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Parental Guidance Suggested

Reviewed in this essay: Mentor Manager, Mentor Parent

In the play Seussical, a perplexed Mr. and Mrs. Who face a parenting conundrum by singing "Where are the instructions on how to raise a child?"

The Whos are not alone. Many parents bemoan the lack of an instruction manual when faced with this daunting task. Bookstore shelves are filled with volumes that attempt to fill the void. But like their cousins the self-help books, parenting books come in all varieties and espouse many philosophies, many of which fall in the category of "sounds good, doesn't work."

Mentor Manager, Mentor Parent: How to Develop Responsible People and Build Successful Relationships at Work and at Home
Mentor Manager, Mentor Parent

A new entry in the field is Mentor Manager, Mentor Parent (Comcon Books, 2002), in which authors Linda Culp Dowling and Cecile Culp Mielenz take the approach that a parent-child relationship can be handled in much the same way as that of an employer-employee. The cover promises to show readers "how to develop responsible people and build successful relationships at work and at home."

A worthy goal, but as one friend pointed out, "You can't fire your kids."

The problem the authors identify is that traditional, control-based management methods fail, both at home and in the workplace. The authors advocate using mentoring relationships instead. They describe four management styles—Mentor, Martyr, Manipulator and Boss—and provide a test so that the reader can determine his or her existing approach.

My husband and I, parents of three girls and always looking for answers, took the test and discovered that our parenting styles put us squarely in the "Boss" category. Before we read the book, we had been under the impression this was okay. As we read on we discovered, to our dismay, that the authors consider this a very bad thing.

And so it would be, given that the authors' description of a Boss could also pass nicely for the definition of a Despot. "The boss believes that others will not act appropriately unless she tells them what to do," the authors state, to which we could only respond, Well, duh. But they go on to say that the Boss "relies on the power of her position to demand the behavior she wants" and that "her disrespectful style stifles initiative in her employees and children, who learn to wait passively for instruction."

Oh my. Harsh words, especially given that we didn't mean to stifle anyone. And our kids seem to be remarkably un-passive, despite enduring a combined total of 35 years of parental bossiness. We like to think of ourselves as the bosses, but it seems that our kids have one hell of a union.

But if we had to get it wrong, at least we're not Martyrs or Manipulators. Martyrs, according to the authors, have difficulty holding their children accountable for their behavior. You probably don't need a book to identify this type of parent. They're the people who can be seen standing by, baffled and helpless, as their little Tiffany or Tyler perpetrates some monstrous behavior in a public place.

Manipulators, on the other hand, have already read a book—Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal—and they use this as the last word in child-rearing. These are the "eat your carrots and you get ice cream" parents who end up with children who are only motivated by the carrot at the end of a stick.

Authors Dowling and Mielenz are cousins who grew up together in the 1950s in Oklahoma. At a family reunion the two were comparing notes on their respective positions as a management coach (Dowling) and a parent educator (Mielenz), and Mentor arose from their conclusion that there were many parallels between the two.

I could have told them that. Before becoming a parent I managed an office with 18 employees, which operated 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. I didn't know it at the time, but it turned out to be excellent preparation for parenthood. I mediated squabbles, dealt with pouters and tattlers, and at review time passed out treats in the form of pay raises. My sleep was sometimes disrupted, not by someone needing a bottle, but by an early shift employee who'd been hitting one a little too hard and couldn't make it in to work.

On paper at least, Dowling and Mielenz's plan is coherent and logical, but these traits often fly out the window when dealing with children or hung-over employees. The book is divided into sections on structuring, coaching, conferencing and "letting go"—all valuable skills for a parent or manager. I especially liked the section on clarifying values, whether for a home or an organization, and stating related expectations. Clarity and clear expectations make any situation better.

But weary parents would tell the authors that parenting is a messy business, and trying to apply this or any other "logical" approach to real live children is often an exercise in futility. Dowling and Mielenz don't advance their case when they supply "true anecdotes" that sound anything but. Some of these "success stories" are unintentionally hilarious, especially given the authors' lack of a sense of humor.

