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Your parenting is the problem: We spend more time and money on parenting than ever -- but we are getting worse

Your kids only eat fries? Run the show at home? It's on you: "Let kids decide" switched adult authority to children


Leonard Sax
January 17, 2016 5:00AM (UTC)
Excerpted from "The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups"

Parents Adrift

I knew what I wanted to say. But I didn’t say it.

Al and Mary McMaster (all names have been changed, except where noted) have two daughters, Tara and Margo.

Mom brought 14-year-old Tara in to see me. Mom was concerned about an irritated rash at both corners of Tara’s mouth. “I’ve tried some over-the-counter creams, but nothing has worked,” mom said. “What do you think it is?”

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After examining the rash, I answered, “This rash sometimes can be a sign of vitamin deficiency. I see this rash frequently in people who aren’t eating cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower, or green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale. How good is Tara at eating those vegetables?”

Tara snorted. Mom sighed. “Her father and I eat very healthy,” mom said. “But Tara refuses to eat most vegetables. To be honest, right now pretty much the only things she will eat are French fries—”

“McDonald’s French fries,” Tara interrupted.

“McDonald’s French fries, pizza, chicken nuggets, and potato chips,” mom finished. “That’s pretty much it right now, except for frozen desserts like Italian ices and ice cream.”

“How about broccoli or cauliflower? Or spinach?” I asked. “She just won’t eat those things,” Mary said.

She would if she were hungry enough, I thought to myself. But I didn’t say it.

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Jim and Tammy Bardus have one child, Kimberly, 8 years old. After carefully researching the local public schools, Jim and Tammy were concerned about what they considered an overemphasis on basic skills, such as reading and writing, and the elimination of what the public schools now call “enrichment” programs, art and music in particular. Those programs had been cut because of shortfalls in the district’s budget. So Jim and Tammy decided to enroll Kimberly in a private school, even though it wouldn’t be easy for them financially.

Tammy took Kimberly to visit four different schools. Tammy and Jim both liked school X: the atmosphere was warm and nurturing, the teachers were enthusiastic, and the long-term outcomes of the students were well documented. But Kimberly liked school Y. On her visit to school Y, Kimberly had clicked with the student escort, a 9-year-old named Madison. Madison and Kimberly discovered that they both liked the Ramona and Beezus books by Beverly Cleary, and they both liked American Girl dolls. But the parents were concerned about the dilapidated condition of the school, the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the teachers and administrators, and the school’s refusal to disclose where graduates of the school (a K–8 school) went to high school. Tammy and Jim advised their daughter to attend school X. But Kimberly insisted on school Y. And that’s the school where she is now enrolled.

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When I asked Tammy why she and her husband allowed their 8-year-old daughter to have the final say, Tammy answered, “I think good parenting means letting kids decide. That’s how kids learn, right? If I make all the decisions for her, how will she ever learn to decide on her own? And if I force her to go to a school that wasn’t her first choice, what can I say if she complains about the school later?”

Forty years ago, most parents who sent their kids to private schools didn’t ask their child which school the child preferred. Forty years ago, the parents made that decision, often overruling their child’s preference. Even 30 years ago, when I graduated from medical school, it would have been unusual for parents to let an 8-year-old have the final say in the choice of school. Today it is common.

I’m not suggesting that the 1970s or the 1980s were better than our own era. Every era has its shortcomings. But I don’t think we are facing up to ours.

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My friend Janet Phillips and her late husband, Bill Phillips, (their true names) raised four sons. When the boys were in high school, Janet and Bill became concerned about stories they were hearing about kids drinking. Then they saw it for themselves: high school kids who were clearly drunk but who were nevertheless getting behind the wheel of a car. What to do?

Bill bought a Breathalyzer. The next time there was a party at their house, Bill saw a boy who appeared to be drunk. Bill told the boy, “Come with me.” He handed the boy the Breathalyzer and told him to blow into the device. Sure enough, the boy was drunk. Janet called the boy’s parents and asked them to take their intoxicated son home. To the surprise of both Bill and Janet, the boy’s parents were offended by the phone call. The boy’s mother did take her son home, without a word of thanks to either Janet or Bill.

Other parents did not receive Janet and Bill’s Breathalyzer strategy enthusiastically either. One parent, Ms. Stoltz, gave Janet a piece of her mind. “Kids these days are going to drink, whether you like it or not,” Ms. Stoltz said. “I think our job is to teach them to drink responsibly.”

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“At 15 years of age?” Janet asked.

“At whatever age. I’d rather have them drink in my own home than hide their drinking from me.”

Several days later, Janet happened to be standing just a few feet away when Ms. Stoltz picked up her youngest son, about 12 years old, from school. The boy climbed into the back seat of the car. Ms. Stoltz turned around and asked him, “How was your day?”

Her son said to her, “Turn around. Shut up. Drive.”

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Ms. Stoltz glanced at Janet and drove away without saying a word.

As near as Janet can recall, she and her husband actually used the Breathalyzer only twice. But they always kept it in full view, where every kid could see it, whenever any of their teenage sons had a party. Their home became known as the home where “those crazy parents will use a Breathalyzer on you.” And that had consequences.

