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Want great kids? Get involved in their lives!

In another excerpt from her book “Laying Down the Law,” Dr. Ruth Peters explains the benefits of being a hands-on parent.

Today in "Parenting Weekends" we continue a series of excerpts from “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” the most recent book by “Today” show contributor Dr. Ruth Peters.

Law #10:
Become a Hands-On Parent
Wouldn’t it be great if you could vaccinate your child against peer pressure ... drugs ... academic underachievement? You can. I’ve found that your best shot is to be involved with your kids at home, in the neighborhood, and at school. Know who your kids hang out with and where they go, stay in touch with their friends’ parents, and have the guts to set up and maintain curfews.

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Involved parenting is the only way to go. You can’t get around it — parents who watch their kids closely and are involved in their neighborhood and school activities tend to raise children who walk the straight and narrow. Kids whose parents look the other way or depend upon someone else to “raise” their children pay big time — especially when the child reaches the tween or teen years.

I’ve seen this for years in my clinical practice, and so I preach the value of involved, hands-on parenting whenever I get the chance. I discuss this with parents in my office as well as at seminars. What does being an “involved parent” entail? This is a hands-on approach to raising kids. It necessitates considerable parental attention and participation, letting kids know that you are watching their behavior, raising the bar in terms of expectations as appropriate, and making clear and fair rules for the children.

Parents often have lots of questions about involved parenting, and below are the most common ones I’m asked about this parenting style.

Is involved parenting the same as strict parenting? Is it the same as authoritative or autocratic parenting?
Involved parenting is akin to strict parenting in many ways — rules are adhered to, behaviors are watched closely, and the parent often participates in the child’s activities. But hands-on parents are not strict or rigid — they are flexible, fair, and consistent.

Where authoritative or autocratic parents do not take into account the feelings, wishes, and nature of the individual child, involved parents do. Knowing that each child needs freedoms and opportunities to explore, yet also needs reasonable guidelines, hands-on parents succeed because they take their children’s ideas into account when setting rules and consequences. They may be viewed as strict by their children because of their consistency of discipline, but hands-on parents are not seen as robotic and punishing like autocratic parents or as controlling and intrusive as authoritative parents. Involved parents are flexible — but the zone of acceptable behavior is clear to the child. Parents can be authoritative or autocratic and not be involved (setting rules but not following through). Involved parents create rules that are fair, and they take the time to follow through by paying attention to kid behaviors such as curfews, TV viewing, and school grades.

Does the involvement refer just to discipline?No, it doesn’t. Hands-on parenting means follow-through, consistency, and participation. At times it will involve discipline, but it often concerns other aspects of child rearing. For example, conferencing with teachers is indicative of a hands-on parent, as is setting the rule that homework should be done well. Hands-on parenting doesn’t stop with setting rules — it continues with monitoring, enforcement, and follow-up. The hands-on parent remembers to check the child’s planner every day to see if the work has been completed and is ready to be turned in. The hands-on parent takes action, in conjunction with the teacher, to institute a new homework plan if the child isn’t living up to his end of the bargain. The hands-on parent doesn’t do the work for the child but does establish the structure for the work to take place.

Does involvement mean lots of extracurricular activities?Not necessarily — only if you and the child desire to sign up for them. Sure, it’s great for your kid to learn a new skill or to develop a talent. But hands-on parenting does not necessitate carting your kid around from activity to activity. It refers to your awareness of what your child is doing and that you are supervising his activities, whether these are lessons, schoolwork, or neighborhood fun. In fact, kids seem to be overscheduled rather than not having enough to do. Give yourself a break and spend less time in the car and more at home!

Can parental involvement be overdone? Sure, if the parent’s behavior is stifling the child’s independence, development of self-discipline, or social growth. Or if the bar is set too high for the individual child (grade expectations that are not reasonable) or the parental requirement is unreasonable (going along on dates with your 17-year-old daughter), then the involvement is more neurosis than good parenting. Folks need to pick their battles — I personally focus upon safety, academic achievement, social skill development, and responsibility issues, and stay flexible on others.

Do kids resent the involvement of hands-on parents?
No, especially if they are raised in this fashion and don’t know better! I believe that children who are raised with clear, fair, and consistent rules that are adhered to by their hands-on parents will thrive, although they may not want to admit that Mom’s presence at Back to School night is important. Children who know that their folks are watching and are concerned understand just how far to push the limits and realize where their folks draw the line. Parents who are consistently inconsistent in their involvement (concerned today about homework but not necessarily tomorrow) are seen by kids as confusing and often as unfair.

Do children of involved parents rebel more than those raised by less observant folks?Generally not — especially if Mom or Dad is fair in their hands-on tactics. Getting over-involved or making mountains out of molehills may lead to resentment on the child’s part, but if the parent is reasonable, this usually doesn’t occur. It’s interesting — I’ve had the opportunity to work with two generations of the same family in many cases (seeing the child as a teenager and then 10 years later with their own little ones), and many are choosing to raise their kids in a hands-on manner also.

Should parents continue the hands-on mode when the kids become teenagers?Definitely — teens need as much parental involvement as possible. In fact, a study conducted by the Columbia University-based National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse looked specifically at the effect of “hands-on” versus “hands-off” parenting on tween and teen behavior. Not surprisingly, the study found that kids who live in highly structured households (hands-on parenting) were at significantly lower risk for substance abuse and other risk-taking behaviors than were children who lived in less structured homes (hands-off parenting). The behaviors examined included smoking cigarettes, substance use and abuse, and other risk-taking behaviors by the children as well as by their friends.

