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Parenting and rules: Your e-mails answered

After Week 4 of our "Raising Kids Today" series, Dr. Ruth Peters answers questions about discipline  and other parenting concerns.

In a special monthlong series called “Raising Kids Today,” the “Today” show has been looking at issues surrounding parenting. In this fourth and final week, we have been exploring how to deal with peer pressure and the importance of discipline. Here, psychologist and “Today” contributor Dr. Ruth Peters responds to viewers’ e-mails on these topics.

My husband and I parent by different rules. I think he's too lax and he thinks I'm a nag. I know it's important to present a unified front, but it's difficult when we simply don't agree. I believe our teenage children should have more rules about free time, chores and achieving more in school. My husband thinks shooting for "average" is just fine and we should be happy because they're basically good kids.

How do my husband and I get on the same page about parenting?"

A: Start by realizing that the two of you may just have to experience some times when you agree to disagree!  On the other hand, you should agree to try to keep those issues to a minimum.

You and your husband should begin with a discussion about what values and expectations you share.  Begin with the easy ones: a good education, zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol, kids working to their individual potentials in school, being respectful of teachers, parents and other adults, and any others that are on the top of your family’s list of dos and don’ts.  By beginning the conversation with the things that the two of you agree upon, you’re setting the stage for a more meaningful and successful discussion. 

Then, jump to the issues that are low on the list of importance — the ones that one parent cares about, but the other doesn’t really consider important one way or the other.  These, also, usually are easy to agree upon as there is probably nothing to battle about when it comes to whether the child can work at a fast food restaurant or at a store at the mall, or whether he or she can take up paint ball or spend their time on another fun activity. 

Then, it’s time to tackle the really difficult items — those chores and privileges that occur on a daily or weekly basis that the two of you find yourselves battling about. Start with the beginning of the day and discuss how the kids’ behavior works or doesn’t. 

If, for instance, getting the children out of bed on time and ready for the bus is a problem (causing you to be late for work) explain this to your husband and ask for his suggestion as to how the mornings can run more smoothly. I would suggest using a timer, and anyone not beating the buzzer would pay a consequence later in the day (perhaps no television even after homework is done). If your husband disagrees with the consequence, perhaps he can be in charge of getting the kids up and ready for school — in this way he’ll see how tense the mornings can become when there’s a slow-poke holding up the whole family.

Overall, in your discussion of chores and daily deadlines, work your way through the day and explain to him how the children’s behavior (or lack thereof!) affects the smooth working of the family.  At the same time, really listen to him — perhaps you are overreacting in some ways and nagging when it’s not really necessary.

List the things you would like done (dinner table set, dishes cleared, living room picked up, kids in bed by a reasonable time, etc.).  If you are yelling and fussing at them, perhaps you can back off and put your husband in charge of getting these chores accomplished.  Most likely he’ll feel that not all are necessary — then he can stay in charge of the ones that he doesn’t mind supervising and you can pick up the extras. Then, you and your husband can determine those issues that you will have to agree to disagree upon. 

Take turns getting your way — perhaps you can live with the bedrooms being picked up only twice a week (even though you’d like it done daily), but Dad may have to agree with your rule that homework completion comes before the TV goes on. It’s important for both sides to compromise, to listen to each other with a respectful attitude and to continually update what is important to the family, what can be let go and what must be taken seriously.

DIVORCED FATHERS:Q: How can divorced fathers keep their relationship with their children strong and healthy? If you only see your child a few times a month, how can you be an effective parent?

A: In between visits, it's important for dads to stay connected. By e-mailing and calling (perhaps even daily) you'll know what's going on in your child's life.

Look to get involved — even if it's not your visitation day. Perhaps you could attend your child's basketball game or dance class or go to religious services. You could even ask your child's school to send you a copy of their report card, and you can keep track of academic events by getting the school's calendar.

