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All Talked Out

Some negotiating with your kids is good. But spending 20 minutes debating your 4-year-old on why it’s time to leave the park is not. Children’s mouths can keep up, but as research is showing, their brains cannot.

This article was first published in The Boston Globe on Nov. 7, 2004.

Some negotiating with your kids is good. But spending 20 minutes debating your 4-year-old on why it’s time to leave the park is not. Children’s mouths can keep up, but as research is showing, their brains cannot.

Judge her by the checklists in all those contemporary parenting books, and she would score extremely well. The mother of two boys, ages 2 and 4, is empathetic, engaged, and attentive. She speaks to them respectfully, never once raising her voice. She is careful to explain the reasoning, in great detail, for her every move.

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And she has lost control.

This comes into focus as she navigates her double-stroller through the Natick Mall food court, near the brightly colored, heavily padded play space that is overflowing with stocking-footed kids on this rainy day. The slim mom, who has short, feathered hair, parks the stroller at a table and begins to unpack the lunch items she has collected from three fastfood outlets. The 4-year-old decides on a change of plans.

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“No, Mommy,” he says, pointing to a nearby bench. “I want to eat here.”

“But Mommy won’t be able to eat her chowder there,” she replies softly.

“Here, Mommy,” the boy insists, strutting over to the bench and pressing his index finger on it.

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Within seconds, both boys are on the bench. She puts the slice of Sbarro pizza next to her older boy and crouches to feed his brother McDonald’s french fries, surgically dispensing a squirt of ketchup from a plastic packet before handing him each fry. The older boy runs off. After she corrals him, she says, “Honey, you should eat. Aren’t you hungry? It’s important that you eat.” Minutes later, he knocks his pizza onto the floor. He laughs. She sighs before picking it up.

“Mommy, I want it in bites,” he says. As she cuts his pizza into tiny pieces, the 2-year-old grabs her chowder crackers and dashes off. “Sweetie, do you want to go back into the stroller?” she calls to him with a threat so subtle and soft it might as well be an offer of another french fry. The older boy, after taking a few bites of pizza, walks toward his mother, looking as though he is going to nuzzle in for a hug. Instead, he wipes his tomato-smudged lips on her shoulder and walks away smiling.

The shame of this scene is how hard the mother is trying to do the right things. She is not the blithely oblivious woman sitting on a bench, clutching her Kate Spade handbag and yapping on her cellphone as her 4-year-old jumps around with a pacifier in her mouth. Nor is she the cold, verbally abusive parent screaming at a child for minor infractions. This mother is caring, intelligent, and involved. And, still, what she is doing is not working - not for her, not for her boys, and not for the rest of us.

EVERY GENERATION OF parents has its prevailing form of excess, and this is ours: Too many of us are trying too hard to reason with our kids. Determined to be neither overly authoritarian (“Nobody leaves this house wearing that, young lady!”) nor overly permissive (“Whatever you feel most comfortable in . . . “), we’ve convinced ourselves that if we’re attentive and appeal to our child’s intellect, everything will turn out right. (“Don’t you think those jeans ride a little too low, honey?”)

But before you join the AARP crowd in throwing up your arms and lamenting, “Kids today - they’re out of control,” consider this: That complaint is, in fact, as old as dentures. Dust off the volumes from turn-of-the-century commentators and psychologists, and you’d swear you were reading transcripts from current-day talk radio. The groan then, as now, was about kids growing up too fast and parents becoming too soft.

It would be hard to make the case that today’s parents are more permissive than their counterparts in, say, the 1970s, when the fashionable thinking was to let children “self-regulate,” making all the decisions for themselves. But there is something decidedly different about parenting today, particularly within the educated, professional class. It’s the degree to which many parents are struggling to persuade their kids to see things their way, and how they often end up simply talking too much, negotiating matters that probably shouldn’t be negotiable, and failing to say “no” very much at all.

This is true for parents of toddlers. It is true for parents of teenagers.

Last month, a Haverhill mother was ordered to serve six months in jail for allowing teenagers - including a 16-year-old who later died - to drink alcohol in her home. In August, a Danvers couple were sentenced to 18 months’ probation for allowing teens to drink in their home at a prom-night party. Parents in Hopkinton and Holliston have been charged with similar offenses within the past year.