Consider the situation of Peter, as recounted by his mother Jean. Peter, along with his friend Serena, each four-and-a-half, had "earned enough trust to play unsupervised."

This statement alone would be enough to raise the eyebrows of anyone closely acquainted with children this age.

Sure enough, it seems Peter violated this trust when he and his friend decided to play a game called "dog-fish," which involved locking themselves in a room with Serena's dog and hurling the contents of a large box of fish crackers into the air for the dog to chase. To his mother's apparent astonishment, the result was chaos and no small amount of mess.

Jean, in looking back on this unfortunate incident, said she "maintained her composure and muzzled her anger" as she painstakingly led Peter through a conversation that, recreated in the book, lasted for two full pages. In this conversation, every aspect of the episode was examined by both mother and four-year-old in excruciating detail, from the psychological effect on the dog to the economic impact of wasting a perfectly good box of Pepperidge Farm's finest.

Jean: I know you and Serena like to play together, and I know you like for Bucky-dog to play with you, too. It is understandable that you were hungry, and it was fun to take such a huge box of fish crackers into a secret place where you could eat them and play together.
Peter: Uh-huh.
Jean: You need to show Serena's parents that you two can be trusted to play together again. What can you do?
Peter: Well, I can make sure Bucky-dog isn't shut into a room with us anymore so that he can leave the room if he wants to. I can apologize to Serena's parents for making a mess and for wasting a box of goldfish crackers. I think it would also be a good idea if Serena and I didn't play alone without an adult.
Jean: Those are some very worthwhile ideas you have, Peter. What can we do now since we know Bucky was frightened, a box of goldfish crackers was wasted, and Serena's house was a mess?
Peter: Well, I could apologize to Bucky-dog and tell him I'm sorry for frightening him. Then I could also say "I'm sorry" to Serena's parents for making a mess and doing something wrong like we did.

I read this passage envisioning Peter as a pint-sized Kofi Annan and wondering what he was doing wasting his time playing with Serena. We could use maturity and wisdom like this in the United Nations.

In the end, by applying the principles outlined in the "coaching" section, Jean was able to happily report that not only could Peter acknowledge in detail how everyone involved had been affected, he could also identify the warehouse store where his mother would need to take him to purchase a replacement box of crackers at a reasonable price. Jean looked on proudly as Peter took the fish crackers, climbed on his bike and, unaccompanied, "zoomed around the corner" to share them with his friend.

We're told in the authors' profiles that they themselves actually have children. Maybe so, but their blithe acceptance of pre-schoolers roaming alone around their neighborhoods on bikes made me wonder.

Another vignette describes a parent who was concerned about her seven-year-old daughter's dawdling in the morning. She determined that this lingering was due to her need for increased attention. When she offered to do something special with her daughter, the child asked that they put on their swimsuits and have an imaginary "beach day" with her Barbies.

The mother complied and the book describes how after the twenty minute party the mother pronounced the activity "delightful" and asked what they could do tomorrow. There was no mention of whether or not the child's behavior was modified, but the mother's certainly was—something that the unrepentant boss in me found hard to take.

Dowling and Mielenz are clearly well-intentioned, but were I a new manager or a new parent, I don't know that I would find any book as valuable as just toughing it out and gaining day-to-day experience, sometimes painfully. Mentor Manager, Mentor Parent assumes a certain maturity level on the part of both parties—parent/child or employer/employee—which outside the pages of a book may not always be present.

My advice to frazzled parents looking for answers would be to grab another book—say, Green Eggs and Ham—and spend some time reading it to their little "mentorees." It would be time better spent. I think even the Whos would agree.

Copyright © 2003 Anne Thomasmeyer.

Anne Thomasmeyer has been saying for years that she intends to Get Serious About Her Writing. Toward that end, she wears a lot of black clothing and has produced this, her first contribution to Inkburns. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their three lively distractions.


Equal time: Read a letter to the editor from Cecile Culp Mielenz, Ph.D., and Linda Culp Dowling, authors of Mentor Manager, Mentor Parent, on the Inkboard.