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The Language Of Love
(Woman's Day, September 17, 1996)

I met a fellow PTA mother heading for work one day. Impeccably dressed, attaché case in hand, she looked positively bleary-eyed. "Are you okay, Beth?" I asked. "You look like you haven't slept in days."

"Not quite," she replied. "I've just been up most of the night."

"Is Kara sick?" I asked.

"No, she's fine. It's just that she just came padding in at 3 o'clock in the morning, sat down on my bed and handed me Curious George."


"So," Beth answered, stifling a yawn, "I read her Curious George...six times."

"Are you serious?" I asked.

"Well," said my friend, "Greg and I want to encourage Kara to love books."

Kara was then four years old; she's now seven. And yes, she loves books. But she also loves to get her way - and almost always does. Beth and Greg may try to reason with, hoodwink or cajole her, but by and large, their daughter calls the shots. On those rare occasions when her parents enforce an unpopular decision, there's hell to pay.

My siblings, stricter parents than I, often tell me that I am too permissive with my six-year-old daughter and four-year-old son ("Bedtime is bedtime," my brother reminds me when he sees my kids saunter to the kitchen for one more drink of water, or hears them plead successfully for one more lullaby after I've already exited their room). When they level that accusation, I tell them about Kara. I also tell them about:
  • Jason, age three, whose mother saw him push another child out of a rocking chair in order to occupy it himself and gushed, "Oh, sweetie, you wanted to rock in that chair too?" (She neither rebuked nor removed him.)
  • Perry, age two, who grabbed a kitchen knife and heard her father say, "Thank you!" as he extended a palm and waited for his toddler to hand it over. (He doesn't believe that children should hear the word, "No.")
  • Victoria, age seven, whose parents quietly asked me, as they finished the dessert I was serving, to tell their daughter - if she asked for seconds - that the remaining cake slices were for someone else. (When I asked why they didn't want to tell her that one slice was enough, they replied, "We'd rather avoid needless conflict.")
Even my siblings admit that Kara, Jason, Perry and Victoria's parents make me, their "softie" sister, look like a drill sergeant. For once, we're in agreement: These parents love their children, and they are killing them with kindness.

What's more, these five couples are not isolated oddballs. They reflect a major parenting trend. When asked why they've adopted this laissez-faire approach to child rearing (yes, on several occasions I've been bold enough to ask), my friends refer to two factors: the overly strict way in which they were raised and their attraction to an "enlightened" parenting style which prescribes affection and prohibits correction.

I don't know anything about the upbringing of Lisa Blair Hathaway, whose seven-year-old daughter Jessica Dubroff lost her life in April trying to become the youngest person to pilot a plane across America. But I do know that she too loved her child.

But like most Americans, I vacillate between sorrow and outrage when I think of Jessica's tragic death. Her mother's words, perhaps uttered while in the stage of grief known as denial, shake me to the core:

"Oh, I'd have her do it again, in a second... I did everything so this child could have freedom in choice, and have what America stands for."

Yes, America is the land of the free, but it is also the home of the brave. When it comes to parenting, that means being brave enough to set limits, to blow the whistle, to declare, "This game [or this flight] has been called off on account of rain."

"Mom," said Jessica over the telephone, minutes before her plane took off, "do you hear the rain?" The media implied that these words, spoken with apparent zeal, revealed Jessica's eagerness for adventure. All I can hear is a seven-year-old child's unconscious cry for help: Mom, do you hear the rain? Please be the grown-up I am not and bring me home!

When I witness Kara's outbursts, all I can hear is another seven-year-old child's unconscious cry for help: Please, Mom and Dad, this freedom is scary! How far do I have to go for you to rein me in? I worry about Kara, not to mention Jason, Perry and Victoria. They are being raised with well-intentioned permissiveness that does them a dangerous disservice, making them less able to accept disappointment, compromise, authority or delayed gratification. We should not need death to catapult us to that conclusion.

In short, I worry when parents teach their children that the only thing off limits is limits. I pray that no other parents will ever face such harsh, heartbreaking, irreparable consequences for not saying "No" to their children. And I grieve that a sweet little girl was told, in effect, "The sky's the limit," only to find out that it truly was.

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