The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups (book review)
A new book by Dr. Leonard Sax explains how American parents have forgotten to do the most important job in the world -- raising capable, conscientious, disciplined children who will become valuable members of society.
It’s time for parents to start doing their job again. In a fascinating new book called The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups, family physician and psychologist Leonard Sax argues that Americans have forgotten how to parent over the past 40 years.
Dr. Sax describes one visit to his family practice where he tells a child, “Next I’m going to take a look at your throat.” Immediately the parent turns it into a question: “Do you mind if the doctor looks in your throat for just a second, honey? Afterward we can get some ice cream.” The child, unsurprisingly, refuses to let Dr. Sax do the strep test and has to be restrained in order to accomplish the test.
“It’s not a question,” Sax writes. “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. Every sentence ends in a question mark.”
Instead of providing the structure, balance, accountability, and authoritative discipline that children and adolescents so desperately need, American parents have become obsessed with being their kid’s friend, with keeping their kid happy, and pushing their kid to achieve specific, often narrow goals.
Children and adolescents no longer form primary attachments to their parents, which is absolutely crucial, but instead bond with same-age peers. This is problematic because peer relationships are conditional, built on immature assessments of what’s considered cool, frequent disrespect toward adults, and a lack of wisdom about the world. Children need adults to ‘enculturate’ them properly in the way of living, and they cannot learn that from peers.
This comes at a steep cost. American children are more obese than ever, because they’re not forced to eat healthy food at home. Eating vegetables has become a negotiation instead of a rule. Children are over-medicated in the United States for so-called behavioral disorders that are scarcely an issue in other countries. Dr. Sax explains that the symptoms of true ADHD mimic those of sleep deprivation perfectly, which is another huge problem in American society. Children do not sleep enough because they are over-scheduled and allowed to spend far too much time in front of screens, often late at night alone in their bedrooms.
A generation of fragile kids is being raised that have self-inflated egos and cannot withstand the shocking realization later in life that they’re not as amazing as they were led to believe. The number of new businesses opening in the U.S. has shrunk considerably in recent decades, presumably because young people don’t have the courage to face possible failure, nor a broad range of practical skills to enable them to succeed. Life is scary when you don’t know how to do basic things.
Dr. Sax writes: “I recently took a photo at an American public school of a flowery poster with the words, ‘Dream until your dream come true.’ That’s bad advice. That advice cultivates a self-rightous sense of entitlement. Better advice might be, Work until your dreams come true. Or, Work in pursuit of your dreams, but realize that life is what happens while you are making other plans. Tomorrow may never come or may be unrecognizably different.”
What used to be common sense among American parents, forty or more years ago, has become lost knowledge. No longer should parents feel uncomfortable with ‘authoritarianism,’ as it can be done kindly, lovingly, and respectfully. Parents have a huge job to do – to prepare their children as well as they can for life – and that requires teaching lessons that are no longer valued in modern American society.
Dr. Sax wants parents to focus on three things:
(1) Teaching humility, which simply means being as interested in other people as you are in yourself; learning something about others before talking about yourself; really listening when someone else is talking.
(2) Enjoying their children, rather than viewing them as nuisances; having fun together, loving each other’s company, which forges that crucial parent-child bond throughout the adolescent years.
(3) The meaning of life, and how the classic ‘middle-class script’ that so many Americans buy into as being the key to happiness is actually empty. Parents should strive to undermine that script, empowering children to take risks and congratulate them even when they fail.
The Collapse of Parenting may sound like a lone voice in the world of American parenting these days, but it’s a desperately needed one. The future wellbeing on the nation depends on parents relearning their roles and raising children who are capable, intelligent, and self-controlled. If you’re going to read a single parenting book this year, please make it this one.
You can order online: The Collapse of Parenting (New York: Basic Books, 2016). $26.99