These cases spring from a new reality: More parents are letting their teenagers have their friends over to drink on the condition that the friends turn over their car keys upon arrival. In this negotiation, parents are rationalizing that this is the best way to protect their kids in the dangerous high school world of drinking and driving. In school districts that ask parents to sign a “Safe Homes” pledge not to allow minors to drink alcohol under their roof, organizers have found that some parents decline after being lobbied by their teenagers, who fear it will make them look uncool.

Considerable research has shown that it makes all kinds of sense for parents to do a certain amount of reasoning with their children. The problem is knowing when enough is enough. Parents often lose sight of that line, mistakenly believing their kids’ brains work the same way theirs do.

Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, director of cognitive neuroimaging at McLean Hospital in Belmont, has conducted pioneering MRI studies suggesting that adults and teenagers use different parts of their brains to make decisions. Teens rely more on the “emotional” part of the brain that controls their gut instincts, while adults rely on the “executive” part that governs functions like planning and judgment. “If teens feel they’ve been given permission to drink in the family home, what does that say about outside the home?” she says. “These kinds of gray-zone decisions are the toughest for teenagers to make. So you’re making the gray zone even grayer.”

This misplaced faith parents have in the ability of their kids to think like adults starts early. Trained in the art of negotiation at a young age, accustomed to being spoken to with far greater complexity than previous generations of children, today’s kids have become expert in talking the talk. But no matter how articulate a 4-year-old is, his brain is not built for adult concepts like abstract reasoning and delayed gratification. “Just because they can verbalize something,” Yurgelun-Todd says, “doesn’t mean they really understand how to weigh decisions and process information.”

Parents are understandably frustrated when they see their child agree to one of their carefully explained directives and then, moments later, disregard it completely. Or when negotiations with their little one grind on endlessly. In fact, these kids quickly learn that their running-down-the-clock tactic usually works in their favor. Parents of these preternaturally articulate children often say, with a smile, “My future lawyer!” or “She’s the boss of our family!” This is nothing to smile about. No matter how much children may seem to enjoy the verbal back-and-forth, it’s actually unnerving for them to have so much authority. Deep down, most kids take comfort in knowing that, at the end of the day, someone else - someone far more qualified - is in charge.

But that doesn’t mean they won’t take advantage of the hand they’re dealt. Stop by any playground and listen to the parents giving their kids 20-minute explications on why it’s time to leave. If you close your eyes, you’d swear they were talking to children who were 13, rather than 3. “OK, Isabel, sweetie, we have to go now. . . . Yes, I know you’re having fun, but I have to get home and start cooking dinner. . . . If we don’t go now, we’ll all fall behind and get to bed late, and then you won’t be able to get to school on time tomorrow.” Three-year-old Isabel, attorney-in-training, responds with rejoinders identifying the loopholes in her mom’s argument (“We can stay longer and just warm up some chicken nuggets in the microwave”). Isabel gets more time to play, while her mother - half impressed by her daughter’s precociousness, half exasperated by her intransigence - never closes down the negotiation and instead continues to talk away, like those droning, indecipherable adults from the old Peanuts specials.

This aching effort by parents to be understood is built on the best intentions and motivated by sound research. Diana Baumrind, a research psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has spent decades studying the effectiveness of parenting styles, tracking children as they progressed from preschool to high school. Her research has shown that the “authoritative” model of parenting, which stresses firm boundaries imposed with warmth and explanation, produces the best outcomes in children and adolescents. These kids are more likely to perform well academically and have good relationships with peers and less likely to be anxious or depressed. In contrast, the children of “authoritarian” parents - who stress obedience above all else, making often arbitrary demands with little give-and-take - are more likely to become followers or defiant. Children of “permissive” parents - who are extremely supportive and indulgent but usually avoid exerting any authority - are more likely to abuse drugs and become uncooperative and less likely to be achievement-oriented.

