By MARY HOOD HART
When it comes to common sense, many parents nowadays are seriously deficient. Compared to the “Father Knows Best” generation (which we love to deride) we’re not the terrific parents we like to think we are. In rearing our children and helping them make good, moral choices, we could take a few lessons from our own parents. While not perfect, they were way ahead of us in the common sense department.
As the mother of school-age children, I have lots of opportunity to witness this lack of common sense among parents of my children’s classmates. This lack of common sense runs the gamut from the simple — bedtimes, manners, attire — to the more profound — divorce, custody, drug and alcohol use.
I’m no expert on childrearing (my kids will testify to that) but I am not being unduly critical when I say that many of my contemporaries are making significant errors in judgment when it comes to their children. Their mistakes are often so obvious, one has to assume these folks realize they’re messing up. They seem to believe they’re powerless to change the way things are, as if the tide of popular culture has swept their children away, and the parents can do nothing but hope their kids stay afloat.
If I were in charge of creating a curriculum for a parenting course, I’d start with a definition of common sense, “sound judgment,” then I’d list five ground rules for using it in childrearing. If parents took these five rules to heart, I’m convinced we’d be raising a healthier generation.
Rule 1 — Parents are in charge. Letting kids have too much power is disastrous. Set up routines, rules and reasonable expectations. Communicate these to your children and consistently enforce them. Children thrive on routine. They thrive knowing they can expect certain events to happen at certain times each day with the same people (ideally, two parents) in charge of it all. However sophisticated and bright, they aren’t capable of running a family. Giving them authority to do so is foolish and cruel.
Rule 2 — Treat your children respectfully. Don’t be a tyrant. Childrearing is not exerting power. It’s training. Just as a puppy’s disposition can be ruined by rough handling, children can be hurt by unnecessary roughness. While children need strong guidance and discipline, they suffer if they’re bullied, teased or manipulated. Children who are treated respectfully learn to respect others.
Rule 3 — Set a good example. If you want your children to value something, they must see that you value it, too. As a CCD teacher, I have encountered parents who force their children to attend Sunday school, even though the parents themselves don’t attend Mass.
Rule 4 — Respect authority. While no one wants to blindly follow rules, we all know the importance of establishing and following sensible guidelines. I am constantly amazed that parents willfully disregard school and community rules, sometimes to the extent of breaking the law. When my 15-year-old daughter begged to be allowed to drive around our quiet subdivision before she had attained her learner’s permit, her father and I refused. We reasoned with her by explaining the potential liability, not to mention heartache, should she be involved in an accident, even if she wasn’t at fault. However, we had neighbors who routinely allowed their son, 13, to drive through the neighborhood. Not only does their decision to let him drive underage speak volumes about their lack of respect for the law, it teaches him that he’s exempt from following the rules.
Rule 5 — Realize your children, while wonderful and talented, are not the only people on the planet. They need to learn to live in community and recognize the give-and-take nature of their roles here. In school and other public settings, children should behave appropriately. Don’t make excuses for them. Obnoxious behavior is obnoxious behavior, no matter whether it emanates from a “genius,” an “average” child, or a “slow learner.”
I know my five rules won’t knock Dr. Spock’s book off the all-time bestseller list. But using common sense in child-rearing could become popular again. Common sense is accessible to every parent, regardless of income, education or status. All parents could adopt it, with much less stress and heartache than it takes to deal with unruly kids. For all children’s sake, I wish they would.
Mary Hood Hart lives in Sunset Beach, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages 7 to 15.