My fourteen year old grandson and I saw Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK yesterday-I’m in the east visiting family in the Berkshires and Westchester. As I watched the wolf pack’s elders teach the pups the Law of the Jungle, and provide examples of how to become worthy of the pack’s trust, I thought of the teen who killed four people while driving drunk. His defense? That his wealthy parents spoiled him with material goods so much so that he could not tell right from wrong. His sentence? Ten years probation. Last year, he was charged with violating the probation by drinking and taking drugs. His mother took him to Mexico, but, thank heaven, they were brought back: his mother is in jail, and he is waiting trial as an adult
Thinking about parenting made me think of a book I wrote that was published in 1981 and stayed in print ten years–some copies occasionally appear online. The title is SETTING LIMITS: DISCIPLINE AND FREEDOM IN TODAY’S FAMILY by Beth Michel. The premise of the book is that parenting is not adversarial. The foundation of the system is that parents are not meant to be friends to their children. They are meant to be mentors who help a child grow through childhood and adolescence, so that when the child stands on the threshold of adulthood, it has self-discipline; a strong work ethic; and a personal ethical code based on the information it’s received about morality, ethics, and in many cases, religious beliefs. The child also has a sense of self that isn’t based on anything it can lose, or that can be taken from it. That, as my father told me, leaves education and the character to use it.
The method the book presents worked when the book was in print, and it works now. I have given the book or a summary of it to numerous parents who are delighted with how simple and effective this method is. It rests on the principle that with privilege goes responsibility. If a child chooses not to carry out the agreed-upon responsibilities, then the privileges are lost. We began this method when a child turned five. We discussed the privileges the child wanted, and the MANAGEABLE responsibilities that went with them. When a child asked how we would know it didn’t want to carry out its responsibilities, we would answer that we noticed the child was behaving like a three year old, which we understood, as adults also have times they wish they could go back to childhood. However, we believed the child should remain three years old until being five looked attractive. This period could be as short as one day or as long as three: longer periods were rarely necessary, because our children learned quickly that choices have consequences, and the best or worst of these might affect family members, but they would affect the chooser most.
We never had to make up punishments that had little or no connection to the “crime.” Nor did we consider a child having to forego privileges punishment. The consequences had been established, the child made the choice.
The animals in The Jungle Book had a much better grasp on what parenting is supposed to do than many human parents, in my view. They knew, as I did, that so long as our children become productive, honorable, compassionate people, we have achieved our goals.
Being mentors to their children doesn’t prevent parents from having fun with them. Family meals, vacations and outings, celebrations for occasions ranging from braces being taken off to college graduations, all provide opportunities for closer bonds which can last a lifetime. Gradually, as children become adults, the hours spent helping them find the path that will take them to the person they want to be, are rewarded by friendships that are different from any other, because ideally, the parent and child have known each other since the birth of one, sharing perceptions and memories that belong only to them.