By now, Baumrind’s authoritative model has become the ideal for most parents. They understand that warm is better than cold, structure better than chaos. But here’s the problem: Many parents aspiring to be authoritative are missing it by a mile. They go heavy on negotiation and encouragement but fail to impose limits or make demands. Baumrind, who at 77 is still plugging away at her research, is aware of this. In an e-mail, she tells me, “The level of commitment and attention required by the authoritative model may be more than most parents, especially of adolescents, feel they can manage, given their limited resources and overly busy schedules.”

So whether they feel guilty about not spending enough time at home or are just determined to boost their kids’ self-esteem at all costs, these parents end up allowing their precious children to make all the demands.

“Many parents don’t feel they have the right to say no,” says Alexandra Harrison, a child psychiatrist who teaches at Harvard Medical School. She sees a thread running through these interactions, from the toddler to teenage years, where parents don’t say no because they fear they won’t be able to get past the tiny yet inevitable ruptures in their relationships with their children. “Think of the child who wants the toy in Toys `R’Us at age 3 and looks so crestfallen. And all these things go through the mother or father’s mind, and so they get her the toy. Skip forward 10 years, and the kid says, `Everybody else’s parents do it. You’re making me so different,’ and the parent has the same feeling,” says Harrison. “If they had said, `No, honey, no toy now’ at age 3 and progressively all the way along, maybe the two of them would believe, `Yeah, we’ll get over it. The kid will get really upset, but she’ll get over it.’“

BEFORE GOING ANY further, an admission. Critiquing parenting styles is something I do with considerable caution and a family-sized helping of humility. I am no expert, and, quite frankly, I’m thankful to be able to say that. The more I read about the troubled family lives of many of America’s most popular parenting experts, the more I understand why none of the fawning blurbs on the jackets of their bestsellers ever come from their own kids.

As I reported this story, in search of struggling parents to talk to, there was a running joke in my family. If one of our daughters began to act up in public, my wife would quip, “Well, you can always interview us.” To be sure, we’re grateful we started early with our kids in establishing firm boundaries and getting comfortable with saying no while also trying to encourage their sense of exploration and self-confidence. But there’s probably not a day that goes by when we don’t make some kind of parenting mistake.

The truth is, parenting is one of life’s most difficult and elusive exams, and none of us will know if we passed until it’s too late to do anything about it. Many of us can point to cases where loving parents who seemed to do everything right saw their child grow up to be a drug addled felon. Or perhaps we know an upstanding, well-adjusted person who emerged from a family headed by hideously unfit parents.

When it comes to our parenting decisions, we may have less of an impact on our kids that we would like to think. But even if we’re just working at the margins, it is worth examining the ways in which today’s dominant “child-centered” approach to parenting - stressing self-esteem, negotiation, and two-way streets - is falling short.

Many psychologists and educated parents dismiss the movement that has arisen in reaction to the child-centered orthodoxy, the “because-I-said-so” crowd, which advocates the return of unapologetic parental control marching along one-way streets. They sensibly see this crusade - led by people like syndicated columnist John Rosemond - as overly simplistic and pining for good old days that have been conveniently whitewashed of all their defects. But you don’t have to buy into Rosemond’s bumper-sticker bromides to admit that some of his criticisms of the excesses of the childcentered approach are, in fact, quite accurate.

“We have a generation of women who have claimed authority in the workplace, claimed authority politically, and they go home and take orders from 4- and 5-year-old children,” says Rosemond, a 56-year-old North Carolina psychologist who is one of the busiest speakers on the parenting circuit. He says that at his talks, he often hears from mothers wondering how to respond when their sons, ranging in age from 4 to 10, repeatedly hit them in frustration. “This is abominable,” Rosemond says. “Women have been so intimidated by this psychobabble that instead of taking action to make sure it doesn’t happen again, they interpret it as a psychological event. They ask, ‘What is it that I’m doing that is making him so angry?’“

Conservative commentators aren’t the only witnesses to the problem of overly entitled children. George Farrell is the soft-spoken, goateed director of The Cambridge-Ellis School, a progressive, well-regarded preschool near Harvard Square. He speaks warmly about the school’s parents and their level of involvement in their kids’ lives. But it pains him to see some parents letting their children call the shots. “Sometimes,” he says, “I just want to shake them and say, `Get your act together! Be firm. You’re the adult.’“

In general, too many parents are giving their young children too many open-ended options - “What do you feel like having for lunch?” - conditioning themselves to hear a flurry of no’s from their kids but becoming almost allergic to saying no themselves. This can go to comic extremes. One mother laments that changing her 2-year-old’s diaper can take up to 45 minutes, because the child has grown accustomed to being able to decide where in the house the changing will take place and often insists on multiple mid-change moves before the new diaper is finally fastened.

