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Lyle Stafford

Okay, parents, here's a pop quiz. Say you're at the sandbox and your two-year-old bops another toddler on the head. You tell him not to. He does it again.

Do you a) apologize to the kid's mom and explain that your son is teething/overstimulated/going through a tough developmental stage, then offer your little guy a snack to calm him down?

Or b) pull your son from the play area and tell him that if he hits again, he will be strapped into his stroller and taken home?

If you answered (a), your parenting style follows the prevailing trend of the past couple decades.

If you chose (b), however, you may be part of a backlash against what some experts call indulgent childrearing.

Soft parenting has created a generation of spoiled brats, according to Maggie Mamen, author of The Pampered Child Syndrome: How to Recognize It, How to Manage It, and How to Avoid It.

Holy terrors and their lax parents are disturbing the peace in airports and restaurants, grocery stores and schools, she says.

The Ottawa-based psychologist treats children diagnosed with depression, anxiety, attention-deficit disorder and behavioural problems. In many cases, Dr. Mamen says, her patients are not suffering from actual mental disorders - they're showing the effects of spineless parenting.

"There are parents who will not say no to their child because they truly believe this is bad for their child to hear."

Marshmallow parents produce amoral children, according to American psychiatrist Robert Shaw, author of The Epidemic: The Rot of American Culture, Absentee and Permissive Parenting, and the Resultant Plague of Joyless, Selfish Children. In the book, Dr. Shaw attributes even the 1999 Columbine High School massacre to permissive parenting. Compared to the plague of insolent, narcissistic children he describes, swine flu looks like the common cold.

Nevertheless, there are signs that "no-nonsense" discipline strategies are being revived.

Parents are tuning in to reality shows such as Nanny 911 to see modern-day governesses whip unruly broods into shape. Others are searching for tips in books such as The Rules of Parenting by Richard Templar and Loving Without Spoiling: And 100 Other Timeless Tips for Raising Terrific Kids by Nancy Samalin .

Meanwhile, media outlets are publishing headline-grabbing research on the benefits of tough love.

Children raised with a balance of warmth and discipline are more likely to be empathetic and able to regulate their emotions and complete tasks, according to a recent survey of 9,000 families in Britain.

Researchers from Boston University have found that kids who receive both love and clear limits from their parents are less likely to be overweight when they start school than those with permissive or domineering parents.

And data from a 20-year study of Minnesotan twins suggest that even if children of firm yet loving parents break the rules, they are more likely to assume leadership positions later in life than those raised with other parenting styles.

Nevertheless, advocates of a more democratic approach say that children learn interdependence by having a say in family life. The need for rigid rules may disappear when troubling behaviour is seen as a problem to be solved together, rather than as an infraction that must be punished, says Alfie Kohn, author of Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community.

"Your child needs a human being - flawed, caring and vulnerable - more than he or she needs someone pretending to be a crisply competent Perfect Parent," he writes.

But Dr. Mamen insists that children need to know who's boss.

As their offices fill up with sullen, self-entitled youth, she and other child psychologists are calling for a return to the parenting model championed by Diana Baumrind in the 1960s.

Dr. Baumrind came up with the notion of three parenting styles: authoritarian (too hard), permissive (too soft) and authoritative (just right).

Older parents may recognize them as the brick-wall, jellyfish and backbone parents popularized by Barbara Coloroso in her bestselling book Kids Are Worth It.

While the model is hardly new, parenting with a firm grip fell out of favour in the 1980s and 1990s.

In many households, the values rooted in the United Nations 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child were taken too far, Dr. Mamen says.

Reluctant to deny their children anything, parents cave in to demands for cellphones, flexible curfews and freedom from surveillance. "What used to be privileges have now become rights."

The California-based self-esteem movement was another blow to authoritative parenting, says Steven Hughes, a pediatric neuropsychologist at the University of Minnesota.

When pundits blamed low self-esteem for everything from alcoholism to teenage pregnancy, parents and teachers went overboard to praise kids, regardless of their talents or efforts. Parents then set out to convince the world that their child was exceptional.

"What we have is at least a generation of parents who are absolutely unmoored from their instincts," says Dr. Hughes, who gives talks on the subject throughout North America.

Not all parents have become human jellyfish, though.

Deanna Dahlsad, a mother of three in Fargo, N.D., says she frowns on parents who "prize their children kind of like begonias or pets."

Her own parents had firm boundaries and presented a united front, an approach she takes with her own children, says Ms. Dahlsad, who writes for online publications.

In a post titled "Permissive Parents, Stop Ruining Your Children," Ms. Dahlsad blogged about "lazy parents" who defend their kids' right to run amok in shopping centres or rummage through doctors' offices.

"I was kind of surprised my post didn't get more hate mail," she says.

Building self-esteem doesn't mean ensuring a child is happy all the time, or free to do as he or she pleases, Dr. Mamen says.

Parents need to set limits with their children and let them discover they are capable of solving problems even when they don't get what they want.

"We are a hierarchical species," she says. "It's our job

as the adults to guide children and essentially train them to be self-sufficient adults who can form good relationships."

Mothers and fathers of children with behavioural problems are relieved when she urges them to stand up to their kids, she adds: It's never too late to grow a backbone.

Quiz: Are you a backbone parent?

What's your parenting style? Take our quiz to see how you rate.

1. Your daughter didn't eat dinner and now demands a snack before bed. Do you:

A) Let her choose what to eat (it's great that she's in touch with her body's needs)

B) Refuse a snack and say "that's what you get for not eating dinner"

C) Give her a choice between two healthy snacks and remind her to eat more dinner next time

2. Your teenager returns your car with an empty gas tank. Do you:

A) Tell him he should fill it up (but you'll take care of it this time because he has a test to study for)

B) Yell at him for being irresponsible, then take away his car privileges

C) Tell him to drive to the gas station pronto and warn him that next time, he'll have to wash and vacuum the car too

3. Your five-year-old daughter is tantrumming while getting dressed for a birthday party. Do you:

A) Let her wear her favourite pink nightie - after all, it's a special occasion

B) Make her wear the green velvet dress from grandma "or you're not going to the party"

C) Lay out a few acceptable outfits and let her choose

4. Your two-year-old is pulling things off the supermarket shelves. Do you:

A) Admire his creativity and let other shoppers wheel their carts around his sculpture of tomato soup cans

B) Seize the child and threaten to put him in a "time out" if he doesn't stop touching things

C) Show him how to put the cans back, then involve him in helping you carry the cans you need

5. Your six-year-old daughter is on a rampage at a restaurant. Do you:

A) Wolf down your meal so you can get her out of there quick

B) Grab by the arm and threaten to take her toys away when you get home

C) Remind her about table manners and if she won't settle down, have someone wait with her outside

6. Your four-year-old points at a stranger on the bus and says "he smells!" Do you:

A) Whisper in his ear "I know, honey" (he's speaking the truth and you want him to be authentic)

B) Tell him to shut his mouth "and don't say another word until we get off the bus"

C) Explain that it's not polite to say mean things about others, and ask him to apologize


If your answers tend to be A, your parenting may be on the soft side.

If B describes your usualy MO, you could stand to loosen your grip.

If you chose mostly C answers, you tend to be a backbone parent who sets limits without squelching your kid's spirit.