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Don’t be a peace-at-any-price parent!

In an excerpt from her book "Laying Down the Law," Dr. Ruth Peters warns against giving into children’s demands.

For her latest installment of "Parenting Weekends," "Today" contributor Dr. Ruth Peters shares some thoughts from her book, “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control.” Here's an excerpt:

Law #3:
Don’t Be a Peace-at-Any-Price Parent
Ever cave in to your kids’ demands just to get them off your back or to give you a break from having to say “no” for the 110th time? Well, join the club — most of us fall into that trap every once in a while. But if you are a frequent flyer in that program, watch out! The long-term price you and your kids will pay far outweighs the temporary relief.


Today’s parents are a truly heterogeneous lot — different shapes and sizes, ages, and sporting a range of marital and financial statuses. I’ve worked with the wealthy as well as with the financially strapped. Some have had more formal education than I, whereas others had dropped out of high school at an early age. But with all of this diversity I’ve found two attitudes to be universal regardless of individual differences.

• Everybody loves their kids and is trying to raise good citizens.• Many don’t have the guts to do it right.

The result is the most common mistake parents make with kids: They become a peace-at-any-price parent.

Peace-at-any-price parenting has always been around — I remember my own folks caving in once in a while, especially if I was particularly adamant and determined to get my way. The odds were in my favor if we happened to be in public and they wanted to avoid the embarrassment of disciplining a kid in front of a bunch of strangers. But they generally held their ground, the limits were clear, and I (usually) abided by their rules.

One of the best, yet saddest, examples of peace-at-any-price parenting are my clients Colleen and Gary. These are really nice folks — hard workers, yet they always find time for their three kids. Jonathan, the 16-year-old, is involved in just about any sporting activity that he can think of, and his folks generally attend his games. Gary coaches when he can, and Colleen is often found behind the concession stand hawking Cokes and hot dogs. Their 11-year-old, Brandy, excels at music — she actually plays flute in the County Youth Symphony, quite an accomplishment for a middle-schooler. And then there’s 6-year-old David. What can I say about little ol’ Dave? Well, he certainly is active, knows what he wants, and tends to be a bit tyrannical. Where Jonathan and Brandy were fairly easygoing kids as little ones, David has always been somewhat of a pistol.

Add on that he’s the baby and can be a real charmer and you can easily see that he’s a kid who is used to getting his way. Over the years the family has taken to giving in to David. The family’s schedule is so packed with activities that they need to be coordinated to be able to grab dinner, change clothes, and make it to the next activity without a huge obstacle getting in the way. David, however, has a chronic history of being a bump in the road. If he doesn’t feel like turning off the television to go to his brother’s baseball game, he has been known to throw a fit that would put a two-year-old’s tantrum to shame. And David is cagey. He almost instinctively knows which games are the most important, the ones that Jonathan is anxious about and needs to arrive at early in order to effectively warm up his pitching arm. Those are the times that David digs in his heels, refuses to move, and causes such chaos that his folks and siblings either take him screaming to the car (which makes for a less than pleasurable trip) or the negotiations begin.

And that’s David’s plan — to get his folks over a barrel and then to go in for the kill. Colleen actually bought 10 action figures to keep on hand in order to bribe David into cooperating. If he began to tantrum and the family was in a hurry, Colleen would offer him one figure if he would just get in the car quietly so that the family could go to the game without a ton of stress. This seemed to work at first, but then David, the cagey critter that he is, upped the stakes. Realizing that once they were at the baseball field he would have another opportunity to hold his folks hostage, he would whine and fuss to go home. As Gary was usually coaching, Colleen put out the fire as best she could — by buying David candy and a soda from the concession stand.

Although these parents knew what David’s tactics were, they just couldn’t seem to talk sense to him. Lecturing about family responsibilities was like water off a duck’s back, and no amount of appealing to his conscience seemed to work. David wanted what he wanted when he wanted it, and if he had to fuss, tantrum, or ruin the evening for his folks, that apparently was the price that he was willing to make them pay. The problem was that David wasn’t paying anything for his misbehavior — in fact he was being reinforced mightily for his selfish antics.

When I told Colleen and Gary that they had evolved into peace-at-any-price parents in terms of David, they readily agreed. It just seemed to be easier to give in to his whims, desires, and demands, no matter how ridiculous they were. But David was raising the bar of bad behavior and that was concerning his folks. The previous week he had threatened to open the moving car door and jump out if they didn’t turn into McDonald’s and pick up some fries. That was the last straw — Colleen, who was driving, had had it with this tyrannical kid and drove straight to my office, finally willing to do whatever it took to get David’s behavior under control.

First I spoke with David to make sure that the Evel Knievel stunt was just a manipulation, and he admitted that it was. He told me that he wasn’t “stupid enough to jump out of a car — he just wanted the fries and a Coke.” Okay, now that I was sure that he was just abusing his peace-at-any-price parents and was not really interested in hurting himself, we could make some changes in this kid and his family.

Next I brought in Gary and Colleen. I explained about the peace-at-any-price syndrome and how easy it is to fall into. But they had to claw their way out, and quickly, as David was getting way too big for his 6-year-old britches! I suggested that they have a backup plan for when he was demanding or acting out. Not only did David need to learn some frustration tolerance and self-discipline, but the daily family dramas sure weren’t fair to Jonathan and Brandy. The last few years had been spent putting up with a bratty little brother, and they were beginning to become resentful and bitter toward him.