Psychologists and parents talk a lot nowadays about the importance of “limit setting,” an academic-sounding way to describe what had always been an essential component of raising kids. Common sense tells us that the key to setting limits is consistency. But with exhausted parents heading time-pressed households, consistency is hard to come by, especially when so much is open to negotiation. For discipline, many parents rely exclusively on timeouts. But savvy kids can often dull their impact by negotiating duration and location.

Traci Brooks, a pediatrician with the Cambridge Health Alliance, recounts a familiar scene from her waiting room. “A 2-year-old will be having a temper tantrum, and the parents sit there explaining to the child why they should not be doing this. That’s not going to work. A 2-year-old is not going to understand a long, drawn-out, logical discussion. What they need to do is scoop the kid up and remove them from the situation.”

IT’S HARD TO FAULT parents too much. There is, after all, some good news to report. More fathers are more involved, and in more rounded ways, in the upbringing of their children. Many men and women alike now put their job as parents ahead of all others, forsaking promotions and personal recreation in their effort to succeed at home. And this intensified focus on reasoning with our kids has an upside. While the authoritarian approach may have held some appeal when we were raising kids for a future of taking orders from the foreman at the local factory, today’s emphasis on developing children’s verbal and negotiating skills at a younger age should help prepare them for lives as confident contributors to tomorrow’s knowledge economy.

But beyond that, parents find so much working against them. They are forced to battle fierce marketing assaults that begin when their children are still in the crib. By the time these kids have left kindergarten, pop-culture pressures are in full force. Meanwhile, fewer parents have extended families around to offer reassurance on what kids should and shouldn’t be doing at particular ages. Instead, the communal conversation about child rearing tends to be competitive in nature. (“Jake’s been rolling over for months now. Tyler isn’t?”) Determined to be the best possible parents, but living in a society that tends to keep closeted any admission of child rearing that is not measuring up, people turn to the experts. The proliferation of parenting advice manuals is suffocating. There were 57 parenting books published in 1975, according to the research firm R. R. Bowker; last year, nearly 700 were published. And then there are all those magazines, websites, and TV segments. Yet there are so many contradictions embedded in the surfeit of new research and advice that parents can become almost paralyzed by it, fearful that one unsympathetic response will do irreparable harm. Unwilling to take any step not validated by the experts, parents fail to trust their own instincts.

It’s tempting to think that this panicked deference to science and psychology is a new phenomenon. It is not. It’s just much more intense and multifarious now. In Raising America, her enlightening history of the parent-expert industry, Ann Hulbert shows how this American obsession goes back at least a century, with the emergence of L. Emmett Holt and G. Stanley Hall. The pair offered different prescriptions but shared, in addition to their pretentious first initials and academic pedigrees, the goal of arming mothers disoriented by an urbanized America with scientifically based approaches to child rearing. They were followed by a new cadre of experts, who battled over whether “hard” or “soft” parenting worked better. Then came the post-World War II reign of Dr. Benjamin Spock, who, despite his reputation for having ushered in an age of permissiveness, actually tried to straddle both camps. The expert ranks would only multiply in the ensuing years. And to what end? Shortly before his death, Spock confessed to Hulbert, “I don’t see that what I’ve written has made any difference at all.”

It is this explosion of experts, armed with competing research, that leaves today’s parents so confused. If Dr. Spock was the Walter Cronkite of his three-channel day, whom should we trust in our 500-channel universe? One of the few points today’s experts agree on is that parents have become too anxious, too worried about doing something wrong that might screw up their kids’ lives.