What do hands-on parents do?Take 30 seconds now to answer the questions in “Are You a Hands-On Parent?” (section just below) to see what your parenting style is.

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Are You a Hands-On Parent?The following are the 12 indicators used in a study conducted by the Columbia University-based National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, which looked at the effect of two different parenting styles on tween and teen behavior. Answer the questions honestly and check the bottom of the list to see how you rate.

  1. Do you expect to be told where your child is going in the evening or on weekends and told the truth about this?
  2. Have you made it clear that you would be “extremely upset” to find your child using marijuana?
  3. Do you know where your child is at all times, particularly after school and on weekends?
  4. Do you monitor what your child is watching on television?
  5. Do you impose restrictions on the kind of music your child is allowed to buy?
  6. Are you very aware of how your child is doing in school?
  7. Do you monitor your child’s Internet usage?
  8. Does your family typically have dinner together six nights a week?
  9. Does your child have a weekend curfew?
  10. Is an adult always at home when the child returns from school?
  11. Is your child responsible for completing regular chores?
  12. Do you make sure the television is not on during dinner?

According to the researchers, if you answered “yes” to at least 10 of the 12 questions, you’re a hands-on parent. Keep up the good work! If you answered “yes” to 5 or fewer, you’re a hands-off parent. The 25 Laws of Parenting are just what you and your kids need to get you more involved and keep your kids on track.

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How did you fare? I have to admit that although I consider myself to be a very involved and observant parent (accused by my own kids of being a direct descendant of Attila the Hun), I blew it on the eating dinner together item. We definitely do not eat dinner together six nights a week. In fact, sometimes we don’t have dinner at all, just everyone grabbing something from the refrigerator and running out of the house to be on time to an activity.

But I passed in all of the other categories. Fortunately, I can arrange my schedule to be home by three o’clock in the afternoon. I may be working in my den or at the computer or returning a client’s phone call, but I’m there when the high-school football team makes an impromptu visit to our backyard pool or a kid needs help with homework. My children have cell phones to use to call home when leaving a location, and the home answering machine allows them no excuse for not checking in and leaving a message if we are out. Consistent communication with teachers via report cards and progress reports have been excellent ways of staying up with my kids’ school responsibilities, and teacher conferences have been necessary in the past.

But not every parent can be at home after school — many moms and dads work until late in the afternoon, and kids are often unsupervised between three and five o’clock. Aftercare and daycare programs are used by parents of young children but are often not available for middle- and high-school youngsters. And most of these kids put up such a fuss about having to be supervised that parents usually cave in, letting them stay home alone, hoping for the best. If that’s your situation, consider setting up a neighborhood network where your kids can stay at a friend’s house after school, perhaps in exchange for your carpooling services in the morning. Or offer to babysit your neighbor’s little ones on the weekend in exchange for supervising your tween or teen after school.

I believe that most parents can become more hands-on with a little effort and attention to the 12 questions listed in the quiz. Kids need weekend and weekday curfews, and these can be imposed, but be sure to be fair and consistent. Moving the computer to a more public spot in your home is a natural solution to monitoring Internet usage, and watching television with your kids discourages viewing inappropriate shows. Of course, making these changes may temporarily place you lower down on your child’s popularity list, but that’s okay. Your job as a parent is not to please your kids or to keep them happy or to provide them with a feeling of entitlement or privilege. Your priorities are to keep them safe and on track and teach them self-responsibility and frustration tolerance.

Hands-on parenting works. I see it every day in my clinical practice, and the research backs it up. Sure, it may take greater effort, attention, and involvement with your children on a daily basis, and your kids may not show gratitude or appreciation for your hard work. In fact, they may be downright indignant about your increased involvement! But dig your heels in and do what’s right — your child’s behavior, success, safety, and accomplishments will reflect your concern.

Living the Law
To become a more hands-on parent, check out these guidelines.

Don’t set up too many activities for you or for your children. If you’re overwhelmed, odds are that you may not be able to follow through and keep a good eye on what the kids are up to.

Don’t just make new rules — be sure to follow through with them. Move the television or the computer to a public family area so that it’s easier for you to be consistent in observing what your child is watching on TV or surfing on the Web.

Check on your kids’ plans. When your grade-schooler or middle-schooler is visiting at a friend’s house, call ahead and speak with a parent to make sure that the visit is acceptable and that the activities to be engaged in are reasonable. Be sure that the children will be supervised. Don’t cave in when your kid accuses you of being overprotective. Don’t buy into your child’s statement that “Johnny’s mother lets him walk across a six-lane highway to go to the mall.” Most likely Johnny’s mom doesn’t allow it, or if she does, your kid shouldn’t be hanging around with Johnny or his mom. With teenagers, check that they will actually be supervised by a parent at a sleepover or a party. Many will try to scam their folks into thinking that they are staying at each other’s house for the night, when they are really planning to spend the night elsewhere in an unsupervised setting.

Be prepared to forfeit some of your freedoms in order to follow through with the family rules. For instance, if you’re trying to work on the 12 indicators noted above, you shouldn’t watch TV during dinner if the kids can’t. If you say that you’ll be home to supervise them after school or to pick them up at school, be there and be on time. When children can count on their folks to be involved, they can relax and more fully enjoy their childhood.

NEXT WEEK: Don’t cave in to other families’ rules

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.

Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” She is also the consultant psychologist for the Family Program at the Pritikin Longevity Center, a nutrition and exercise facility in Aventura, Florida. For more information you can visit her Web site at . Copyright ©2004 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.