Pediatrician, psychologist and author Leondard Sax wants parents to know that they are “raising kids wrong.” The author of “Boys Adrift” and “Girls on the Edge” is back with “The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt our Kids when We Treat them Like Grown-Ups.” (Basic Books, $26.99)
“Most American parents are completely confused and going utterly in the wrong direction,” he says. “There’s a collapse of understanding what parenting involves.”
In his book he talks about a scenario in which parents and a 6-year-old child, who had a sore throat, came into his office. When he said, “Next I’m going to take a look at your throat.” The mom turned it into asking for permission by saying, “Do you mind if the doctor looks in your throat for just a second, honey? Afterward we can go and get some ice cream.”
That led to the child refusing to have the doctor look in her throat to do the strep test and the child having to be restrained to get the test accomplished.
“It’s not a question,” Sax says. “It’s a sentence: ‘Open up and say, “Ahh.”‘ “Parents are incapable of speaking to their children in a sentence that ends in a period,” he says. “Every sentence ends in a question mark.”
Some parenting expert told them they should always offer their children choices instead of telling them what to do and parents believed them, he says.
The hierarchy of parent over child isn’t there, he continues. Instead of parents exercising their authority because they know what’s best, they are focusing on making kids happy and boosting self-esteem.
“They now see their job as facilitating whatever a kids wants to do,” he says.
Instead, Sax says, their job is to teach kids right from wrong, teach kids the meaning of life and keep their children safe.
“In doing that job, you’re going to do a lot of things a child won’t approve of and not understand,” he says. You have to be the bad guy.
Parents should be focusing on helping kids develop skills such as self-control, humility and conscientiousness, meaning they think of people other than themselves.
Those are things that are the biggest predictors of future success in adulthood, he says, not education or affluence.
One point of irony: this is a generation of parents that is spending more time with children than any previous generation. But instead of spending time with family meals, this generation is spending time shuttling kids from one extracurricular activity to the next or spending time doing the work for them.
“It doesn’t help to spend more time with kids if they are spending it in the wrong ways,” he says.
Sax makes the case through citing numerous research studies that our lack of parental authority is the reason why obesity is on the rise, why more kids are on anti-anxiety and attention deficit disorder medication, why kids are have a culture of disrespect, seem fragile, and why American kids no longer lead the world in education.
Some solutions he’d like you to do right now:
Have family meals at home and make that a top priority. “You have to communicate that our time together as a parent and child is more important than anything else,” he says. One study found that for each additional meal a family had together the less likely kids had internalizing problems such as anxiety or externalizing problems such as skipping school. It also helped kids develop good nutrition habits, lessening the obesity problem.
Take screens out of the bedroom. This includes cellphones, computers, TVs, video games. Kids are chronically sleep deprived, which leads to poor behavior and can even be the reason why kids are getting mental health diagnosis.
Put screens in public places and limit how they are used. This generation is living life in a virtual world. Their online friends can quickly become more important than the friends they see in person. They don’t know how to communicate with someone face to face or have outside interests and hobbies. Video games also rewire the way their brains work. And remember, what they post online never goes away. Install software like My Mobile Watchdog, which will share every photo they take or post with you.
Teach humility. Give lessons that show kids that they are not the most important person in the world. They need to be able to see the world through another lens and be able to handle rejection or failure. It really cannot be “everybody gets a trophy.”
Have an alliance between school and you. If your kid did something, don’t come at teachers or administrator with suspicion and distrust. “Parents swoop in like attorneys demanding evidence,” he says. Instead lessons of honesty and integrity should be enforced. That means your brilliant kid who cheated takes the 0.
Parent what they do. No, your 14-year-old cannot go to a party with college kids or to the beach for spring break. No, they will not be at parties where alcohol is served, and you will not be the one serving it. You have to think of worse-case scenarios like drinking and driving, alcohol poisoning, and sexual assault, and know that these are not decisions that they are ready to make because they are not adults. They need an adult, and that’s you. And even if their peers’ parents are fine with something, you don’t have to be. “Other parents don’t have a clue at what they are doing,” he says. “That’s why what they are doing doesn’t have good outcomes.”
Know that some of these things, especially if they are new for your family, will be difficult and might be hard to enforce at first. You just have to keep at it. Your kids will thank you, not today or maybe not tomorrow, but some day, perhaps.