The worst-case scenarios of parenting without a plan can be devastating for families, said Dr. Galen Cole, a Mormon psychologist from Atlanta, Ga., and author of many books including his most recent, "Precious Time: The Psychology of Effective Parenting with Parenting Plans."
He said planning takes time but is worth every minute invested with healthy results not only for unruly children but also for parents who are trying to lead with unity.
Cole is a BYU alumnus and employed full time by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but he also has a family counseling practice on evenings and Saturdays that has never been busier.
"I'm seeing families in crisis with the economy," he said. "It's a dubious thing, but it's been my busiest year as a therapist. People are coming in with lots of stress and difficulties trying to keep families together and keep kids out of drugs."
Some of his clients are referred by court order, others are trying to be proactive, but his advice to all has been similarly driven by the idea that families must develop and implement an effective parenting plan.
"When a couple puts together a plan, they have to negotiate what they're trying to accomplish with their children, and lots of good can come of that for their marriage," he said. "For LDS families, you decide together if your kids are going to drink Coke or not, go to church faithfully or not … you decide not to ever disagree in front of the kids, which I call 'shooting yourself in the foot' if you don’t decide that ahead of time."
Cole's philosophies as a cognitive therapist using action-oriented therapy aren't just theoretical; they're time-tested by him, his wife and five children, now grown.
"We have a unique understanding of what families go through with unruly children because we have a child who was raised in the church but at age 13, she went the wrong direction and took us through a lot of experiences we needed to have," he said. "One thing I've learned from the first book in the Bible is that Adam and Eve were really great parents but had a son who murdered his brother. In the Book of Mormon, Lehi and Sariah were great parents with two children who were murderous in their hearts. All children have free agency and make choices no matter how they’re parented. So, we have a shot to follow Joseph Smith's advice to teach correct principles and let them govern themselves, but it’s very common for LDS families to become desperate when teens waver.
"We used to be young single adult leaders with about 300 inactive young single adults in our stake," he said. "We could be desperate about that. We could wring our hands or pull out our hair, or we can realize that it's part of the plan and love them."
They had a personal experience where that love was needed.
"With our daughter, that’s what worked. We never gave up on her, and that saved her life. If any person could have easily been given up on, she was the one," Cole said. "When she ran away from home as a 14-year-old, it was a gift from Heavenly Father who taught us charity. We loved her, and then one day she was OK. We learned our lessons, and she learned her lessons. All our other kids saw what she did and fell in line because they saw the consequences of bad behavior. We must follow what is taught in Corinthians that 'charity never faileth,' … but it's always easier to do that when we have a plan.”
Cole's book has chapters on developing a family identity with goals, deciding which activities support the family goals and setting rules to support those activities. He helps work through the process of selecting, assigning and administering consequences for both positive and negative choices as well as discussing discipline, compliance and contracts for performance. "You can motivate teens with a stick or with carrot cake," he said. "In our house, we had a unique way of disciplining. Instead of grounding, which puts parents on restriction, too, we had our kids pull a 'good habit card' when they made a bad choice. When their chore was finished, the restriction was finished, and you got something out of it."
Coming up with "good habits” was easy for the Cole family on their 10-acre ranchette in the middle of Atlanta where they breed Australian Shepherd dogs, milk cows and raise calves.
"One of the points we make in our book is if teens have a social purpose or a positive addiction, they’re easier to raise. One of our sons was a risk-taker, and we discovered he liked horseback riding and calf roping. We got him a special horse, calves and an arena, and he spent from the time he was 12 until he was 20 always negotiating with me on trading good behavior for calves, a rope, a chute, a diesel truck, a horse or entry fees to a rodeo. Our contracts included seminary attendance, certain grades and behaviors at home. He was totally addicted to this – I have a stack of contracts to show for it – and it was all by design."
When kids develop a positive addiction, Cole said it also makes it easier to have conversations and schedule time together.
"Love 'em and hug 'em, and take them out for ice cream," he said, "even when they're driving you crazy.
“For members of the church, we often get this 'all or nothing' mentality," he said. "Sometimes our attitudes toward teens really aren’t consistent with what Jesus wants us to do and a lot more consistent with what the Pharisees and Sadducees were doing. … These kids go into high school where there’s horrific pressure."
If there isn't respite or a positive outlet for them elsewhere, "they do things they wouldn’t normally do to relieve some of the pressure," he said. "So we need to be sensitive. We need to recognize a teen's unique bright light so we can tap into it and nourish it.
"Each one of our kids is different, and we had to tailor our parenting plans to their differences," Cole added. "Our kids aren’t supposed to be perfect. They’re supposed to make mistakes, so they can learn from them, and we have to love them through the process."
Cole's book also encourages parents to take the role of teacher seriously. He encourages weekly family meetings where lessons are taught and families create their own “branding” together. He includes 25 sample lessons and methods for teaching the topics including honesty, gratitude, preventing drug use, delaying sex until marriage, practicing self-control and healthy habits.
Cole's work with the CDC has taken him all over the world, but frequently to the Middle East and Africa to make presentations on public health.
"The highlight of my career has been going back and forth to Israel," he said. "I've been in the valley of Armageddon. I've seen Jordan and the Dead Sea. I've had many amazing experiences in Nazareth … and been to the Garden Tomb many times having the most sacred experiences I could imagine. Anyone who knows me would say that my favorite mantra is, 'The main thing is Jesus. … Jesus is the way.' He is the way we worship and should be the way we parent. If we look to him, we can’t go wrong."
Stacie Lloyd Duce is a freelance columnist and magazine editor featured regularly in several Montana newspapers and magazines.