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photo by Sabin Gratz

A Good Parent?
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 University’s faculty in 2002 after a distinguished career at the University of Georgia, where he started the Parenting Research Program in the 1970’s. 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 we’ve 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 stressors.

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, they’re the ones reporting the problem, they’re the ones with the child most of the time, so if we can get them to be therapists by changing some of their behaviors we’re going to get more results.

Q. I 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 they’ll 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, “You’re not responsible for these problems, but what you’re doing is not working, so let’s try some other approaches. Let’s think about things in a different way and try it.” It’s 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 child’s 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. I’m 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 early… 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 we’re 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 they’re going to use it at home. An article in Redbook probably isn’t going to change a parent’s behavior. You need a comprehensive approach.

Q. Let’s 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 what’s 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, it’s 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 come from?

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 they’ve lashed out, then they get lenient for a while, and the inconsistency makes things worse.

Q. Tell me about your recent effort to help parents help their children avoid risky sexual behaviors and pregnancy…

A. We 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 we’re teaching parents to talk to their kids about high-risk sexual behavior. This builds off our earlier work. The kids we’re working with are in the fourth and fifth grade and there aren’t many projects involving talking to kids that young about sex. My belief is that you should be talking to kids when they’re 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. We’re not taking a stand; we’re 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 pregnancy rates.

Q. How do you transmit your values to children? Is it just being frank and open and talking about it, or is it more complicated?

A. It’s more complicated. If you’re modeling promiscuous behavior, talking isn’t going to do much good. You can’t have good communication about sex, if you don’t have good communication skills to begin with. And good communication about sex won’t do much good if you don’t have other parenting skills. We teach parents to use “teachable moments” — it’s not like parents of my generation sitting down and saying, “Here’s a book about the birds and the bees, read it and we’ll talk.” It’s 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, that’s 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. They’re becoming more of an adult, so you need to change.

Q. Is 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?

A. If 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 it’s 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 children’s lives better. Do you consider yourself to be an optimist?

A. I’m certainly an optimist in that I think we can do things to enhance the lives of families and children. But I’m like every other parent in that when something doesn’t go exactly right for my own children, I tend to start catastrophizing. If I’m doing that, and I’m supposed to know something about children and families, it gives me a clear message that it’s very easy for parents to get down.