As Hulbert points out, many experts have considerable firsthand experience with serious family problems - from “hard” behaviorist John Watson, whose son committed suicide, to the strained relationships that Hall and Spock had with their sons. T. Berry Brazelton, the 86-year-old with the Harvard affiliation and “America’s pediatrician” moniker, has confessed he hated his brother until the brother was 50, resentful of the attention their mother lavished on him. And John Rosemond’s mother didn’t talk to him for a decade, until she resumed contact two years ago. “Everything is fine now,” Rosemond told me recently, “until the next episode.”

The experts themselves confuse matters more by learning to backtrack. “Clarity gets you the spotlight, but a degree of ambiguity helps to keep you in it,” Hulbert writes. And so To Listen to a Child’s Brazelton eventually denounces “permissiveness” as a “nightmare” bound to result in children “frightened of themselves.” And Because I Said So!’s Rosemond stresses that rather than being “authoritarian,” parents should “encourage discussion . . . but they make the final decisions.”

FOUR MOTHERS SIT in a cramped conference room at The Cambridge Hospital talking about something they think about constantly but hardly ever discuss with others: how they’re doing as parents.

Soledad Verdugo, a tall, warm, dark-haired 39-year-old of Chilean heritage, has the most experience of the bunch in setting limits. As the mother of four kids, ages 8 through 12, it was less an option than a necessity. But if she has more figured out than the moms of younger kids around the table, she quickly uses humor to put them at ease. When I ask each of the mothers to describe the ways in which they were themselves parented, Verdugo answers first. “My parents were fascists,” she says with a big smile. The room erupts in laughter. Even 2-year-old Rian - sitting on the lap of her petite 32-year-old mother, Leanne Berlinsky - puts down her crayon and mimics the grown-ups giggling around her.

Verdugo says that because her parents didn’t show much affection to her growing up, she was determined to shower her kids with love and hugs. She took grief for breast-feeding her children until they were 3 and letting them sleep with her in a family bed until they were 4. Verdugo continues to be heavy on affection, but she learned that some degree of fascism is essential to a functioning household. She’s a big believer in follow-through. She once drove her kids two hours to visit a friend in New Hampshire. Her oldest daughter was going through a hitting phase, and Verdugo warned her en route that if she hit anyone while they were there, they would go home. Ten minutes after they arrived, her daughter hit her friend’s little girl. Verdugo packed up her brood and drove home. “It was horrible,” she says, recalling her steamed kids sitting silently with their arms folded for the whole ride. “But she never hit again after that.”

Verdugo has zero tolerance for parents who let their kids run wild around restaurants or make a waitress wait an eternity as they ask their 3-year-old, “Would you like milk or orange juice or apple juice or Coca-Cola or water?” She’s happy that the same hostesses who roll their eyes in dread when she walks into a restaurant with her four kids go out of their way after dinner to compliment their behavior. Too many parents, she says, want it both ways. “I’ve had people say to me, `Oh, why are you so harsh in this way?’ and then in the next breath say, `Oh, you’re so lucky you can take your kids to a restaurant.’ Well, hello - there’s a correlation!”

That doesn’t mean Verdugo doesn’t suffer occasional doubts about her own approach. “Do you ever feel that by being strict you have in some way inhibited your kids?” she asks Leslie Brunetta, another limit-setting mother, of 11- and 8-year-old girls. Brunetta confesses she does, too.

Michelle Crain, the mother of 4- and 3-year-old boys and a 3-month-old girl who is sleeping soundly in a snuggly attached to her chest, admits she struggles a lot with limits these days. From all of her reading on parenting, she has learned the importance of explaining the reasons behind her rules. But she’s found that’s seldom enough. “I was raised by a very strict Vietnamese mother,” she says, “so sometimes I don’t understand why they can’t just obey me because I said it.” She finds herself raising her voice more than she’d like, if only because that seems to be one of the few levers she has complete control over.

The 31-year-old mom is sweet and self-reflective. And honest. “We do a lot of threatening that we don’t follow through on,” Crain says. “Like, `You’re not going to get to go to Chuck E. Cheese if you’re naughty!’ and then they’re naughty, but my husband and I just can’t stand to have them at home, so we head over to Chuck E. Cheese.”

