"In the eyes of a child, parents are "mean" when the child discovers that they mean what they say. "

Conservative vs Liberal Parenting

Once in a great while, and only if you're alert to the possibility, you will suddenly find yourself in an eye-opening conversation. I had one such exchange the other day with William Fromm, the author of "Ten Commandments of Business and How to Break Them'' (Berkley Press, $7.95) while on a flight from somewhere to somewhere else.

Fromm and I exchanged names in midair, and upon discovering the common ground of authorship and public speaking began inquiring into one another's lives. I revealed that through my writing and talks, I promoted a fairly conservative, traditional child-rearing philosophy. Fromm then confessed that he was a liberal parent. Nonetheless, he said, his adult children were proof of the success of his style.

Intrigued, I asked what he meant by "liberal parent,'' to which he replied that he always gave his children a long rope - a lot of freedom, in other words - but always made it clear that they were in big trouble if they ever reached its end. Through most of their teen years, for example, his children set their own curfews.

"But,'' he said, "they knew they'd be in big trouble if they didn't come in when they had said they were coming in.''

Having heard enough, I said, "But that's conservative, not liberal.'' I then reminded him that the defining difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals believe in big government while conservatives believe that where government is concerned, less is more. The same applies to the governing of children.

This conversation caused me to realize that many, if not most, folks equate conservatism in parenting with lots of rules, restrictions and punishment. In fact, the metaphor of the long rope defines conservative parenting, not that stuff about toeing the line or not sparing the rod.

A conservative parent has abiding faith in a child's ability to govern himself. Such a parent also realizes, nonetheless, that an "internship'' of a certain length is required before such an ability is sufficiently mature. During this internship, the child is patiently taught the parents' expectations. Once they've been learned, the child is given an increasingly long rope, but always with the understanding that he'd better not ever yank on its end.

It is liberals, not conservatives, who believe in the perpetual power of regulation and social engineering. Conservatives deregulate. Along those same lines, a liberal parent is one who believes the more parenting - as measured by rules, discipline, attention and involvement - the better. By contrast, truly conservative parents are minimalists when it comes to necessary regulation and dispense with it as quickly as possible.

In a business setting, this management style is known as "Management by Wandering Around.'' As it applies to children, I call it "Parenting By Wandering Around.'' In that regard, my wife and I used to say to our children, "Please don't make us be parents.'' This simply meant that if they conducted themselves responsibly at home, at school and in the community, we would stay off their backs.

As did Bill Fromm's, our children enjoyed a lot of freedom. By age 16, in fact, they enjoyed more freedom than just about anyone in their peer groups. But along with that freedom came an equal amount of responsibility. By their midteens, for example, our kids - like Fromm's - set their own curfews. If one of them set it at 1 a.m., we expected him/her home no later than 1 a.m., and I cannot recall that either of them ever let us down. In this and numerous other ways, we made the transition (and relatively early on) from rules to commitments, from toeing the line to trust.

And that, folks, is what it's all about.

John K. Rosemond

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