Baby Boomers, as Parents, Wield Uncertain Hand

Article excerpt

Ann Cobern has seen all styles of parenting among the customers at her day-care center in Leander, Texas. Some parents are firm about mischief. Others teeter at the abyss of permissiveness. The most unfortunate seem confused altogether about discipline.

On some days it's enough to give Mrs. Cobern conniptions. But the school massacre in Littleton, Colo., and the copycat threats and attacks that have followed, have given Cobern more reason for concern about the children she looks after and the issue of parental discipline.

"Sometimes I hear parents say they don't take a stand on curfew because little Johnny won't like it," says Cobern. "Excuse me? Who is the adult here and who is the child?" Like many communities across the country, folks here are rethinking how far they should go in disciplining kids - and their rights and responsibilities in doing so. Some observers say that stronger child-welfare laws and high- profile court cases dealing with abuse and child custody have unwittingly left many parents reluctant to clamp down harder on misbehaving children. Others say the hesitancy to be stern has deeper cultural roots, as baby-boomer parents struggle to define their own values of right and wrong, which are different from their parents' values and approach to discipline. It's an issue that reaches into schools, courthouses, and even the thin air of presidential politics. And considering the demographic and cultural forces that brought the country to this point, it is an issue that may linger for some time. "Many of today's parents ... live in mortal dread of being exposed as not being cool," says Daniel Wattenberg, a syndicated columnist. Instead of disciplining their kids, he says, many baby-boomer parents prefer to alter their children's behavior through a "buddy buddy" relationship. "They're just not willing to punish." Some politicians say child-welfare advocates and lawyers have exacerbated this problem by confusing parents as to what their rights are in disciplining their children. Some, like former Vice President Dan Quayle, say the solution lies in giving parents more rights in disciplining their kids - and not allowing the state to intervene in how they do it. (In a recent speech in San Francisco, Mr. Quayle attacked the "legal aristocracy" in weakening parental rights, and said of the Littleton tragedy, "It's not just gun control, it's self- control.") What rights parents have But local officials, like County Attorney Gene Taylor, say the answer may lie in just informing parents of the rights they have. "Life was a whole lot simpler when you had 10 Simple Rules to follow rather than a big old book of laws and regulations," says Mr. Taylor, who handles juvenile cases in Williamson County, north of Austin. Now, "you have parents who aren't disciplined themselves and who don't want you to do it to their kids either." He pauses. "It's a big old pile of confusion." Recently, Taylor and other county officials held a meeting with school principals, law-enforcement officers, and juvenile-justice authorities to try to allay some of the confusion and to coordinate their response to juvenile violence. Most of the participants agree that a growing number of parents have no idea where to draw the line with their own children. "Many kids, in my opinion, are hopelessly spoiled," says Bob Carswell, a therapist who teaches court-ordered parenting classes for people whose kids have gotten into trouble. "I feel a lot of parents are prepared to give anything to their kids to feel loved. They cannot spend time with them, so they'll give kids things instead." By the time an undisciplined child grows into a misbehaving teen, Mr. Carswell adds, it is often too late for a parent to reassert authority. "This is like trying to catch the horse when the stall has been open for 10 years," he says. …