Good Parenting and the "Meanest Mom"

Stand up and give the Meanest Mom a cheer! Too many parents faced with this situation would become mushy and capitulate.
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A recent article run caught my eye: "Meanest Mom Sells Son's Car". Basically, a mom in Iowa gave her son a car with only two strings attached: 1) No Alcohol, and 2) Always Keep It Locked. Two weeks into the kid's free ride, she checked out the car and found an empty liquor bottle under the seat. He said, "It wasn't mine!" She said, "Too bad," and sold the car.

The ad she posted to sell the car was titled "Meanest Mom on the Planet Selling Son's Car." To her surprise, she received more attention from parents and other adults than prospective buyers. Emergency room nurses, paramedics, police officers and parents called her just to say, "Way to go!" and congratulate her on being such a responsible parent.

When I read this story it reminded me of what my wife, the esteemed family therapist Belinda Berman, always says: "The job of a parent with teenage kids between the ages of 16 and 25 is simply to keep them alive. Everything after that is gravy."

When it comes to parenting, there are a lot of issues for which there's room for opinion, but there is no room whatsoever on the issue of drinking and driving. An impaired young driver is a lethal weapon. Kids, like the one in Iowa will protest. He said the bottle wasn't his, and even if he was stone cold sober as the driver, the mom was absolutely right to have zero tolerance for her rule being broken. The fact is that it is illegal to drive a car with an open bottle of alcohol on the premises.

Stand up and give the Meanest Mom a cheer!

Too many parents faced with this situation would become mushy and capitulate. These are the same parents that say, "You're grounded for two weeks" and then step on the slippery slope wherein day by day the kid gets a few privileges back -- a phone call here becomes, video game time there -- a week in to the punishment, he's enjoying most of his amenities and scoring allowance.

For today's exhausted parents, holding firm to discipline feels like more trouble than it's worth. Plus, it has been socially taboo among the Baby Boomer set to make your kids feel uncomfortable.

Before I move on to the main topic at hand -- parental leverage and appropriate parental hierarchy -- let me just say that on the topic of underage drinking, especially drinking and driving: If you are uneasy about making your kid feel uncomfortable, then you should just go ahead and pick out their funeral clothes.

Getting off that soap box, what the "Meanest Mom" story illustrates is the principal of giving your kid as much freedom as she/he can handle. Dole out freedoms -- especially those that come with great responsibility like driving --in small bits and see how they do with it. If they do great, obey the rules, then dole out the next bit. If they blow it -- like the kid in Iowa -- then take the privilege away for a period of time and wait for them to prove they can handle it.

The guiding principle is: You cannot control your kid, but you can control his environment.

I don't think Meanest Mom's kid was morally wrong. He was just too immature to handle a car. To take a similar measure with your kid -- especially when the stakes are so high -- is not acting punitively, rather it's indicating to your child that if he can't handle the responsibility that comes with the privilege, you will take it away for now and give him a shot at it later.

That's the spirit of it. Use your leverage, don't be afraid to make the kid uncomfortable, but act from a place of humility and respect.

The beauty of the Meanest Mom example is that it is black and white. So few things with kids are that clear. When it comes to other issues, you have to use your best judgment about what is in the kid's best interest.

Let's take an example from a woman who wrote to our blog asking about her adult daughter who wanted to invite her boyfriend to the family home and sleep with him in the same room. The mom didn't feel it was appropriate on principle. She also felt it would set a bad example for the younger siblings living at home.

My advice with situations like these is to speak from the "I" position. Avoid getting into issues of fact or interpretation, all of which can be debated. It's not a matter of debate. It's your home, your values, and your rules. That said, it's natural for adult children to want to incorporate their adult lives into their family home lives. A good approach will sound something like this:

"Look, I'm not arguing with you or speaking objectively about whether you should be having sex at this age, but I am telling you as your parent that I don't feel comfortable with you two sleeping in the same room in my house, plus it's my responsibility to do what is best for your younger siblings, and I feel that's just not appropriate for them."

Even when you set firm limits, don't do it from an authority position. Remember, you're not Charlton Heston delivering the rules on a tablet. You can still set limits and do it from a point of respect. By saying, "I don't know if this is best or not, but I'm your dad, and this is my best shot at doing what's best for you..." you are giving the adult child the respect she deserves and opening her up to respecting your position in return.

That's the humble part, but the firm part is saying, "Hey, you can disobey the rules if you choose to, but these are the consequences." That's when you use your leverage: either taking away something your child values and desires (e.g. no access to the car, no access to pocket money) or by having him do something for disrespecting your rules (e.g: cleaning out the garage, etc.).

A lot of parents get hung up with trying to argue with the kids about whether the rules and regulations are justifiable. The value of talking from the "I" position is that no one can argue with you.

Leverage means discomfort. Discomfort means that something is going to go on in the kid's life that is going to make him unhappy or uncomfortable. He's going to have to do something he doesn't want to do or lose something he wants.

Too many parents don't want their kids to be mad at them, and they get squishy on discipline. When you allow yourself to be intimidated like that you're no longer being a parent, you're being a peer, and you've fallen down on the job.

Stand up for your values, but do so with humility, respect, love and use your leverage. Believe it or not, your kids will thank you. It just might take a while.

Terry Real is New York Times bestselling author and a 30-year licensed practicing psychotherapist specializing in marriage and family therapy who has done ground-breaking work on male depression. He is the founder of the Relational Life Institute. Learn more about his Parenting Workshops at or visit his Real Advice Blog.

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