Friday, September 16, 2005
When did parents stop being right?
By BETSY HART
Scripps Howard News Service
How is it possible that we've gotten to a point in our culture in which parenting experts tell us moms and dads that we have to "earn" our authority - even when it comes to an infant? (Just try asking the police officer who pulls you over if he's "earned his authority" to do so that day.)
That helping our child grow up with strong self-esteem is the most important task of parenthood?
The most important task? What about learning to esteem others?
We're instructed by the experts to criticize only the behavior of the child, never the child himself, as if bad behavior showed up in the morning cereal box, not in the heart. And remember, disguise your "no's" as much as possible. One expert gives us "seven ways to avoid saying no to your child."
I would suggest that, instead, more parents should choose to use "no" as a complete sentence.
And for heaven's sake, the experts tell us - don't spank your children. After all, we're reminded by one expert that Adolf Hitler was spanked as a child.
What's going on here is a culture that has abandoned the once-unquestioned notion that parents really do know better than their children, and that children desperately need parents who have that confidence, and authority, if they are to thrive. We see the result. Too many joyless, snarly, angry children and teens - and parents who are tyrannized by them - making everyone miserable.
It's not a surprise, by the way that we see kids in control of their parents. Kids have been attempting power grabs since the beginning of time. What's changed is the impotence of the parents in the face of the power grabs: I like to call it "imparentancy."
This seems to come from the prevailing notion from the experts that, all evidence to the contrary, children are born into the world full of inherent wisdom, goodness and virtue (and so needing only a little gentle parental cheerleading). You don't have to see "Lord of the Flies" to know they are not. Here's the proof: Have you ever heard anyone say, "That little guy must be exhausted - he's being so sweet and kind and generous"? No, when our defenses are down, our true natures are more likely to come out - and they are not pretty.
We're crazy about our kids, and we should be. But when we idolize them and idealize them, we don't do them any favors. When we believe that with the "right technique" we can have these almost perfect little people, we don't give our kids the freedom to be kids, to fail, to learn and to grow. We don't give them the experience of their full humanity.
The cultural implications for this are huge.
Here's what one high-school teacher wrote to me about what she's seeing in her classroom as a result of idolized kids: "...we have pumped our young people full of self-importance in the hope that this would transfer to their acceptance of the importance of others; yet, we have created nothing more than a generation of selfish and rude people who truly believe that they are the sun around which all else revolves."
The sad fact is that by not recognizing a child's true character, that our children are wonderful, flawed little human beings - just like us - we don't get to their hearts and help them to deal with the flawed tendency of those hearts. Instead, we idolize our kids and admire them to excess. We protect them from every adversity ("Don't you dare cut my kid from the team!"). We give 2-year-olds choices at every opportunity - all the better to build their all-important self-esteem. We deliver "no's" dripping in sugar, we "separate the behavior from the child" and we always tell them how wonderful they are, even when they are not being wonderful at all at the moment.
I'm not saying for a minute that I don't blow it and fall into a lot of these traps myself with my own four little ones. I am saying that too many of us parents today make such practices the rule of our home, and so we deny our children their humanity because we refuse to see them - and help them, and encourage them - as they really are.
(Betsy Hart is the author of "It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting Our Kids - and What to Do About It." She can be reached at www.betsyhart.net.)