The Collapse of Parenting by Leonard Sax, M.D., PhD
Basic Books, New York, 2016
This book resonated with me personally because the author articulates exactly how I feel about where many parents lose their way on the parenting journey. Many of us are unaware of how easily we can be “sucked in” by the power of popular culture all around us. It makes us lose our inner compass. We forget about the goals we have for our children in terms of our most important values, who we want them to grow up to be as people, as human beings. We get caught up in things like academic achievement and sporting ability, precocious musical talent, early milestones of all kinds. It’s easy to get the feeling that raising a prodigy will somehow validate us as mothers and fathers in the competitive Facebook world of parenting-on-display. It’s easy to miss the mark completely as we try to engineer the perfect childhood experience for our kids because we are looking in the wrong direction.
Leonard Sax is the author of several parenting books including Boys Adrift and Girls on the Edge, informed by his 30 year career as a family doctor and psychologist. Dr. Sax provides an example of how parents go wrong when, for example, they give over their inherent authority by accepting what seems “normal” compared to other families or to society in general. Some parents are afraid of seeming too authoritarian, others desperately need to be loved and liked all the time. Whatever the cause, kids are sensitive to this lack of parental leadership and they quickly start to provide it themselves or seek it from peers even though this causes them to experience stress and anxiety. It happens little by little, and like the proverbial frogs in boiling water, we tend to wake up when the water is already at a full boil and it’s too late to jump out of the pot.
He points to a current “culture of disrespect”, affecting parents, teachers and other authority figures alike. Kids these days find it easy to speak to their elders with palpable disdain, and they find this behaviour supported by attitudes they see in movies, on TV, and in music. What I find even more lamentable is the habit of some parents to treat their children sometimes as equals, as “buddies” or even best friends. This is confusing to children because their security relies on seeing that an adult is in charge at all times. They should not be made to feel like the co-pilot on an uncharted voyage. Naturally, such a buddy system also primes the pump for conflict when a situation arises demanding that the parent behave like a ‘boss’.
Dr. Sax insists that in order to prevent a situation where our kids end up being ‘parented’ by other kids and/or the advertising industry, we need to make sure that our children care more about what we as their parents think than about what their friends think. He is quick to admit that this can be a demanding task, but one that our kids rely on us for. They depend on their relationship with parents and other caring adults in their close environment to build their personality and self-awareness. If these are based primarily on airbrushed images of perfection and make-believe stories from film and television, or on the unstable opinion of their peers, they can’t ever become secure and resilient adults.
“If parents don’t come first, then kids become fragile. Here’s why. A good parent-child relationship is robust and unconditional….Peer relations, by contrast, are fragile by nature….In peer relations, everything is conditional and contingent.“
We all know how quickly childhood and adolescent friendships can unravel and how devastating this can be for kids if too much of their sense of self is invested there instead of in the abiding love of their parents. Witness the unbearable number of child suicides related to online bullying or shaming. When kids have a greater esteem for their parents’ opinion than that of their peers, they have a degree of immunity from the cruelty young people can inflict on each other.
Sometimes our love for our children can obscure the need to set firm boundaries. It’s not an exaggeration to say that our contemporary society is driven by the desire for instant gratification. Adults are victims of this desire as much as children. It’s easy to forget that we can direct our children to want different things than what everyone else has or what the advertising executives want them to buy. Dr Sax calls this “educating desire”, teaching them to want more than candy floss, literally and figuratively. We also do them a great service when we teach them to wait, to endure frustration. This is the spark that ignites the development of strong inner resources such as patience and creativity.
“Pleasure is not the same thing as happiness. The gratification of desire yields pleasure, not lasting happiness. Happiness comes from fulfillment, from living up to your potential, which means more than playing online video games…Mom needs to disconnect the video game and redirect her son.
Such redirection is not fun. It is not easy. Your son will not thank you for it now, or next week, or next month…but you aren’t doing this job in order to win your son’s approval. You are doing this job because it is your job, as a parent, to help your child to find and to fulfill his or her potential.”
One very important chapter in the book is entitled “What Matters?“. Dr. Sax is referring to research that identifies the personal qualities associated with good outcomes for adulthood such as happiness, wealth and life satisfaction. It turns out that Conscientiousness, (including things like honesty, perseverance and self-control) is directly linked to all the good outcomes listed above, more than IQ, more than friendliness, more than emotional stability. He insists that parents must actively teach these qualities, and I would add that I believe we must actively model these things for our kids as well.
“Self-control is not innate. Honesty is not innate. These virtues have to be taught. If you don’t teach them, who will? You can’t rely on schools to do this job…not in this era.”
I would also add that issues relating to conscientiousness make for excellent dinner table conversation! Little life lessons can be made from everyday situations on a regular basis. If you are not already eating all together at least once a week, make that the one thing you change about your family routine.
Dr. Sax suggests that we tend to overvalue the importance of inculcating a good sense of self-esteem. The pendulum has swung so far in North American society toward promoting a strong self-image that we need to introduce some balance by teaching humility:
“Humility simply means being as interested in other people as you are in yourself. It means that when you meet new people, try to learn something about them before going off on a spiel about how incredible your current project is. Humility means really listening when someone else is talking, instead of just preparing your own speechlet in your head before you’ve really heard what the other person is saying. Humility means making a sustained effort to get other people to share their views before trying to inundate them with yours.”
This teaches a child to have a larger perspective and to gain a realistic view about where they fit in the world. Most importantly, it leads to real happiness rather than short term pleasure:
“If I am in the culture of humility, then I rejoice at the success of others, and I am happy with my portion. The culture of humility leads to gratitude, appreciation and contentment. The key to lasting happiness is contentment.”
In Chapter 9, he teaches parents how to enjoy time with their child, to make time for having a good time together. Chapter 10 is devoted to exploring The Meaning Of Life. What awaits our children in their own adulthood, beyond a comfortable job and a stable relationship? How can you help your kids find something meaningful in their lives? And, what about your own life?
Dr. Sax patiently teaches the reader that it is possible to be both strict and loving, friendly and authoritative. As parents we have a job to do. It’s a long-term assignment and our goals can get blurry. It behooves us to focus our efforts regularly, on what matters most.
Highly recommended reading!