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Dana Parsons

Parenting With a Hands-Off Attitude

December 18, 2002|Dana Parsons

Offended by the Yorba Linda parents who disciplined their son so much they ended up in court on child-abuse charges? Who locked him out of the house overnight because he wouldn't do his homework?

Then consider a father who didn't care what time his kids went to bed. Who didn't demand they do their homework -- or even insist they attend school. A father who, after he once pulled the hair on the back of one of his son's heads in anger, would apologize and then allow the boy to pull his hair in turn.

I didn't know such animals still roamed the earth, but I met one the other day in his La Palma home. He's 68-year-old Benny Wasserman, a delightful Albert Einstein look-alike who with his wife, Fern, raised three boys to adulthood and whose philosophy of non-discipline guided their parenting techniques -- even as his wife and most everybody else figured he was nuts.

Wasserman isn't saying that his approach to child-rearing would work with every child, but he's confident we'd have a better world if parents would forget about limits, punishment, demands and rules for their children.

I'm too chicken to vouch for Wasserman's techniques, or to be glib and contrast his methods with the severe discipline employed by Deborah and Grady Machnick of Yorba Linda. This week, an Orange County jury acquitted the couple on a felony charge and deadlocked on a misdemeanor abuse charge.

Wasserman, a retired TRW manager, certainly isn't gloating over the Machnick's public skewering.

To the contrary, he'd be among the first to say parenting involves a lot of luck. He just figures that parenting means letting your kids have as much freedom as possible to explore and be themselves and learn from mistakes.

I hear the groaning out there, and Wasserman has heard it, too, ever since he stumbled upon the book in 1961 that changed his parenting outlook.

"I had everybody against me," he says, "including my wife and in-laws."

The book detailed the Summerhill School in England, where children were schooled in an environment compatible with founder A.S. Neill's belief that "all outside compulsion is wrong, that inner compulsion is the only value."

Maybe locking your kid out of the house is a tough decision, but so is letting your kid speak his mind.

Wasserman remembers one dinner-table conversation at which one of his sons, about 12, told him to "shut up."

Wasserman's father-in-law looked at Wasserman: "What are you going to do about that?"

"Nothing," Wasserman said, replying that he must have said something that upset his son.

Isn't parenting about setting limits and controlling behavior?

"It is according to everybody else but me," he says. "Let children be themselves. To me, that's almost a bottom line."

Obviously, the subject is too nuanced to explore here.

Still, I figured I better talk to at least one expert, so I picked middle Wasserman son Craig, 41, one of the two boys who are attorneys. The eldest is a doctor.

Craig remembers shocking his boyhood friends by swearing at his dad. Wasserman had told his sons they could do that to him whenever they wanted.

"I knew I was being raised different than other kids," Craig laughs.

And now that he's the father of four? How does he see his dad through the lens of adulthood?

"He's a kick," Craig says. "I think he's ahead of his time."


Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to

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