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I recently had a funny exchange with a person in the sales division of the company that manufactured my once-trustworthy laptop. I have to share it with the class.

I called the company to order a replacement part and, in the course of confirming that I am the proper owner, the saleswoman asked, "What is the Center for Affirmative Parenting?"

"I write books and give seminars on raising children," I answered. That made her happy because, she said, she's having problems with her sons, 4 and 3. Specifically, they talk back to her. They tell her, flatly, that they aren't going to obey, that she's not their boss, and so on.

"Now," she explained, "I'm trying to raise them to feel they can always speak freely to me."

"Then you're doing a great job!" I exclaimed. "I am?" She responded, somewhat puzzled.

"Yes, you are," I said. "They obviously feel they have complete permission to speak freely to you."

"But that's not the kind of free speech I mean," she said. "I want them to obey me, not disrespect me."

"Well, I'm sorry to tell you, but you can't have it both ways."

This mom, like many of today's parents, is trying to put the cart before the horse.

A child will not appreciate the fruits of democracy, one of which is freedom of speech, unless he has not had access to those fruits for a period of time sufficient to properly steep such appreciation.

In this mom's case, her children are quickly turning into tyrants. How ironic! She gives freedom, and they, in turn, demand entitlement. Such is the sorry state of child rearing in America, where postmodern psychobabble, not common sense, holds sway.

I told a father recently that the way to ensure the trustworthiness of a child during the teen years is to insist on blind obedience when the child is young and gradually loosen the restraints on "free thinking" as the child approaches adolescence.

"Oh," the fellow said, "I don't feel comfortable with that." I felt like telling him it wasn't about him. It was about his child. And it wasn't a matter of what he did and did not feel "comfortable" doing. It was a matter of his child's best interests.

I didn't say any of this, of course. I just nodded. I understand. I really do. Parenting in America is a fairy tale in which childhood, long imprisoned in the dank dungeons of dysfunctionality, is being rescued by legions of caring, compassionate parents. They want their children to express themselves freely, which the children end up doing, to the detriment of all.

Never mind. The important thing is that each parent discovers a style of parenting that is right for him or her. After all, only the benighted cling stubbornly to unchanging child-rearing principles. "I would never have spoken to my parents the way my children sometimes speak to me," a 40-something mom recently remarked, looking like she was about to cry.

That's not exactly right. She would indeed have spoken to her parents in a disrespectful fashion if they had given her license to do so. But they did not. They did not give her free speech prematurely; therefore, she was not a child-tyrant.

And thus, when the time came for her to enjoy free speech, she did not abuse the privilege. Sadly, many of today's children never enjoy free speech. They've always had it. Entitlements, furthermore, always breed contempt for those who pay the bills.

John Rosemond is a family psychologist. Questions of general interest may be sent to him at Affirmative Parenting, 1020 East 86th St., Suite 26B, Indianapolis, Ind. 46240 and at his Web site:

If you or someone you know has parenting problems, call the Parents Anonymous 24-hour confidential Help-Line at 892-2172.

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