Are we bad parents? On Tuesday, the Washington Post ran a column on parenting by Patricia Dalton, a clinical psychologist in the DC area. In it, Dalton argues that parents these days are “afraid” of their children. We overindulge and underdiscipline, she argues, and boy are we paying for it!, she says.
There’s been a fundamental change in family life, and it has played out over the years in my office. Teachers, pediatricians and therapists like me are seeing children of all ages who are not afraid of their parents. Not one bit. Not of their power, not of their position, not of their ability to apply standards and enforce consequences.
I am not advocating authoritarian or abusive parental behavior, which can do untold damage. No, I am talking about a feeling that was common to us baby boomers when we were kids. One of my friends described it this way: “All my mother had to do was shoot me a look.” I knew exactly what she was talking about. It was a look that stopped us in our tracks — or got us moving. And not when we felt like it.
These days, that look seems to have been replaced by a feeble nod of parental acquiescence — and an earnest acknowledgment of “how hard it is to be a kid these days.”
She goes on to describe kids who call their parents names, teenagers who curse at them, and even some who hit their parents. What do the parents do? They call their child “scrumptious” or claim to run into the other room when their child goes on the attack.
Okay before I go on, I need to stop here and point something out. This woman is a therapist. The people in her office are there because something isn’t going right. She’s not a sociologist at the mall observing an average parent with her child. So let’s take it with a grain of salt.
Today there are moms and dads who aren’t just parents — they believe in “parenting.” They read volumes and volumes about how to be good parents and view parenting as both an art and a science that must be studied and updated and practiced self-consciously. Letting children run around the neighborhood and be bored some of the time is anathema to them.
For the record, I would love to let my kid run free in the neighborhood. It’s the idea that he might not return that trips me up. And he does claim to be bored sometimes. I don’t have a problem with that.
Many parents these days don’t expect their children to contribute much around the house, although they do expect them to achieve outside the house. They have strong beliefs about what makes children successful and happy-ever-after, and underpinning those beliefs is the concept that they — the parents — are all-important in this quest. Such parents believe that self-esteem is the key to lifetime success, and to this end they compliment their children a lot.
Kids are under a ton of pressure to do well in school and participate in a million activities. I bet she’s right that parents don’t expect them to contribute a whole lot to the work of the household. Probably it would be a good idea to make sure kids have some chores. Just to keep ’em honest.
They are egalitarian, and they believe families should be democracies. Needless to say, they don’t give orders. They believe that children will do things when they are ready to. They ask their child politely if he or she will do something and are surprised and dismayed when the response is “no.”
Sorry Patricia, but most parents I know still wear the pants in their family. The kids are not allowed to speak rudely to them and are expected to do what their parents ask of them. There are always consequences parents can enforce and the folks I know are adept at managing their children’s behavior.
It all makes a therapist long for the days of the good old inferiority complex. And for parents who could put children in their place.
Longing for the days of the inferiority complex? She sounds like a great therapist. I suppose she can more easily sympathize with the cowed kid in the corner than the haughty teenager who challenges her authority. But again, that’s about her clientele. Not the average mom and pop at the playground. In the end, she has some decent advice for all of us though. And with the cost of healthcare these days, a free tip can’t hurt.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so painful if parents would sign on to the following manifesto: Let’s expect more help from our kids around the house and withdraw some of our frenetic investment in their academic, sporting and social achievements. Let’s shore up boundaries and let them be kids in the kid zone. And let’s allow them to experience some of life’s disappointments. Let’s talk on the phone and go out on weekends with our friends. Let’s start worrying less whether our kids are happy all the time and more about whether we are enjoying them and ourselves. Let’s get a life in the parent zone. And last but not least, let’s resurrect an old concept: Father and Mother Know Best.
I’m all for a life in the parent zone, whatever that is. My kids can get in their zone and I’ll be in mine with my magazine and my cup of coffee and let’s see, maybe I’ll call my best friend and talk on the phone uninterupted for an hour. That sounds great. What’s happening in the kid zone? None of my business, I guess.