Mary McCall had wanted to try cross-country skiing for 10 years. So when she finally planned a ski outing with her two sons this winter, the family's enthusiasm was running high.
But after they arrived at the trails, Ms. McCall's younger son, Corby, threw himself on the ground and refused to try. No amount of gentle coaxing worked.
"I knew it would be easier in the short run to appease him and go back inside," says McCall, of Oakland, Calif., a college professor. "Then I thought, well, OK, I can give in to what he wants to do, but what does he know about this? He's only six years old. He's not going to spoil it for us."
McCall held her ground and began skiing on a trail 50 feet away, within sight of her son. Before long, he joined her. "Within 10 minutes," she recalls, "he was just breezing along, having a great time."
Experiences like this warm the hearts of a growing band of family experts who say that after years of increasingly permissive child rearing, American parents must reclaim their authority. Through books and lectures, they are spreading a brave new message: Laxity is out. Good discipline is in.
"Parents go overboard and do too much, which includes letting kids rule the roost," says Diane Ehrensaft, author of the just published "Spoiling Childhood: How Well-Meaning Parents Are Giving Children Too Much - But Not What They Need." She describes this as a generation of adults who want to be friends with their children and thus tend to renege on authority.
Fred Gosman, an author and lecturer in Milwaukee, puts it even more bluntly. "If a telemarketer called and asked to speak to the head of the household, we'd often have to give the phone to the child," he says. "They select the movie we rent, select the radio station in the car, choose the restaurant we go to, and the vacation spot."
Yet slowly, Dr. Ehrensaft, Mr. Gosman, and others see heartening signs of change - a new willingness on the part of parents to take a firmer stand.
Three years ago, when William Damon first published "Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in America's Homes and Schools," his call for parents to take charge met with "stunned silence or lack of understanding."
Today Dr. Damon, a professor at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, Calif., observes "an enormous change in the discourse and dialogue that adults are having about kids. There's a much greater emphasis on the need for guidance, structure, limits in parenting, and more rigor in education." He notes a shift toward child-rearing experts who emphasize standards and away from those who advocate a permissive approach. "You're seeing John Rosemond being quoted a lot rather than Penelope Leach," he says.
Gosman, author of "Spoiled Rotten: Today's Children & How to Change Them," agrees, saying, "It's getting better."
Americans, Ehrensaft emphasizes, are not bad parents, they're just confused. One problem involves what she calls "parenting by guilt." She says, "The primary area of guilt is that there's just no time. Parents are not around, and when they are they're just exhausted." Divorce can compound their guilt and permissiveness.
To change these patterns, Ehrensaft, a Northern California psychologist, encourages parents to adopt an attitude of "less is more," meaning less indulgence, less lenience. Warning that lenience actually backfires, she says, "Children love us less when we cower in front of them because we fear they won't love us."
Other challenges arise when parents vacillate, sometimes talking to children as though they're twentysomething, other times coddling them like babies. Ehrensaft has coined a word, "kinderdult," to describe a new kind of child who is "half miniature adult, half innocent cherub." Such confusing treatment, she says, makes discipline difficult and inconsistent.
McCall understands those contradictions. "As parents, we get caught in the conflict of teaching them to survive in the cold hard world, but also looking back with fondness on our own childhood," she says. "We want to provide that free, innocent, true childhood experience."
But freedom has its obvious limits. Gosman observes that there are many ways to spoil a child, among them lack of discipline, tolerance of mediocre effort, and lack of responsibility.
And, of course, overindulgence. As one example, he tells of a newly divorced mother who moved into a two-bedroom apartment with her two teenage daughters. The mother slept on the couch so her daughters could have separate rooms.
"On the one hand, it's very considerate," says Gosman. "On the other hand, it gives the daughters the feeling that Mom has no value compared to them. They'll probably indulge their children like that." He cautions, "As we give our children more and more, we seem to be demanding and receiving less and less."
Patrick O'Donnell, a lawyer in Berkeley, Calif., and the father of a nine-year-old daughter, asks rhetorically, "Are kids more demanding now? Are the boundaries less clear? I think so. There's a lot more negotiation."
Yet Mr. O'Donnell and his wife, Barbara Gates, a writer and editor, see many laudable aspects to parenthood today. "Compared to my parents, we spend a lot more time with our daughter, which is positive," he says. "Pretty much all the parents I know are working hard to spend more time with their kids. They're also involved with soccer and after-school activities."
Time together as a family is, in fact, one of Ehrenhsaft's prime ingredients for good discipline and structure. To help working parents, she says, employers need to provide more family-friendly programs that give parents more time and support. Yet parents bear responsibility too. "It's fine to say that workplaces don't give us enough time, but we also overschedule our lives, and our children's lives as well."
Gosman adds, "Our kids need discipline, direction, love, and the gift of our time. Nothing more, nothing less."
Damon, who has just published "The Youth Charter: How Communities Can Work Together to Raise Standards for All Our Children," also urges parents to join with others in their community and use them as resources. This, he says, will "help children have a good experience in school and on sports teams."
Providing some spiritual or religious experience, and encouraging volunteer work, with efforts to help other people, can also promote family strength and discipline, he says.
Whatever a family's need for more discipline or less-indulgent child rearing, family experts offer this advice to parents: Be kinder to yourselves. Stop trying to be perfect, and follow your intuition.
"Parents need to give themselves credit for all the good they do," says Gosman. "Parents are too quick to bash themselves. They do a wonderful job of juggling things in a very busy life. Children aren't the only ones who deserve hugs. We all do."
What Parents Can Do
* Think of two or three changes you want to make. Tell your children about them and follow through. "Maybe it's disciplining appropriately and thinking of some effective consequences," says author Fred Gosman. "Maybe it's giving a child a clothing allowance. Maybe it's limiting the number of Christmas gifts."
* Expect more from children. Many children have very few household responsibilities, or any way to feel they're contributing. "A child who can program a VCR is capable of running the washer and dryer," says Mr. Gosman.
* Cut back on television. Videotapes allow a family to decide what to watch."Our daughter doesn't ever watch commercial television," says Patrick O'Donnell, whose daughter is 9. "She does watch videos, and she reads books. That makes life easier in the sense that we can control what our time is being spent on. The added benefit is certainly less exposure to commercial influences."
* Reconsider commitments and activities, and cut back if necessary. "Parents should look at what they're trying to pack into their lives," says author Diane Ehrensaft. "Perhaps it's too much."
* Talk to other parents to find ways to resolve common problems. "We're all embarrassed to call other parents and say, 'Hey, let's set a limit on these ridiculous birthday party expenditures,'" says Gosman. "We think the kids will be embarrassed if we do. But the other parents would probably nod their heads and say, 'Finally, a voice of reason.' "