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You could quibble about the headline.

By tough love, the ABC reporter means parents setting boundaries and sticking to them. Children don’t seem to be smarter, just more resilient, more confident, more capable. And setting consistent rules is raising children, not breeding them.

But it is an interesting story.

9,000 families were studied over eight years.

Children treated with warmth, and given clear consistent guidelines, followed up by clear, consistent discipline, were much better at developing life skills including self-control and empathy.

Before you start thinking that this is as much of a headline as Britney’s lip-synching, let me tell you what I think is interesting.

The study claims that clear rules and firm discipline are more important to a child’s self-esteem and future success than any other factor, including household wealth, single or both parents, etc.

But it also notes that discipline is likely to be firmer and more consistent in families with average or better income, and in families where both parents are involved in raising children.

Why might this be?

Raising children is emotionally exhausting. Children are hungry, energetic, rude, thoughtless, constantly testing the boundaries. It is often tempting to give in. Having a loving and supportive partner makes it easier to say no, to stay in charge and in control.

But why should a good income make it easier? The answer, I think, is that it is not the income that makes it easier, but the skills and self-discipline that are the usual pre-requisites to earning a good income.

If you are capable of saying no to yourself, capable of making sacrifices, capable of managing your time, and see the value of work and study, you are more likely to take the harder road of firm, fair discipline in raising your children.

Teacher friends have frequently confirmed this, telling me it is generally (but not always, obviously!) the children from two parent families on reasonable incomes who are more considerate, more creative, better workers, with more confidence in themselves and the world, and consequently more chance to succeed.

But if all of that is true, and I think it is, how do we in Australia begin to address the huge problems facing young people from groups where confidence in the world around, and consistent, positive, active parenting have been lost?

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