by Sabin Gratz
Raising kids is humbling, just ask an expert
Interview by Kevin Foley
Psychology professor Rex Forehand, a leading authority on raising what
exasperated parents might call difficult children, has a
lanky frame, measured speaking cadence and fondness for knits, qualities
that recall television personality Fred Rogers. But unlike Mister Rogers,
who thrilled children with his empathy and imagination, Forehand devotes
himself to working with their parents, usually through regimented intervention
programs that teach better parenting and have a measurable effect on
child outcomes. The researcher and author of the popular self-help book
Parenting the Strong-Willed Child talked with Vermont Quarterly about
what parenting skills can help children succeed, how outside intervention
can help parents improve, and the essential qualities of good (and bad)
parenting. Forehand joined the Universitys faculty in 2002 after
a distinguished career at the University of Georgia, where he started
the Parenting Research Program in the 1970s. That ongoing effort
has many facets, including long-term evaluation of the best ways to
teach better child-rearing, the influence of family stress and mental
and physical illness on parenting skills, and, more recently, new intervention
programs designed to help parents help pre-adolescents avoid high-risk
sexual behavior and tobacco.
Q. Over the last 30 years, has there been
any evolution in how we see the role and importance of the parent?
A. One of the things weve become
much more aware of and sensitive to in trying to work with parents who
have kids with problems is thinking about the family in its entirety.
When we started 30 years ago, the idea was there are some skills that
parents need to help these kids. What we found out over time was that
there are all these other things going on with a family that interfere
with parenting and have direct effects on kids. So programs need to
be much more comprehensive and include components that can work on these
Q. Does that make things harder? These
problems are so huge, and if parenting is so contextual, does that humble
you as a psychologist?
A. Humble is a very good word.
It humbles one. It makes you think in a much larger way. It also means
that when parents come in with difficulties with their kids, the goal
is basically to make parents therapists for their own kids, theyre
the ones reporting the problem, theyre the ones with the child
most of the time, so if we can get them to be therapists by changing
some of their behaviors were going to get more results.
imagine that somebody learns to be a parent from his or her own parents.
How do you make inroads on habits and expectations that are so fundamental?
A. When people are teenagers they feel
that theyll never treat their kids the way their parents treat
them. But of course they so often do. There are strong family characteristics
of parenting. The goal for us working with kids who are having problems
is to be able to say to parents, Youre not responsible for
these problems, but what youre doing is not working, so lets
try some other approaches. Lets think about things in a different
way and try it. Its a matter of trying to get parents to
begin buying into a new way of doing things.
Q. Does that work? Once there was a readiness
to attribute a childs behavior almost entirely to social factors
and parents, nurture. Now many lean toward the genetic side, nature.
Where do you fall on that spectrum?
A. There is this continuum of belief on
how much we can affect kids. Thirty years ago, I was at about the 90th
percentile thinking that we could change everything. Experience, my
own kids, my work, all moved me back down. Im far more in the
middle than I used to be. Some children are born with difficult temperaments;
what you bring into the world is an important part of shaping your behavior.
Parents are another influence, but only one influence.
Q. You argue that there are some things
that parents can do to moderate that difficulty
A. Based on the data, parents who have
difficult kids can have good results if they intervene with those kids
the later you wait, the more difficult it is. Our programs
involve teaching parents how to be more positive with their kids, how
to really tune in their kids. If you do that early enough, our long-term
data shows you can prevent later problems.
Q. The parental skills you teach seem intuitive.
Were they more radical when you started 30 years ago?
The pendulum certainly swings back and forth from extremes of being
more authoritarian and being more relaxed and free. Our approach says
neither extreme is best for kids. You need a warm, nurturing relationship,
but within that you need some boundaries. What I think moves what we
do beyond the commonsensical is the way the skills are taught. Parents
are given a framework for disciplining kids that they can apply to later,
different situations. In the therapy teaching sessions, we tell parents
what were going to do, we model it for them, we have them practice
it with us, then we bring in the child and they practice it with them,
and then we talk about how theyre going to use it at home. An
article in Redbook probably isnt going to change a parents
behavior. You need a comprehensive approach.
Q. Lets talk about that behavior.
How do parents screw up with their kids?
A. Two major ways. The one most common
in middle-class America is being too lenient and not having very clear
expectations for their kids. If kids are raised in lenient environments
where they always get their way, it makes it difficult for those kids
when they get into school and other structured situations. Then there
are parents who err on the end of being over-controlling. Where you
ideally want to come down with kids is to have very clear expectations
and guidelines on whats acceptable, but within that to have a
very supportive relationship.