Some of the consequences were predictable, and some perhaps were not. The four sons were popular, so their house was a favorite hangout—early in the evening. Then, around 9:30 p.m., a certain contingent would leave to go to other parties where alcohol would be freely available. But other kids would stay.

And sometimes still other kids would arrive. That’s what was unexpected. Not all teenage kids like to get drunk. Some do not. But in contemporary American culture, it’s hard for a teen to “just say no” without looking uncool. An excuse is helpful. A girl or boy could say, when offered a drink, “Hey, I’d love to, but I’m on my way to the Phillips’ house and you know their crazy dad—he’s the one with the Breathalyzer.” And that provides a respectable excuse not to drink.

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Here’s what’s weird. We parents are spending more and more time and money on parenting, but when you look at the results, things are getting worse, not better. American kids are now much more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD or bipolar disorder or other psychiatric disorders than they were 25 years ago, and they are heavier and less fit than they were 25 years ago. Long-term outcome studies suggest that American kids are now less resilient and more fragile than they used to be. In Chapter 5, I will explain what I mean by “more fragile” and I will present the evidence supporting that claim as well.

What’s going on?

Here’s my diagnosis. Over the past three decades, there has been a massive transfer of authority from parents to kids. Along with that transfer of authority has come a change in the valuation of kids’ opinions and preferences. In many families, what kids think and what kids like and what kids want now matters as much, or more, than what their parents think and like and want. “Let kids decide” has become a mantra of good parenting. As I will show, these well-intentioned changes have been profoundly harmful to kids.

The first half of this book poses the problems. The second half provides the solutions. I think I have figured out where we have gone wrong and how to fix it. My prescription is based primarily on what I have seen in the office over the past quarter century, but also draws on what I have learned from my conversations with parents, teachers, and kids both within and outside the United States.

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You may be wondering, Who is this Leonard Sax guy and what makes him the expert? It’s a fair question. I am a family physician, board certified in family medicine, currently in practice in Chester County, Pennsylvania. I also have a PhD in psychology. I grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, where I attended public schools from kindergarten through grade 12. I earned my undergraduate degree in biology at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I earned both my MD and my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. After doing a three-year residency in family medicine, I practiced for 19 years in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. I then relocated to Pennsylvania. My primary sources for this book are the more than 90,000 office visits I have conducted in my role as a practicing physician between 1989 and today. I have seen children, teenagers, and their parents, from a wide variety of backgrounds and circumstances. I have seen, from the intimate yet objective perspective of the family physician, the profound changes in American life over the past quarter century. I have witnessed firsthand the collapse of parenting.

In 2001, I began visiting schools and communities—first across the United States and then in Australia, Canada, England, Germany, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Scotland, Spain, and Switzerland—meeting with teachers and parents, talking with children and teenagers, and comparing notes with professors.1 I published three books for parents, sharing what I was learning: "Why Gender Matters" (2005), "Boys Adrift" (2007), and "Girls on the Edge" (2010). The success of those books led to more invitations to visit schools and communities. From July 2008 through June 2013, I took an extended leave from medical practice in order to devote myself full-time to these visits. I have now visited more than 380 venues across North America and around the world, meeting with students, teachers, and/or parents face-to-face.

In my earlier books I focused on gender issues, which I still think are important. What a girl needs in order to become a successful and fulfilled woman may sometimes differ from what a boy needs in order to become a successful and fulfilled man. But the issues I explore in this book transcend gender differences.

In this book, I will share with you what I have learned about the collapse of parenting over the past 30 years. Like any competent physician, I will first review the evidence. Then I will explain my diagnosis and I will prescribe a treatment. The treatment will be something—three things, in fact—that you can do starting today, in your home, without spending any money, that will improve the odds of a good outcome for your child.

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And I will share success stories. We will hear more about Janet Phillips and her four sons and other families like hers: families who have achieved good outcomes, despite the odds. These stories, supplemented by recent scholarly research, will provide the basis for the three things you must do if you’re going to raise a healthy child in the modern world—healthy not only physically but also emotionally and of good character, honest and conscientious. It’s still possible to raise a healthy child. It is not easy, but it can be done.

Some aspects of the collapse of parenting are just as problematic in England and Australia as they are in the United States. In every country I have visited, I have found parents who are unsure about their role. They ask, “Should I be my child’s most trusted confidante? My child’s best friend? But if I am my son’s best friend, how can I tell him that he is not allowed to play violent video games?” Dr. Timothy Wright is headmaster of Shore, a private school I visited in Sydney, Australia. He recently told me how a parent asked him to counsel her son about the appropriate use of video games: which games are OK to play, which games are not, and how much time he should spend playing. Gently but firmly, Dr. Wright refused. He explained that the job of guiding and governing a boy’s use of video games is the job of the parent, not the job of a school administrator.

So some aspects of this problem are found worldwide. But other aspects of the collapse of parenting are peculiar to North America and especially to the United States. Chief among these is the culture of disrespect.

Excerpted from "The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups" by Leonard Sax. Published by Basic Books. Copyright 2016 by Leonard Sax. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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Leonard Sax

Dr. Leonard Sax is the author of the books "Why Gender Matters," "Boys Adrift" and "Girls on the Edge."

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