If one of her boys misbehaves at the playground, Crain feels guilty about taking him home, because that means unfairly punishing the well-behaving son. The last time this happened, she tried a new approach. She strapped her older son in the double-stroller, allowing her younger boy to continue playing. “But then I thought, `I bet some parent is going to think I’m abusing him.’ That’s another thing you have to worry about: people looking at you.”

The playground can be a stressful place. When you’re not worried about being judged by other parents, you’re apt to be judging them. Crain has trained her boys to share. If another kid plops himself into the sandbox and wants a turn using the shovel and pail, she expects them to agree. But how to handle the parents who are either unwilling or unable to stop their children from hogging the buckets or the swings for as long as they want? Or repeatedly climbing up the slide the wrong way? If this is the new landscape, no parent wants to raise kids who are going to get walked all over.

We want our kids to be cooperative yet bold enough to take the initiative, to be considerate yet confident enough to stand up for themselves. That’s a lot to ask. No wonder we’re all so worried. In fact, worry has become a dominant energy force for parents at the playground. Many parents hover over their kids, afraid to let 5-year-olds dangle from the monkey bars in ways that were viewed as acceptable for a previous generation of 3-year-olds. It goes with the job these days. We try to protect our kids from bumps, bruises, whole grapes, tree-nut products, bullies, refined sugar, fairytale villains, report cards that are even mildly critical, and any form of temporary disappointment.

Much of this worry is grounded in reality. Clearly, things are much more complicated in this age of AMBER alerts, terrorist attacks, and midriff-baring premature maturation.

But there’s no denying the irony here: We try to protect older kids as if they’re perpetual toddlers and yet try to reason with toddlers as if they’re doctoral candidates. Misbehavior by young kids is somewhat understandable, because we’re putting them in many more adult situations - nice restaurants, long flights, stuffy museums - than their bodies and brains can really handle. The “kids’ table” - that Lord of the Flies existence where children had their own space and conversation and let the grown-ups have theirs - is essentially gone, both literally and figuratively. Looking back at it now, that space was pretty healthy for strengthening our independence and our parents’ sanity.

Author Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist who gradually lost faith in her profession’s child-centered orthodoxy, skillfully tapped into this culture of contradiction in her bestseller, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. One of her main themes: Parents should be less concerned with their children’s feelings of the moment. “It’s really good for your child to experience boredom or a little discomfort, or to be hungry for a few minutes,” she says. If your kid complains constantly about being bored, Mogel advises letting him figure out for himself how to get un-bored. It’s an important life skill. If he never cleans up his toys, let him struggle for himself the next time he can’t find the one he is desperate to play with. He’ll get the message.

Mogel argues that just as giving children too much democracy makes them anxious, overprotecting them makes them unprepared for life’s inevitable scrapes and setbacks. These insulated kids often turn out to be the kind of fragile, overwhelmed college freshmen that some deans now refer to as “teacups.”

Mogel contends that the adolescent road to college has become an incredibly distorted stretch of life. Parents are so concerned that their children be positioned for success in this competitive, uncertain world that many strike a Faustian bargain. As long as teenagers keep their grades up and produce an academic record robust enough to get them into a selective college, their parents are willing to look the other way as the kids swear at them, spend lots of money while avoiding any kind of chores, and “let off steam” getting drunk with friends. Meanwhile, in high school, parents take on the role of their kid’s agent, micromanaging his or her every academic move - family dinner discussions turn into brainstorming sessions focused on which research-paper topic might “play” the best - and interceding with teachers to prevent damning grades from making it onto the permanent transcript. A generation ago, most parents of kids who scored a 59 on a test would ask the child: “How could you do this?” Today, many parents are asking the same question, but they direct it at the teacher.

Mogel, who focused her first book on parents of young children, told me she is now at work on a follow-up, to be aimed at parents of teenagers. Her working title is The Blessing of a B Minus.

IT’S 3 P.M., SNACK TIME at the Matthews home in Millis. Gina Matthews’s 9-year-old son, Ian, and 7-year-old daughter, Rachel, are home from school. They climb onto the stools surrounding the granite-topped island in the kitchen and begin munching on Goldfish crackers. Gina doles out some gummy bears to her youngest child, a 4-year-old charmer named Justin.

