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Why firm parenting is good parenting

By Amitai Etzioni, Special to CNN
  • Amitai Etzioni says in 50 years of teaching he can tell students raised by "good" parenting
  • They are thin-skinned, baffled, he says, when not praised for substandard performance
  • Etzioni: Parents who praise every achievement, no matter how small, do kids no favor
  • Kids who have firm guidance, realistic praise, achieve more, have more self-regard, he says

Editor's note: Amitai Etzioni is a sociologist and professor of international relations at George Washington University and the author of several books, including "Security First" and "New Common Ground." He was a senior adviser to the Carter administration and has taught at Columbia and Harvard universities and the University of California, Berkeley.

(CNN) -- I've been teaching university students for 50 years, and I can tell when one of my students comes from a home in which "good" parenting takes place.

These students -- most often from a middle-class background -- are stunned when they learn that their draft paper is not the cat's meow, indeed must be rewritten from scratch.

They send e-mails, constantly, with their work in progress attached, "just to see if I am on the right track." And if they get a C, they are crushed.

Some wonder if I made a mistake; others inquire how this could be, given that they "always did so well"; still others get quite angry, not with themselves over their performance, but with me.

I was reminded how we got this generation of students -- many of whom are not prepared to deal with setbacks and whose egos need to be stroked all the time -- when I was at a friend's home for dinner. The parents beamed as their 11-year-old son showed off a ribbon he got for coming in second in a race.

After he went to bed, I found out that in that particular meet, only two kids participated. Better yet, the school makes sure that every child gets at least one ribbon, so that his or her tender self-esteem will not suffer.

Truth be told, I am one of the guilty parties. My own parents were very strict. They did not hesitate to add to my chores when I did not make my bed, to cut my allowance when my grades were not high enough, and they believed that sparing the rod spoils the child.

In reaction, I brought up my sons in the way Dr. Spock prescribed: positive reinforcements and strictly psychological ones. Laying your hand on a child was considered just one step away from child abuse. Praising to the heavens every minor achievement was the way to go.

Well, studies show that this "indulgent" or "permissive" style of parenting (as distinct from authoritarian, authoritative and uninvolved models) does more harm than good. And they find that a firm approach to parenting works well. Thus, one study concludes, "Adolescents who describe their parents as treating them warmly, democratically, and firmly are more likely than their peers to develop positive attitudes toward, and beliefs about, their achievement, and as a consequence, they are more likely to do better in school."

Another study finds that mothers who adopt a firm, rather than a permissive, style cultivate "higher self-esteem and life-satisfaction and lower depression" in their children.

Alfie Kohn, author of the books "Unconditional Parenting" and "Punished by Rewards," writes:

"In short, 'Good job!' doesn't reassure children; ultimately, it makes them feel less secure. It may even create a vicious circle such that the more we slather on the praise, the more kids seem to need it, so we praise them some more. Sadly, some of these kids will grow into adults who continue to need someone else to pat them on the head and tell them whether what they did was OK. Surely this is not what we want for our daughters and sons."

Where we need to go from here was driven home to me when I heard a daughter of a friend complain that her grandmother was "so harsh" that when she displayed her drawing; the granny said, "Well done, keep it going" but did not jump up and down as if these were the best since those of Leonardo da Vinci.

We should not go back to my parents' strict disciplinary methods but rather hand out psychological rewards that are commensurate with achievements -- and with age.

As children grow older, rewards should be more parsimonious and better-spaced, and children should be allowed to fail and learn to deal with resulting emotions. And we should explain our reasons but also, in the end, feel free to say: Why? Because I am the parent, and this is my duty. Time to turn in; turn off the TV; take out the garbage. Period.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amitai Etzioni.