Q. Why are so many parents too lenient?
A. We get too busy to spend the time to
enforce rules and limits with kids. Instead of having your young child
pick up her toys at the end of the day, its easier for you to
do it yourself. But what the child is learning is that, I can
play with my toys, make a huge mess and walk away from it.
Q. Where does the disciplinarian extreme
A. These parents frequently have unrealistic
expectations of what kids can and should do, and those unrealistic expectations
lead to them placing too many demands on kids and having limits too
narrowly defined. A lot of parents who are like this are experiencing
other stressors financial trouble, depression, marital problems
and they do not have the patience necessary to work through difficult
situations so they respond with over-the-top discipline. Many of those
parents then turn around and feel guilty after theyve lashed out,
then they get lenient for a while, and the inconsistency makes things
Q. Tell me about your recent effort to
help parents help their children avoid risky sexual behaviors and pregnancy
have been working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
studying families with HIV infection. We are conducting a large multi-site
study where were teaching parents to talk to their kids about
high-risk sexual behavior. This builds off our earlier work. The kids
were working with are in the fourth and fifth grade and there
arent many projects involving talking to kids that young about
sex. My belief is that you should be talking to kids when theyre
five to six about sex, but even doing it at ages nine to 11 is unusual.
What we do is first alert parents to what kinds of risk behaviors kids
may engage in during adolescence (drugs, alcohol, sex), then we talk
about good parenting, being positive, keeping track of where they are,
then we talk about general communication and then, finally, on how you
communicate to your children your values about sex. Were not taking
a stand; were saying you need to begin talking to your kids and
opening up this area. Among industrial countries, we have the highest
sexually transmitted disease rate among teenagers, and one of the highest
Q. How do you transmit your values to children?
Is it just being frank and open and talking about it, or is it more
A. Its more complicated. If youre
modeling promiscuous behavior, talking isnt going to do much good.
You cant have good communication about sex, if you dont
have good communication skills to begin with. And good communication
about sex wont do much good if you dont have other parenting
skills. We teach parents to use teachable moments
its not like parents of my generation sitting down and saying,
Heres a book about the birds and the bees, read it and well
talk. Its using moments when something comes on TV, being
able to start a conversation and being comfortable answering questions.
Q. In your mind, what is a good parent?
A. A good parent has to change as the child
increases in age. A good parent for a pre-school child through the middle
of elementary school is a parent who can actually be childlike, a parent
who enjoys doing things with kids, who interacts positively, but who
has limits a certain bedtime, mealtime, baths, whatever. There
has to be some structure so the child realizes that she must act within
limits, but within those limits her parent is positive and loving. As
children get older, they need more decision-making responsibility. For
those of us who love control, thats hard to do, but they need
choices. Adolescents need their own space to develop. They need some
rules to protect them from risk; they still need support, but not in
the same child-like way. Theyre becoming more of an adult, so
you need to change.
adolescence particularly important for parenting? Or is there another
time in childhood where being an effective parent is most crucial in
terms of future outcomes?
A. It may be that dealing with the teenager
stuff is the hardest part and the problems are more serious. But to
get a child on a trajectory where you are not going to have to deal
with future problems, I believe pre-school is a crucial point.
Q. If people want to learn to be better
parents, what do you advise that they do?
parents can actually realize that they need to improve, that is a major
step in itself. There are materials out there for parents that can help.
But its day by day. At one point in Georgia, when I was heavily
involved in teaching parenting skills, my son was about four or five,
and I was coming home and not doing anything that I was teaching people
to do in the clinics. So I hung a golf wrist counter outside my door,
and I would put it on my wrist when I came home to remind me to do what
I needed to do. It took a conscious effort to improve. Parents have
to identify a source
a book, clinic, group
and then they
have to make it a priority in their life.
Q. It strikes me that your work is fundamentally
optimistic you specialize in early interventions to make childrens
lives better. Do you consider yourself to be an optimist?
A. Im certainly an optimist in that
I think we can do things to enhance the lives of families and children.
But Im like every other parent in that when something doesnt
go exactly right for my own children, I tend to start catastrophizing.
If Im doing that, and Im supposed to know something about
children and families, it gives me a clear message that its very
easy for parents to get down.