Where’s the Instruction Manual on Parenting?
“They didn’t give us an instruction manual on parenting when we brought our child home from the hospital!” “They didn’t give us a warranty either!” These are commonly stated phrases among parents I have worked with over the years. Most parents can relate to both statements. The “how to” questions of parenting never end. First, we have often wondered “where do the batteries go” in all four of my children? What about other “troubleshooting” problems such as when the talking, crying, screaming, fighting and laughing buttons get stuck in the “on” position? Where’s the Prozac button so everyone is happy? Where’s the Kaopectate button so the brown mushy stuff firms up? Finally, where’s the psychostimulant button so they can focus and slow down?
Second, there have been times when dads have wanted to return the apparent defective product directly to the production plant; however, wives raised strong objections to this idea. It’s one thing to watch the birth video in reverse, it’s another thing to … well, you get the picture. So, I guess we all are kind of stuck with the little “Rug Rats,” “Curtain Climbers,” “Carpet Crawlers,” “Teeny Boppers,” “Crumb Crunchers,” and “Adult Wannabes.” Besides, no other kids are as smart and as good looking as our children. Right? Right!
Problems arise around the age of two when our cute little toddlers start to say, “No!” In our case, with Grady, it was “No! No! No! No!” Okay, I confess, it is cute and sometimes funny at first. It is also developmentally necessary for our children to start the process of becoming their own individual selves—separate from mom and dad. However, as our toddlers pass through the “terrible-two’s,” become children, and inevitably teenagers, they say “No!” much louder and with more frequency, determination, and defiance.
The challenge of parenting is to balance our children’s developmental needs, such as autonomy, individuation, and identity with plain old common sense. We want them to take responsibility for their choices and to develop a healthy respect for authority. Therefore, the issues that parents want addressed in an “instruction manual for parenting” are the following: (1) help to better organize and structure their families, (2) practical parenting tools which will assist them in teaching the proper morals and values to their children, (3) assistance in clearly communicating expectations to their children while giving them reasonable rewards and consequences for their choices, and (4) an alternative to going insane or slowly torturing their kids to death. Just kidding! Please do not try this at home!
Let’s face it, parents have a challenging task and they want to do it right the first time. Most parents desire to see their child grow up to become a successful contributing member of society rather than an inmate in the county jail or state correctional institution. Please take notice of the fact that I used the word “most” and not “all” when referring to parental desires for their children. Some parents don’t appear to care at all as to how their children grow up. The truth is parental action or inaction speaks louder than words.
We are living in troubled times when you consider how children and adolescents are behaving today. The terrible lethal tragedies at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado and the Virginia Tech massacre in Blacksburg, Virginia confirm this harsh reality. This fact is true no matter where I travel in the United States or around the world. While in Western Samoa, I spoke with a parent from Australia and another parent from New Zealand who expressed their concerns about the poor choices adolescents are making in their countries as well as the disrespect they continually convey toward adult authority figures. After explaining FAMILY Rules to them, they expressed an urgent desire to see FAMILY Rules published and distributed in their countries, too. A look beneath the surface reveals that many parents are concerned, but don’t know what to do. In most cases, parental action and/or inaction has contributed to their children’s inappropriate behaviors.
Some examples of parental actions that contribute to a child’s inappropriate, acting out behaviors are verbal, physical, and/or sexual abuse in the home, role-modeling poor attitudes about authority, poor diet, lack of exercise, and low self-esteem. Essentially, this is about parents not walking their talk or practicing what they preach. Quite frankly, consistency is a major challenge for all of us. From a personal perspective, it is an ongoing challenge for me to Correctly and Consistently implement FAMILY Rules in my own home because I am a creature of habit just like everyone else (i.e., “The two ‘C’ words”). I like the comfort of daily routines even if those routines are self-serving, counterproductive to my goals for raising my children and counterproductive to my own health. For me, the path of least resistance is the most comfortable path as well as the most nonproductive one. It took a public service reminder from a supportive friend to practice Correct and Consistent implementation of FAMILY Rules in my own home—and I’m the author of the system! Imagine that! Consistent parenting helped my children behave better.
