Safety vs. control remains the tightrope in raising modern children


Dr. Richard Lazaroff is the author of “Some Assembly Required, A Guide to Savvy Parenting.”


As a pediatrician, I often was asked whether it is harder to raise children now than in the past. I think most people assume I quickly responded yes.

Surely it seems like the times have never been more dangerous and complex: Social media and the pressure on adolescents to defend their reputations can be a 24/7 job; school shootings; legalization in some states of marijuana; the sexualization of our culture; the erosion of decency in many of our personal interactions; and COVID-19.

But as a pediatrician and father, I doubt that it is “harder.” Being watchful of your child and adolescent’s safety has always been a priority, as has been the goal of nurturing their development to become contributing adults in their communities.

There is often an unrecognized conflict when parenting rules and decisions for an adolescent involve safety vs. control. It can be hard at times to tease out the difference, but parents are navigating in a far safer territory when they draw the lines about real safety concerns.


Imagine: A teen requests permission to go to a theme park on a Friday night with friends. Saying no ends the discussion (control). We may be worried about safety, but not having been to that park in years, we really do not know whether it is unsafe.  Perhaps a better answer would be to allow the adolescent to go but indicate that you plan to go to the park, separately, to see for yourself whether it is unsafe.

Safety is a real concern and a place where parents should assert their authority. But you might find the theme park safety issue just part of your own anxiety and an excellent place for your child to make his or her own decisions.

But when adolescents inevitably bend, break or ignore household rules, something has to give: trust. Usually, there are repercussions and, at times, punishment. It is always best if an adolescent knows what the consequences will be in advance. This allows parents to avoid making it all up on the fly. Grounding seems to be the go-to choice of most parents.

But does grounding really work? Some kids care little when things are taken away. Some will say they have nothing left to lose, so the behavior continues. Studies suggest that adolescents, in contrast to adults, are more motivated to seek rewards than to avoid punishment.

If you do use grounding, make sure you do not strip children of every choice and every freedom. Try to avoid taking away nonacademic activities at which they excel (e.g., sports, theater, chess) as this is where they get their self-esteem. Do not cut them off from all social contact (for example, cannot go out but may use social media to some degree) and make the restrictions for a reasonable length of time (no more than one week).

The sooner children can resume their routines and face the same difficult decisions, the sooner they can demonstrate that a lesson was learned, and you can be assured they are developing the adult skills and judgment you wish them to acquire in the first place.

Some adolescent mistakes involve more than breaking household rules. Some of are truly misdeeds, such as stealing or vandalism where someone or something is harmed. Logical consequences and reparation are more appropriate in these circumstances. Apologizing to the injured party and coming to an agreement on working off the transgression are best practices,  and you must avoid the temptation to use whatever influence you might have to “get them off.” I believe you will regret this.

As I’ve said, trust is at the core of the adolescent-parent relationship. How can this be accomplished?

In my book “Some Assembly Required: A Guide to Savvy Parenting,” I share the following list with my readers.

1. Stop talking at each other, screaming and threatening, and start communicating. Try to decide with your child what trust will look like in your home and what you expect of each other.

2. Negotiate the rules together. Recognize the difference between safety and control. There should be more give than take on your part if you find it’s about control.

3. Motivate with reward, not punishment. When expectations are being met, give your child praise and new privileges when deserved.

4. As a parent, be prepared for bumps in the road. When the next “mistake” occurs, do not compound it by going back to your old behavior of being a frustrated parent.

5. When mistakes are made, do not compound the situation by enabling the bad behavior. When an adult steps in to make the situation right or takes on the responsibility or blame themselves, it robs the adolescent of a learning experience.

6. Find an interest to share or make time for a one-on-one breakfast to learn about your adolescent’s interests. Seeing each other as people (though not best friends) is realistic and rewarding.

7. Even when there is conflict, make sure your child knows that he or she is loved unconditionally.

8. Eat dinner as a family as often as possible, if not nightly. Whether the resulting discussions are far reaching or trivial is less important than the face-to-face time together.

9. Yes, social media can be a tool for hostility and bullying. but it can also connect individuals. As parents, we can teach our children how to use it safely and productively. This includes setting limits, such as having all phones turned off at bedtime. And remember, home needs to be a safe space to step away from school pressures and the need to be “on” socially.

Like all parenting efforts, do your best and accept it. Now sit back and watch your child grow. You have the best seat in town.

Dr. Richard Lazaroff is a retired pediatrician who practiced in St. Louis County for nearly 40 years. Married for 42 years, he is the father of two and grandfather of four and the author of “Some Assembly Required, A Guide to Savvy Parenting.”