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When it comes to raising children, something has fundamentally shifted for the worse in the last thirty years or so. Talk to parents of tweens, teens, and twenty-somethings and you'll hear horror stories about intransigent, insolent, vulgar, out-of-control, self-absorbed kids. Even from the coolest, grooviest, most laid-back moms and dads, you'll catch whispers of
"I never would have talked to my parents like that!"
So what happened?
The Problem of Peer Authority
According to Dr. Leonard Sax, a pediatrician and psychologist, modern parents are suffering from what he calls role confusion. What has become the new mantra of "good" parenting, that is, "letting the kids decide," is profoundly harmful to children. Such parental dereliction, Sax believes, is also in part to blame for another critical issue at the heart of the problem. Put simply, in our culture today, children's peers have come to exert more influence over kids than their parents do.
In his book, The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups, Sax cites Dr. Gordon Neufeld, a Canadian psychologist who has been observing children and adolescents for the last forty years. Here's how Neufeld sums up the problem:
For the first time in history young people are turning for instruction, modeling, and guidance not to mothers, fathers, teachers, and other responsible adults but to people whom nature never intended to place in a parenting role—their own peers. . . . Children are being brought up by immature persons who cannot possibly guide them to maturity. They are being brought up by each other.
Sax adds that most kids care more about winning the esteem of their peers than the regard of their parents.
The Need for Moral Authority
But back to the abdication of basic parental functions like teaching one's children right and wrong. Part of the problem, Sax writes, is that parents used to be able to count on schools to help in that area. But early-childhood educators have shifted their focus away from teaching life lessons about good and bad behavior to teaching academics in preschool and kindergarten.
So with this burden now resting squarely on parents' shoulders, Sax asserts that the overarching key for parents is not to be primarily concerned with winning their children's love and affection. "Too often," he writes, "parents today allow their desire to please their child to govern their parenting."
Children need parents with the confidence and authority to teach right and wrong, to make rules and to enforce them, says Sax. And he has some specific, clear-cut recommendations. When parents lay down a rule, for example, they should do just that. They shouldn't put it in the form of a question, and they shouldn't negotiate. If children ask why, the right answer is "Because Mommy (or Daddy) says so; that's why."
Two generations ago, parents did that routinely and comfortably, and in many countries they still do, to good effect. Children need to learn self-control, so parents shouldn't hesitate to help them by enforcing rules like, "No watching TV until homework is done." Sax also makes a point of urging families to eat dinner together, with no cell phones and no TV allowed at the dinner table.
Countering the New Peer Pressure
As for making sure that the parent-child relationship takes priority over peer relationships, Sax has some suggestions for doing that, too. Rituals such as family meals, regular movie and game nights, and weekly visits to a library or coffee shop with the kids can help cement family ties. Family vacations can be valuable, too, and they should be done without allowing the kids' friends to tag along. In trying to connect your child to your culture and your values, it can help to live near extended family, so that other adults such as aunts, uncles, and grandparents can help offset peer influence.
Of course, a huge factor in all this is technology. The more time your child spends connecting with friends, Sax contends, the more likely he or she will turn to them for guidance about what matters and what doesn't. The contemporary culture of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter promotes what Sax calls the "premature transfer of allegiance to same-age peers."
The bottom line is that Sax believes that the defiance and disrespect so evident among young people today stem from a lack of attachment between parents and their kids—and that this lack of attachment is related to parents' abdication of their roles as authority figures. Neufeld puts it this way: "[T]he waning of adult authority is directly related to the weakening of attachments with adults and their displacement by peer attachments."
Peer pressure is nothing new, of course, but here's what is: First, the vacuum left as parents effectively cede authority to their children's peer groups; and second, the uber connectedness of those peer groups, thanks to technology. A dangerous combination indeed. •
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