I once worked with a family in Oregon. Martha, a very tall mother, took great pride in butting heads with school board members, teachers, and city officials. She talked openly in front of her children about the incompetence of various authorities. These authorities were always wrong and Martha was always right. Also, Martha always verbalized self-put downs concerning her height to her children. She viewed her height as a handicap and didn’t wish this curse on anyone, especially her children.
Martha was shocked when I had the gall to suggest the possibility that her parental role-modeling contributed to her very tall son’s defiance toward the authority of school officials, as well as his low self-esteem concerning his own height. You see, Martha brought her son, Warren, into therapy because her son’s defiance toward authority at school started to infiltrate her own home. Warren was telling her “no” more frequently and defiantly. What goes around comes around. She didn’t like the idea that her actions contributed to her son’s problem behaviors. I taught FAMILY Rules to Martha and her husband and they reluctantly chose to implement it in their home with their son. They were reluctant because they were required to walk the talk. Martha wasn’t allowed to violate her own rules for her son. She couldn’t talk negatively about authority figures, she couldn’t swear, and she had to talk positively about her own height. Through counseling and the implementation of FAMILY Rules in their home, her family was turned right side up. During the following year, I ran into Martha at the state fair. She shared with me that Warren was doing much better. He was no longer getting into trouble at school and he actually appreciated his height. She acknowledged her initial reluctance to implement FAMILY Rules, but was glad she did. She was also glad I confronted her about low self-esteem issues concerning her own height which eventually affected her very tall son. The cognitive intervention strategies via counseling were also helpful in turning her thinking around in a more positive direction.
I could relate to Martha and her son, Warren, concerning their issues surrounding being very tall. I’m six feet nine inches tall and have been taller than my peers my whole life. While in grade school, I would often come home crying. Taking the time to uncover the reason why I was so sad, my mother discovered my peers were making fun of me because I was much taller than they were. They called me many names and excluded me from their games on the playground during recess. My mother is tall. She talked about her height and my own height with great pride. She taught me to think about my height in many positive ways. As a result, I have used my height to open doors for me socially, academically (via a full-ride college basketball scholarship), in the area of employment, and in the arena of public speaking. My height and humor go a long way when speaking to a group of people. Having a Doctorate in Psychology helps as well. Finally, knowing and trusting in God is the icing on the cake that opens doors for success.
Another example of parental actions that contributed to their child’s problems is in the case of Todd, Kris, and David. They were referred to my office in New Jersey because David was caught at school with marijuana, a marijuana pipe, and mushrooms. I was confused during the diagnostic interview as to why Todd and Kris, the parents, only verbalized concern about David’s possession of mushrooms and not marijuana. After all, this was David’s third offense involving the possession of marijuana while on school property. What parents in their right mind wouldn’t be incensed by now?
I later put one and one together in the subsequent counseling sessions. Todd and Kris verbalized an ideology that society as a whole is wrong about narcotics and that all drugs should be legalized, especially marijuana. They openly espoused their ideology in front of David, and yet, they were surprised that he was busted for a third time on school grounds for possession of drugs. Duh! When I raised the possibility that their personal ideology was contributing to the delinquency of their minor, they genuinely looked puzzled. Although they thought the drug laws were wrong, they thought their son had enough common sense not to bring drugs to school. In their minds, the problem was their son’s lack of common sense—not their ideology. They refused to learn FAMILY Rules. Needless to say, in spite of all the wonderful counseling I had to offer, their son remains at high risk for using drugs and getting busted again for possession on school grounds. When the inevitable happens, I’m sure they’ll blame their son’s lack of common sense or my counseling—not their ideology nor their own parental actions. After all, they’re right and it’s the rest of us who are wrong.
