CHICAGO - Carter Burns does not know John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban charged with conspiring to kill Americans in Afghanistan, or his family, but as principal of Buffalo Grove High School he is familiar with the primordial need for parents to defend their young.

Burns figures he has seen more attorneys hired to defend children against school infractions in the last few years than he has in his nearly three-decade career.

"It's the culture right now," said Burns, president of the Illinois Principals Association. "If you have enough money and the right lawyer, you can get out of anything."

The Lindh case has Burns, parents and child-development experts debating whether the Mother Bear instinct has gone too far, especially when the child is no longer a cub. They say that unconditional parental love sometimes means stepping back, not always rushing in to help. It might mean taking a stand against a child's behavior, such as appearing in court but declining to foot the legal bills.

They say the fine line parents must walk between standing by a grown child and having him be held accountable for his actions has been blurred beyond recognition - and children are suffering for the lack of boundaries.

"Unqualified love is not the same as unqualified acceptance of whatever they do," said Jim Ferguson, principal of Hinsdale Central High School and a father of three. "You don't learn a lesson if a parent bails you out of situation after situation. You learn that if you do something bad, Mom or Dad will bail you out, and that's not a good lesson over time."

Lindh's parents and their parenting style have been scrutinized ever since Lindh was captured with other suspected terrorists in Afghanistan and charged with conspiring to kill U.S. citizens.

In denying bail to Lindh, despite pleas for the 21-year-old to be given to the custody of his father, a federal judge said "these are not the family ties" that merit release.

Lindh, who pleaded not guilty and was given an Aug. 26 trial date, had not been in contact with his parents since April of last year.

The Mother Bear instinct is rarely tested to such limits, and some might argue that it makes less sense to go overboard defending a child when the stakes are smaller, such as a report card grade.

For many parents, the urge to protect a child begins before birth, said Dr. Bennett Leventhal, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Chicago.

Parental love "is not rational," he said. "The minute you apply some rational argument to it, you are stepping outside the bounds" of parental love.

Parents may have difficulty letting other people take care of their children, even when they are older, said Mark Reinecke, chief of the psychology division at Northwestern University Medical School.

"There are parents who give their life for their children and don't allow other people to ever take responsibility for helping them," he said. "They think, if it's not me, nobody can do it as well."

But parents such as Nanette Krestel of Woodridge, Ill., believe that if a grown child has a behavior problem, sometimes the best thing a parent can do is urge them to look for support elsewhere.

"If you keep bailing them out, they'll just get into bigger problems," said Krestel, who found help for her teen-age son and daughter, who had behavior and substance-abuse problems, by contacting a support organization called Toughlove International.

"It helped me learn that I had been taking the easy way out - my daughter was always wearing me down," said Krestel, a retired telecommunications project manager who now trains other Toughlove support group leaders. Even though the group does not advocate demanding that children leave the home, sometimes it is necessary as a last resort, she said.

Krestel herself struggled with that dilemma and even had to defend her decision to disapproving family members after coming to that decision.

"When my 18-year-old son came home drunk, breaking a house rule I had set, I kicked him out," she said. "It was the best thing I ever did."

By taking the action, her son "had to suffer the consequences of his behavior," she said. "It's a hard decision for people to make." Krestel said this is when parents need the most support.

Laying down that kind of law does not mean parents such as Krestel do not love their children, said Phyllis York, who founded the group with her husband in 1979 after working through their own parental struggles.

If the behavior is bad enough, it's very hard to keep the perfect parental perspective, she said.

"You can't say 'I love you no matter what' when your kid's standing over your head with a baseball bat and you're sleeping," she said.

York of Doylestown, Pa., said her group, which has 160 chapters, emphasizes to parents that after a certain point, parents must change their own behavior in order to influence their children's actions.

Toughlove International encourages parents in the group to help each other, and some have become mentors to other group members' children, helping them straighten out.

Krestel said that for her daughter, it took small changes to influence her behavior.

"I stopped yelling," she said. "By using a lower voice, she had to listen to me."

Her support group also helped her work out a plan to communicate with her son and draw up a list of house rules that he eventually agreed to honor. He moved back home after living with friends for seven months. Krestel said both her children, now 26 and 22, have good jobs and families of their own.

"A lot of people think they are helping their kids by always helping them out," she said. "But all they are teaching them is, I can do whatever I want and I won't have to pay any consequences."

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