Meanwhile, make your weekend visits truly quality time. It doesn't always just have to be fun time. Instead find opportunities for your child to share with you. Have a quiet dinner together or take a walk. And if you have more than one child, make sure to give each of them individualized attention. Staying connected is going to take extra work. That extra effort, of course, is worth it.

DISCIPLINING OTHERS’ CHILDRENQ: Is it ever okay to discipline someone else's child?

A: Trying to discipline someone else's child is a rocky road. If this is in your home and the child is acting up, what I would suggest is you first tell the child what your house rules are and how you will not allow them to jump on the couch or whatever it is. If the child is engaging in very rude, disrespectful or unsafe behavior, I would immediately call that child's parents and have the kid picked up as soon as possible.

If you're at a park or in a public place and you see a stranger's child  being disrespectful or misbehaving, I think you want to avoid that. That is not your problem. That person probably will be defensive and you're probably not going to get very far.

COLLEGE GOODBYESQ: How does a family properly say good-bye to their oldest daughter as she prepares to leave for college? How do we as parents let go? And how do we help our other children say good-bye?

A: Having your first child go off to college is a stress for just about anybody. The best way to handle it is to have a game plan.

First of all, how are you going to pack up? Who's going to be going off to college with her? Make sure everybody knows who's going to make the trip.

Then consider how you're going to communicate from then on. Is it going to be a cell phone? E-mail? The little ones are going to want to know when they are going to talk to their oldest siste.? How are we going to tell her what's happening in school? How are we going to find out about her life?

So have a game plan, stick with it, and have faith. It will probably go a lot better than you can imagine.

THE NON-ASSERTIVE CHILDQ: My 6-year-old daughter is very considerate of others, sometimes to a fault. You might describe her as "a pushover." She misses out on a lot of opportunities because she's not assertive. Plus, my daughter avoids any confrontation. How do I help my daughter become more assertive — without overwhelming her?

A:  Try to keep in mind that what assertiveness is to you may be too intimidating, or even rude, to your little girl.  Everyone has their own personality and tolerance for confrontation, and the key is to help her to form a balance between what she is comfortable with while also getting her needs met. 

I would suggest that you praise her kindness to others — I’m sure that helps her fit in with the other kids.  However, she’s not too young to learn some lessons about being taken advantage of. Have a heart-to-heart discussion with your daughter, emphasizing that getting along with others involves not only pleasing them, but also being pleased herself.  Try to bring up some typical, recent examples of how her kindness was appropriate and appreciated, and also some examples of how her lack of assertiveness led to her missing out on opportunities. 

For instance, does she tend not to volunteer to try out new activities or to be included in groups or games on the playground?  If so, try to help her understand that she has the right to be included, as long as she is polite about asking (“Can I join in your game of four-square?”), is willing to wait her turn (“Can I be next after you get tired?”), and willing to risk rejection (“I’d like to sit with you at lunchtime, is that okay?”). 

Remember, fear of rejection is a huge issue for many kids, especially those who tend to be timid or shy.  Often these children need a little nudge (not a giant push!) to take some social risks.  When your daughter does try to be assertive (“I believe that I am next in line for the slide, you can come after me”) and you catch it, praise her for her effort, whether she was successful or not. 

Your child may not understand the reasons for her passivity, but usually it’s based on a fear of rejection, a concern about not knowing how to express her desire appropriately, or just feeling “invisible” to the other children.  Role-play assertive attempts with her, give her some safe answers, questions, or statements that will always be appropriate to use (especially if she’s shy and a social situation makes her too nervous to think quickly on her feet).

Finally, remember that your kid is not you — she does not have your years of experience and knowledge of how the world works, nor the understanding of the differences between passivity, assertiveness and aggression.  Model appropriate assertive behavior, and please keep your expectations in line for a somewhat shy, perhaps socially fearful 6-year-old.

Copyright ©2005 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved. Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to the “Today” show. Her most recent book,“Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” is published by Rodale. For more information you can visit her Web site at .

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.