Some examples of parental inaction that contribute to childhood problems and defiance consist of neglect, abandonment, absences due to a workaholic attitude and/or the lack of taking disciplinary action. Parents are often afraid to act, fearing that their child may run away, become violent, withdraw, never talk to them again, or commit an act of self-harm, including the possibility of suicide.
While living in Alaska, I once worked with a single parent named, Connie, who had an adolescent son, Ed, and an adolescent daughter, Teresa. Ed and Teresa slapped, punched, kicked, and cussed at their mother with a sailor’s vocabulary. They often slammed her against the wall and threatened her life. Connie experienced constant verbal and physical abuse by Ed and Teresa when they were home. They came and went as they pleased and defied school authority as well. Connie feared putting her foot down with her children because she didn’t want to be physically abused more frequently than she already was. They also threatened her with the possibility that they would leave and go live with their father in the “Lower 48 States” if she didn’t let them do what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it.
I helped Connie to rebuild her self-esteem after several counseling sessions. She needed to see herself as having a parental backbone of steel rather than a wet spaghetti noodle. Then I taught her FAMILY Rules and helped explain it to her children. I never heard so much swearing in my life and I used to play college basketball (i.e., my teammates were not missionaries in the locker room). Connie put her foot down in one session and told Ed and Teresa that they were going to follow FAMILY Rules in their home or they could go live with their father.
Connie also told them that she would send them away if they ever physically abused her again. Connie took the wind out of Ed and Teresa’s sails as they never really wanted to go live with their father. They were merely using the threat of leaving their mother as a means of control over her. Once I convinced Connie that Ed and Theresa were bluffing her like a hustler in a Las Vegas poker game, she called their bluff. They were no longer king of the hill and went tumbling down the hill while their mother ascended to the throne. Their family was turned right side up. As a result, their behaviors improved greatly at home and at school.
Approximately two years later, Connie returned to my office at her children’s insistence. They all informed me that their family life was taking a turn for the worse again. Ed and Theresa were not happy campers. Apparently, Connie was dropping the ball concerning correct and consistent implementation of FAMILY Rules in their home. Remember “the two ‘C’ words?” Correct and consistent implementation. Surprisingly, Ed and Teresa were demanding the reinstitution of FAMILY Rules in their home. They were tired of their mother’s yelling and inconsistent implementation of rewards and consequences. It takes a great amount of effort to maintain a consistent bedtime when the sun is still high up in the sky at midnight in Alaska. Connie fell victim to the Alaska summer – “The land of the midnight sun.” It was easier to let her kids run free than correctly and consistently implement FAMILY Rules.
Connie also disregarded the doctor’s orders, or in this case, the psychologist’s orders. Whenever I teach FAMILY Rules to parents and children, I tell them to take FAMILY Rules until it is all gone. Usually, the family members will look at me with weird expressions on their faces and ask, “What do you mean by ‘until it’s all gone?’” At that point, I provide a little education utilizing an analogy about physicians instructing their patients to take their medication as prescribed until it’s all gone. Often, physicians warn their patients about discontinuing their medication simply because they are starting to feel better. Some people will save the remainder of their medication so they will have it available the next time they are sick because they don’t want to have to endure the inconvenience and expense of seeing their physician again. However, because they choose not to listen to their physician, and finish their medication, the illness comes back and hits them with a double strength whammy upside the head. These patients end up going back to their physician, eventually spending more time and money getting over their illness. They would have gotten better sooner if had they just followed their physician’s orders.
In the same manner, parents and children need to take FAMILY Rules until it’s all gone. In other words, FAMILY Rules should be implemented in the home until the last child has turned eighteen, graduated from high school, and has moved out. Connie’s parental inaction led to her own chastisement by her son and daughter, who used to verbally and physically abuse her. Connie thought their home life was going much better so she backed off of the correct and consistent implementation of FAMILY Rules in their home. Ed and Teresa wanted consistent structure and order in their home and turned their mom in to the FAMILY Rules police. That would be me or any other counselor who uses FAMILY Rules. (See Appendix A for more information.)
