In the past 40 years, roughly since the 1960s, parenting (along with dozens of other life issues) has undergone a revolution in thinking. Traditional methods were questioned, in many cases rejected, and a spirit of experimentation resulted in the adoption of many alternatives.
Many people during the 1960s began to believe that the restrictive, almost Victorian parenting styles of earlier generations were unsuited to a modern society. Many converging views led to that conclusion, including Dr. Spock's books and those of other influential child psychologists.
The results of those 'experiments' has now been observed for the past 10-20 years and after a generation of experimentation, some have come to believe that the traditional ways were not so far off after all. The pendulum has begun to swing back to more traditional views of parenting.
But are those the only alternatives? Are the only possibilities a harsh and unreasonable discipline versus a soft and mindless lack of discipline? Many contemporary psychologists envision a third way.
Parenting is an enormously complex undertaking, requiring huge amounts of patience, struggle (both emotional and financial) and a long-term commitment. But that effort can be made much simpler by some relatively simple observations about human nature.
The first thing that will strike any parent is the unabashed joy that a child takes in exploring the world around him or her. Babies are fascinated by sights, sounds, movement and a variety of sensations. As the child matures, asking questions becomes a virtual mania, at least for a few years.
If a parent responds with enthusiasm to those early gropings, they are recognizing and supporting the fundamental attribute that young humans are using: curiosity. But, curiosity is another way of saying that the child is seeking to use his or her mind to understand and deal with the world.
Developing that faculty provides the foundation for other essential aspects of the child's personality, including self-esteem, empathy, enjoyment of life and other positive characteristics.
To develop a healthy self-esteem, it's necessary to feel that one can understand and deal with the challenges life brings, even to the young. To deal with others fairly, and to empathize with their circumstances and reactions, the child has to be able to understand what it's like to 'walk in their shoes'. To enjoy life, the young person - just as do adults - has to be comfortable with their ability to achieve the values - both material and spiritual - essential to a successful life.
Parents can help in that effort by leaving open all the options that modern society can offer an individual. There is no need to return to the socially restrictive views of a hundred years ago, with its conformity, rigidity and frequent disapproval of individual choice.
But neither do parents need to succumb to moral anarchy or relativism and regard all options as equally valid. Human nature is not infinitely plastic and the demands of the real world will require facing facts.
The third way can represent the best chance a developing individual has for a positive life.