Rachel asks if a stuffed animal she was expecting had arrived in the mail while she was at school.

“No, sorry, honey,” Matthews says.

“But you said it would be here,” Rachel protests.

“I guess I didn’t realize it would take longer,” Matthews replies, pushing her dirty-blond hair behind her ear. “It will come tomorrow.”

“But you won’t be here tomorrow,” Rachel pouts, knowing her mother will be at her part- time pharmacist job. “And I want you to be here when I open it.”

The debate is going nowhere, and Matthews manages to close it down. That’s something she’s gotten better at lately, after years of letting the bargaining sessions drag on endlessly. She and her husband still struggle to keep the negotiations with Ian in check, if only because all that training turned him into something of a fearsome litigator. Recently, Ian asked if the film they had dropped off to be developed the day before was ready. When Matthews said no, he replied, “Why not? They promise to develop the pictures in 24 hours.” When Matthews explained that they must have missed the drop-off time, Ian countered, “What time does the developing take place?”

When Ian was younger, this kind of precociousness made Matthews proud. Now it just makes her tired. “I wanted them to understand where I was coming from,” she says. “I recognize now that was a mistake.” She laughs as she recalls how Ian would relentlessly pepper her with so many follow-up “why” questions that what began as a request from him for a new toy would end with her explaining the banking system and her monthly mortgage payments. “I sounded ridiculous,” she says. “It’s probably something you don’t need to get into when they’re 5.”

Early on, Matthews did lots of reading on parenting. Her goal from the start was to raise confident kids. When her children were babies and didn’t respond in the way the parenting experts had soothingly promised they would, Matthews would get frustrated. Her mother would remind her, “Gina, the baby didn’t read the book.”

Now she is coming to terms with the reality all parents face when they decide they can be both nurturing and firm: It takes incredible energy, perseverance, and focus.

I find I’m most likely to trip up when I am trying to get my daughters to do something they’re not inclined to do, like pick up their toys and begin getting ready for bed, while also trying to do something I want to do, like tuning in to ESPN to check the scores. Or when they turn on the charm, such as when my 2-year-old defiantly tosses her broccoli onto the floor and then turns to me with her hazel eyes widened and her arms outstretched and says softly, “Daddy, I want to come up.” (Actually, when she says it, it sounds more like “bum up,” making it that much cuter - and harder to stand firm.)

Child rearing takes a heavy dose of common sense and a willingness to trust your gut. If it’s clear that kids need limits as well as love to thrive - and, by now, it is - then parents should feel confident enough to pick the areas most important to them and establish simple, nonnegotiable boundaries they can enforce consistently. The experts can be helpful in certain circumstances, such as when parents are looking for fresh ideas on how to handle a specific behavioral problem that arises. But everyone will be better off when more parents can abandon the feeling that they need permission from a parenting manual to do something their gut tells them is sensible.

I consulted dozens of parenting experts in reporting this piece. The most popular and successful among them - from Brazelton to Rosemond - began their sentences with essentially the same phrase, “As I always tell parents,” before rattling off their anecdotes and advice, by now honed into winning sound bites sure to generate knowing nods and hearty applause.

But I was struck that Diana Baumrind, the somewhat prickly Berkeley researcher who has resisted the lecture circuit and bestseller list and instead spent decades tediously conducting some of the field’s most vital studies, had a different opening line. Famously averse to speaking with the media, Baumrind agreed to communicate with me only if I included a disclaimer. “I am a research psychologist, not a parent educator or clinical practitioner,” she began, adding: “Conscientious, thoughtful parents are more expert about their own child than designated experts such as myself.”

Which Parent Are You?

Researcher Diana Baumrind has identified these core parenting styles:

AUTHORITARIAN: Demanding but not responsive; values obedience above all else; discourages individuality or give-and-take.

PERMISSIVE: Responsive but not demanding; indulges a child’s impulses; avoids exerting authority.

AUTHORITATIVE: Responsive and demanding; encourages give-and-take and provides reasons for decisions; consistently enforces rules and confronts misbehavior.

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