Finally, parental inaction can be clearly seen in the case of Jason and Cathy concerning their adopted son, Carl. For many years, Carl seemed like the perfect kid; however, he slowly began to change for the worse as his adoption issues and other issues began to surface. He began to hang out with the wrong crowd, smoke, and use drugs. Eventually, he dropped out of school. He threatened to beat up his mother and father whenever they attempted to confront him about his problems. They were legitimately afraid to take action because Carl had recently beaten up his older brother, Keith, with a baseball bat. Their parental paralysis, caused by fear of Carl’s threats, was contributing to his demise.
Jason and Cathy are humble, gracious, God-loving people. They decided to give Carl space and love him back into being a good boy, but his problems worsened. Unknowingly, they were loving him to death. They sought out my counseling and psychological testing services to help them deal with Carl. After meeting with Carl and his parents for a couple of sessions, I had to inform Jason and Cathy that Carl was in need of long-term residential treatment to address his conduct disorder. Carl’s attitudes and behaviors were greatly out of control. He had no respect for his parents, other authority figures, or for himself. He was headed down the proverbial slippery slide to incarceration or a premature death. He needed intensive long-term residential treatment immediately or it would be “Hasta-la-bye-bye” for him one way or another.
Needless to say, my recommendation was a real challenge for Jason and Cathy to accept. They did not want to send Carl away again. At the age of ten, they had sent him to a therapeutic snow boarding school in the “Lower 48 States” and saw no improvement. Also, because Jason and Cathy sent him away for treatment, Carl claimed abandonment issues related to his adoption. Carl knew how to push their guilt buttons. I assured them that the treatment program they were considering had a fantastic success rate. I gave them names and phone numbers of other parents who had sent their children to this program so they could talk with them for encouragement. I also told them about a support group for parents with troubled teens that met at the local hospital in their community every other Sunday. Jason and Cathy understandably hesitated. They needed time to think and pray.
As time passed, Carl’s behaviors worsened. He made it clear that he was his own boss and that he was not going to obey his parents or any other adult authority figures. The occasional resurfacing of Carl’s nice qualities kept his parents hanging on to a thin thread of hope that he would ultimately change and they would not need to intervene. The sun went down on their hope and Jason and Cathy eventually realized and accepted the fact that Carl needed residential treatment as soon as possible. He was almost seventeen so they only had one year left to effect positive change in his life. They were finally willing to put their foot down and implement the “teeth” FAMILY Rules provides and encourages as a last resort option. Thus, I provided Carl’s parents with professional escort options. They chose to have me escort him to a residential treatment program in the South Pacific. I’ll provide more details on Carl’s story later in the book. Stay tuned.
Children Have Free Will
Although parental actions or inactions speak louder than words and greatly influence the family, please don’t forget that children and adolescents also have free will. They can choose to obey or disobey in spite of parental influences to the contrary.
I have worked with almost perfect parents who appeared to have a D.C. sniper or international terrorist for a child. They walk the talk, love their children unconditionally, provide them with correct and consistent structure, and their children still choose to jump off into the deep end of the cesspool of defiance and disobedience. Also, I have worked with “parents from the pits of hell,” who have children on the honor roll, participating in school sports and clubs, and they don’t drink, smoke, or chew and they don’t hang out with kids who do. Go figure?
While attending graduate school in Oregon, I worked with a gentleman named Allen. He was a nice man who was overwhelmed by much emotional pain and anger rooted in his past. Allen grew up in a home with parents who loved him very much. They poured their time and resources into correcting his developmental problems (e.g., feet, hearing, speech, and orthodontic problems) and they invested themselves into his athletic development. This investment eventually led to his obtaining a full-ride scholarship to play collegiate basketball. However, in spite of their love and devotion, they also had problems in their family. Allen’s mom’s alcoholism kicked in right around the time he entered the ninth grade. His father always had an anger management problem and the stress of his job didn’t help matters. Allen’s parents would occasionally take turns verbally and physically abusing their kids – his mom, during her drunken states, and his dad, during his anger episodes.