The backup plan mandated that at times one parent just wouldn’t be able to attend a function. Either Colleen or Gary had to be prepared to stay at home when David pitched a fit, in order to put him in timeout. If he started fussing in the car, he was to be warned, and if he continued to misbehave, the car was turned around, and David’s butt was taken home. He would lose privileges for disruptive behavior, as well as action figures and other toys. The consequences had to hurt if his parents were to get his attention and to make him a believer. They were now willing to pay the price, and if it wasn’t peaceful, so be it. I convinced them to expect up to a few weeks of tantrums and fits, but that it would be worth having a kid with self-control in the future.

I really believe that it took David pushing the family so far for these two prior peace-at-any-price parents to turn the tide. And they did. Since Gary was coaching the baseball team, he had to attend practices and games with Jonathan. So when David started in, Colleen was the one who usually stayed home with him as he was punished and sent to timeout or bed. Colleen took Brandy to symphony practice, and Gary played warden when necessary. It didn’t take David long to realize that he had better straighten up his act or he would spend most of his youth in timeout. He had lost all of his action figures, and his folks were going to start giving away his PlayStation games, one by one, fit by fit, when the kid decided to call a truce.

David’s self-control improved dramatically after the first few weeks, and when he began to whine, just a comment from one of his folks got his attention and he calmed down. Not only were Gary and Colleen less stressed, so were Jonathan and Brandy. Parents usually do not realize the toll it takes upon reasonable siblings when the unreasonable one rules the roost. And David was perhaps the one who benefited most from the cessation of the peace-at-any-price parenting. He gained frustration tolerance and self-discipline, and was a happier kid for it.

Give In Now, and You’ll Pay and Pay and PayWhy do such good parents as Gary and Colleen fall into the peace-at-any-price trap? I personally believe it has something to do with the stress level inherent in our hectic lives — both parents working in order to maintain chosen lifestyles and a deluge of kid extracurricular activities to attend. It just seems to be easier to give in to kids than to take a stand. What’s a few dollars spent at the toy store if it magically stops your daughter’s whining? Hey, isn’t that a cheap price to pay for a brief respite of mental health? Or letting your son use the car on the weekend even though he’s been grounded at least gets the kid out of your hair for the day, and he sure looks appreciative at the moment.

Yes, in the short term your daughter will stop whining when you make the toy store purchase or your charmer son will flash that ol’ grin that just melts your heart. But on a more basic, more important level, you’ve just blown it — and big time! The kids have been taught another lesson in manipulating their folks — just whine, fuss, threaten, or nag until Mom or Dad gives in. Keep the war going until the folks call a truce, and you’ll get what you wanted to begin with. Well, if you take the bait, your children will only become more proficient at beating you down and probably will become brattier in the process.

And you’ll evolve into a mental mess, wondering “Where did I go wrong?” The answer lies in the huge price that you inevitably pay every time that you cave in and become a doormat to your kids. Also, expect the stakes to get higher as they mature. As a teenager your daughter won’t settle for a $12 Barbie doll — she just might throw the mother-of-all-fits at the Gap when you refuse to foot the bill for a pair of $80 jeans. And your son — that’s another story. Remember how thrilled he was at 16 to be able to borrow your car on the weekend? Well, now the critter who just had his 17th birthday and is a bit too big for his own britches is demanding his own car. As he puts it, “Everyone in the senior class drives an SUV, and it’s about time I did, too!” Whoa, are you getting the feeling that things are out of hand?

See how the price just went off the charts by giving in to kids for fussing when they are little? That’s why it’s imperative to take action now, before your children become materialistic monsters sporting deep-seated feelings of entitlement. Don’t give in just to stop some fussing, pouting, kid grumping, or complaining. I preach to my clients that if your child isn’t extremely disappointed with your lack of “giving in” or “understanding” at least a dozen times in the child-rearing years, then you’ve been doing something wrong!

Learn to live with the negative feelings and disappointments that they will dump on you. The emotions will subside and your children will begin to get the message that you are not a doormat to be manipulated or stepped on. You are a mom or a dad to be appreciated, listened to, and respected. Your attitude may annoy them, but you’ll know that your heart and your head are in the right place.

Living the LawGet real. Accept that you probably can’t give your children 100 percent of the time, attention, and money that they would like for you to bestow upon them. Settle for giving them what you believe is emotionally healthy for the family, as well as for the budget.

Do not equate giving with good parenting. Sure it may work in the immediacy of the moment, but you and the child will pay big time as he grows to become more demanding and unreasonable. Giving in and becoming a peace-at-any-price parent only rewards demanding behavior and immeasurably increases the frequency of it occurring in the future.

If you don’t have much of a spine, grow one. And soon. It’s easy to say but difficult to do, I know. But if you start small by saying “no” to little or inconsequential requests, you’ll gain self-confidence with each experience.

Turn a deaf ear. As your children see that their guilt tactics are no longer working (“But you’re always at work. I need a new video game to keep me from missing you”) and are falling on deaf ears, they’ll begin to get the picture, tone down their expectations, and become more reasonable.

Get in touch with how you feel as a parent. Being a peace-at-any-price parent is demeaning. I’ve never met a parent, in all of my years of counseling, who was comfortable with having a subordinate status in the family. But that's what comes from weakness and an inability to take a stand. Folks confide to me that they wouldn’t put up with a nagging, whining employee at work, so why should they have to do so in their own home? That’s baloney and intolerable! So take a stand — it’s very liberating to teach your childrent that you are not a doormat, and to gain or regain their respect.

NEXT EXCERPT: Appoint yourself as a benevolent dictator

From “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” by Dr. Ruth Peters. Copyright ©2002 by Dr. Ruth Peters. Excerpted by permission of . No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

PLEASE NOTE: With this column, Parenting WEEKENDS is going on vacation. Look for Dr. Peters’ next column on Saturday, August 21.

Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” For more information you can visit her Web site at . Copyright ©2006 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.