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Strict parents, meddling grandparents

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Q. When I was a child, I was supposed to be seen but not heard and make my parents look good. They chose my clothes, my classes at school and my extracurricular activities, and if I made a decision, they made me change it.

Because I never learned to make wise choices as a schoolgirl, I made some big, bad choices when I was grown. But I’m in my 40s now, a single parent and the mother of a bright, funny, beautiful 10-year-old to whom I’ve given choices since she was a toddler.

“Do you want to wear the red dress or the blue dress?”

“Do you want soup for lunch or a sandwich?”

“Do you want to go to Becky’s birthday party or to the folk festival?”

So many choices shocked my family when we visited them recently. Several relatives, including my father, told me that I was spoiling my daughter and that I should make all the decisions, so my daughter would know that the adults were in charge. My brother, who is childless, also weighed in and so did my mother. She told me to put my daughter in a dress so she would “look nice” when we visited a family friend, even though my child was neat, clean and wearing leggings and a matching shirt. I said that this decision was up to my daughter, who didn’t want to change her clothes even when my mother tried to guilt her into it. Afterward, she said that my daughter was a spoiled rotten brat who didn’t respect her elders because she wouldn’t dress up for them.

Despite all of these comments, my daughter was excited when my brother and his wife visited us. We immediately had a problem when my sister-in-law tapped my daughter on the shoulder and said, “Tag! You’re it!” and ran down the hall. My daughter ran after her — even though I had told her not to run in the house — and together they bumped into a cabinet and broke a small figurine. My brother rushed to his wife to make sure she wasn’t hurt, then blamed the whole incident on my daughter, berated both of us and said that I should be much stricter with her.

This lecture upset both of us and now we don’t want to visit my family again. But are they right? Am I spoiling my daughter? How much control should she have over her life at this age?

A. Your family may like their kind of discipline better than yours, but unless alcohol, drugs or abuse is involved, they should have kept their opinions to themselves. Because all parents are different, they rear their children in different ways, too.

Parents usually discipline their children in one of three ways.

An authoritarian parent expects her child to obey her instantly. But when this child becomes a young teen, turns sullen and asks why she should do a chore or run an errand, many strict parents are so tired of making their children behave that they often become permissive.

A permissive parent keeps giving her child more toys, more treats and more freedom but the more the child gets, the more she wants, especially when she turns 13 or 14. By then, these permissive parents can’t stand the whining anymore and many of them become authoritarian parents.

Fortunately, you seem to be an authoritative parent — a middle-of-the-roader — so you know that your child should make her own choices as long as she makes them politely and considers the feelings of others as well as her own. You might, however, give your daughter a few more direct orders instead of so many “either/or” choices, if only to prepare her for the grumpy professors and cranky bosses she’s bound to get when she grows up.

As an authoritative parent, you need to treat your daughter with respect when you ask her to do something, with sympathy when you can’t let her do something, and with understanding when she has to do something that she doesn’t want to do — like visit your parents.

Although neither of you enjoy these visits now, you need to see your parents occasionally because they love you and because it’s better for your child to know her grandparents as they are rather than to wonder what they’re really like.

Your parents won’t change, but you will enjoy these trips more — and so will they — if you and your daughter learn to say, “Really!” or “That’s an interesting idea!” when they tell you how to rear your child. And then quietly say to yourselves, “God gave us our family; thank God we can choose our friends.” A little humor makes the medicine go down.

Send questions about parenting to advice@margueritekelly.com.

Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly and read past Family Almanac columns.

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