Once, when Allen was a senior in high school, his mom came into his bedroom in the early morning hours. Allen was sound asleep. His mom was drunk. She proceeded to slap Allen out of his sleep and told him what a lousy son he was. Her tirade went on for a few minutes while Allen laid there in shock. He was very confused by her words because he was receiving very good grades, active in sports, participating in the school choir, active in the youth group at church, and he never drank alcohol or used drugs. Allen’s mom ended her tirade by stating, “I wish you were never born!” She left his room. Allen laid in his bed, crying, staring up at his ceiling in the darkness. Although he loved his parents, Allen was hurt and angry at God. While lying there crying in his dark bedroom, he asked God, “Why did you stick me in a family like this?”
For as long as Allen could remember, his parents seldom ever got along. He remembered being a very frightened three-year-old, lying in his upstairs bedroom, while his parents were downstairs yelling and screaming at each other. This went on just about every night. In spite of this, Allen sometimes felt safe because he was in his bed, in his room, with his blanket. Now, fifteen years later, their anger had finally invaded the refuge of Allen’s bedroom. Allen’s mom returned to his bedroom five minutes later crying, still very drunk, wanting to apologize for what she had said. She wanted Allen to forgive her and she wasn’t going to leave his bedroom until he gave her a hug and a kiss. Needless to say, Allen did not want to touch her. Her breath smelled like a brewery. If someone lit a match at that moment in time, they probably would have lost the backside of their house. Allen was hurt, angry, and wanted to vomit due to the stench. The thought of her hugging and kissing him was more than he could handle.
At that time in Allen’s life, during his senior year, he was quite tall for his age (i.e., he was 6 feet 9 inches tall). Being a rather tall basketball player, he could have picked up his mom and thrown her out of his room; however, Allen loved her and respected her. Allen chose to honor her with his behaviors rather than to use her alcoholism and verbal and physical abuse as an excuse to hurt her back. Allen eventually gave his mom a hug and a kiss just to get her out of his bedroom. She left his room feeling better. Allen still lay in his bed, crying, staring up at the ceiling, asking God, “Why?!!” The next morning, Allen’s mom acted like nothing happened the night before. He was very hurt. Years later, Allen learned that his mom was experiencing an alcoholic blackout. She had damaged brain cells from her drinking. Alcohol had damaged her brain cells so much she could not remember what happened that night in Allen’s bedroom.
In spite of the occasionally abusive environment that Allen grew up in as a child and adolescent, he still knew the difference between right and wrong and he chose to do what was right. Allen did not use his parents’ shortcomings and mistakes as an excuse to behave in the same inappropriate ways. Thanks to the positive influence of Allen’s youth pastor, his goal as an adolescent was to honor his dad and mom no matter what. Allen never got drunk, high, nor did he ever assault anyone. Yet, it is amazing to me how many times I encounter adolescents in my private practice who use their dysfunctional family environments as an excuse to behave like Mike Tyson or Marv Albert. They are constantly ‘biting’ the hands that feed them. Although parents can influence their children for better or worse, never forget that a child’s “free will” is always an important variable that is mixed into the stew pot of life. A child can choose to behave right even though raised wrong. Another child can choose to behave wrong even though raised right. This can be very perplexing at times. Nevertheless, children should be held accountable for their choices. Sometimes parents opt not to hold their children accountable because of their own guilt from past parental mistakes. This parental inaction only leads to the creation of monsters in their home.
As I was previously saying, children have free will. FAMILY Rules is not a “let’s blame the parents” book. Rather, it’s a “let’s help the parents increase the odds of raising emotionally healthy and obedient children” book. Raising perfect children is not the goal of FAMILY Rules. Increased compliance with and respect for adult authority is the goal of FAMILY Rules via positive parenting and positive parental role modeling. “Honor your father and mother” is not a bad virtue for children to learn. Most parents would not argue with this goal, but surprisingly, some parents do. Imagine that. I will comment in more detail concerning this sad truth in the next chapter.