Children need, and want, rules — it’s up to you

Anyone seeking parenting advice doesn’t have to look far.

Tap into the internet, visit a bookstore, or call a friend — even if the friend doesn’t have children, she’ll have advice.

The question is: whose advice is right? There’s an overwhelming amount of material out there, and a lot of it sounds contradictory.

Be a firm disciplinarian! Don’t lose your sense of humor! It makes parenting sound like a cross between a drill sergeant and a comedian.

In talking to psychologists, school counselors and parents, a couple of things stand out. One of the biggest is, no matter what the age, rules are important.

And the children that will test, push and prod at those rules the most are adolescents — roughly age 11 to 18. Forget the terrible threes, experts say, nothing beats puberty for emotional outbursts and irrational behavior.

Getting through puberty

Nora and Brett Womack, members of St. Thomas More in Columbia, have eight children between 5 and 22. Three of them are going through adolescence, and she said, without a doubt, it is the toughest age.

“At that age they so desperately want to be accepted by everyone,” Womack said.

Respect seems to be the biggest problem, for themselves and others. Cliques, gossip and meanness reach a crescendo, she said. And all the dramas of school come home and cause unrest there.

“It’s a constant battle. But even with those who you are constantly disciplining, you have to find ways to praise them, no matter how simple, even if it’s just ‘Thanks for cleaning your room,’” she said. Then, laughing, “It gets easier.”

In the meantime, how do parents and their children make it through puberty?

Love that age

Karen Luhrs, guidance counselor at Fort Johnson Middle School in Charleston, said helping this age group is her ministry.

She’s a member of Nativity, where she also went to school, along with Bishop England, College of Charleston, and the Citadel for a master’s in school and clinical counseling.

She taught students in fifth- through 12th-grade, and said it was a natural progression to combine teaching with counseling middle schoolers.

“I really love that age developmentally,” Luhrs said. “They’re at a crossroads emotionally and academically where I feel like you can make a big difference.”

She said it is the toughest age because children are developing true independence but still need guidance and boundaries from their parents. She added that they may protest restrictions, but limits on what they can and can’t do make them feel like their parents care.

She calls this age group quirky, and said all the feelings of wanting to fit in, and the worry of how others perceive them, really escalates in middle school.

Finding an activity they enjoy can make them more confident, plus provide an outlet for all those swirling emotions.

Set boundaries

Even as they rebel against them, children need and want rules, Luhrs stressed.

She said she overhears students talking at school, and though they disguise it as complaining, it is really bragging.

“They’ll do it like: ‘Yea, my mom is so strict. She won’t let me do…’ whatever it is. But really, they’re glad,” the counselor said. She added that it makes them feel secure.

That seems to bear out from talking to parents.

One mom told the story of her daughter’s friend who commented on all the household rules. She said her daughter didn’t say anything at the time, but later said she would rather have rules than feel like her parents didn’t care.

Be consistent

Experts agree this is particularly hard to do because it is human nature to second guess a decision.

Parents wonder if they’re being too hard, or too soft, and end up waffling, which can come across as indecisive. Luhrs said consistent discipline is important because teens get frustrated when a behavior is acceptable one day and not acceptable the next.

Womack said that is one lesson she learned through experience. There was a time that she would dole out a consequence but then not follow through, or let herself be talked out of it.

She said she realized her children felt they were getting away with something, and their behavior grew worse.

It’s hard, she said, but no matter what, parents have to stick to their guns.

Follow your instincts

Luhrs said her grandmother called it good old-fashioned horse sense, and it still applies today.

“If you feel uncomfortable with something going on in your child’s life involving friends or activities, then you’re probably right,” she said.

The counselor stressed that parents are entitled to tell their child that a particular person is a negative influence and therefore unacceptable as a friend.

Womack said she has been through that with her children. Poor friendships can cause obvious misbehavior or subtle, showing up as defiance or disrespect.

“More than anything, it’s making sure your kids get in with a good group of faith-based kids,” she said.

Just for fun…
‘Everyone should have kids. They are the greatest joy in the world. But they are also terrorists. You’ll realize this as soon as they are born and they start using sleep deprivation to torture you.’ ~Ray Romano

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series on parenting from The Miscellany.