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If You Don't Get No Respect

To many adults, it seems kids are more out of control than they used to be: cursing, throwing fits in the supermarket, disrespecting parents and teachers.

But is permissive parenting partly to blame? And how does it affect children if adults are not clearly in charge?

Family counselor Mike Riera drops by The Saturday Early Show to offer insight on those questions, as well as suggestions to help parents regain control.

Kids used to have a healthy respect for adults. It seemed as though parents could keep their children in line just by raising an eyebrow. What happened?

Mike: In earlier generations, some kids were just plain scared of their parents. Remember, it wasn't until 1974 that the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act was passed. This really brought into focus that physical abuse was not a tool of solid parenting, and this forced parents to have to discover and rely on their own authority without force.

Have parents become too permissive?

Mike: In many ways, this is true. But in others, it's an expected swing. Many of the current generation of parents have moved too far away from the typical authoritative parent of the past. In essence, many want to be friends with their kids more than they want to be parents, or at least they go along with their kids to avoid hurt feelings and tantrums.

Is there anything wrong with being your child's friend?

Mike: No, as long as you are their parent first. Friendship is second. If kids respect you as a parent over time, a friendship can grow, but not at the expense of the parent-child roles. When parents sacrifice their roles as moms and dads, kids lack the direction and responsibility they need to be successful in childhood and adolescence.

Do kids really want to be in charge? If the parent isn't clearly in control, how does that feel to the child?

Mike: Absolutely not! Sure, they may act like they want to run the show, but down deep, they want and need their parents to be in charge. Of course, as kids get older, they need their parents to slowly give them more responsibilities. I call this shift in parent-child roles (moving from childhood to adolescence) moving from manager to consultant. That is, the parent gives the teenager more responsibility without abandoning them and without trying to control their teenager's every move.

At what age can children begin to understand boundaries and rules?

Mike: Very early! Go to any decent preschool and you see kids responding to boundaries and rules. Furthermore, if the boundaries and rules slip or go away for awhile, you'll see the kids become anxious and, shortly thereafter, begin to act out.

What if it's a teenager who disregards the rules? Is it ever too late to set boundaries and start instilling respect?

Mike: Never too late, you just do it differently. Never forget that boundaries set the stage for respect. Without them, there isn't much chance of any real respect developing.

How do you encourage politeness and respect in a young child? In older kids?

Mike: With younger kids, you model what you're looking for and you insist upon it in your dealings with them. That is, at various times you remind them: "In this family, we talk nice to each other, so why don't you try asking again?" Or the age-old favorite: "What's the magic word?"

With older kids, it's not much different. Teach them how to shake hands, look into someone's eyes, and introduce themselves. It's a skill, and parents need to teach it. But with teenagers especially, before you determine whether your child is the rudest kid in the world, check with their teachers. Often, kids who are testing the limits in every way imaginable at home are displaying respectful behavior and impeccable manners with their teachers.

If a child whines or threatens or manipulates you to get his way, what's the best response?

Mike: Well, the worst thing a parent can do is give in. When you give in, all you do is validate the threatening or manipulative behavior; your child has learned that it works. So brace yourself to be embarrassed if in a store, or to miss your meal if you're out at a restaurant. You have to face the behavior head-on and refuse to play their game, which usually means removing them from the situation and taking them home. Or, if it happens at home, disengage with them through some form of time-out or other consequence.

What about a kid who is verbally disrespectful toward parents, teachers or others who may be in earshot?

Mike: This happens in schools all the time. The worst thing you can do is pretend you didn't hear them. Instead, go over to them, let them know you heard what they said, tell them you disapprove, and go about your business.

The only exceptions are if they are more than just a little disrespectful. Once they fall into the genre of racist, homophobic or sexist, it's time for a firmer intervention.

Some parents might think that giving in to their kids' demands helps to keep peace in the household. What advice can you offer those parents?

Mike: Bad idea. With time, the demands will only get greater. This is when you have to set the limit and face their resistance. It'll be ugly for a while, but if you hold your ground respectfully, they'll get your point, and sooner than you might expect, respect the limits you've set.

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