epidemic," as he calls it, began. "There's a lot of intellectual conviction that you shouldn't over-regulate your kids," Shaw says.

"The most pernicious part is that parents aren't doing what they feel is right," he says. "They are always thinking, 'What ought I do?' They are looking for the politically correct way of being. They are alienated from their inner guidance system."

Of course, other child-rearing experts disagree. Martha Heineman Pieper, another author of a parenting book, thinks people discipline their children too much and too harshly. "They are trying to socialize children way too young," she says. "It's based on the idea that children should act like mini-adults."

Maybe a middle-of-the-road approach has some benefits. "Parents are too permissive in the name of love and too controlling in the name of love," says Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline.

"The key is to be kind and firm at the same time," she says.

In the San Jose, Calif., home of the Castle Pietrzaks, two parenting philosophies are at work and sometimes at odds. There is common ground: Both parents are opposed to spanking, prefer the term consequences to punishments, and want their children to feel they can speak up.

But there are differences. "She believes that fear has no place in a relationship between a child and a parent," says Michael Castle Pietrzak, the father and a painting contractor. "I believe in healthy fear."

Stacy Castle Pietrzak, the mother and director of parent education at the YWCA of Santa Clara Valley, puts their differences this way: She believes children should be controlled and restricted most at the youngest age and given bits of freedom as they get older. Her husband thinks the opposite -- young children should be indulged until they show signs of understanding.

"Most people think, 'I was parented, I'm OK. I'll do what comes naturally to me,' " Stacy says. "You can't. It's such a huge responsibility that we take so lightly."

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