Extreme parenting has come to be associated with images of overly involved parents – this generation’s stage parents, who manage and control every minute of their child’s life, imposing their adult dreams and desires onto the little ones in a pathetic attempt to fuel their own insatiable need for success and recognition. As familiar as this parental profile has become, another form of extreme parenting has emerged, one that is getting harder to ignore. I am referring to the increasingly ubiquitous parenting approach that rejects the use of the word “no,” and in which even the most reasonable degree of parental limit-setting is consistently absent.
Most of us have been in social situations where we’ve observed, with incredulity, a parent bow to the extreme demands of a menacingly persistent child, inches from a tantrum – “Okay, but honey, that’s your last package of Twizzlers before breakfast.” Worse, many of us too often have been that parent. What is happening here? I thought the Dr. Spock generation put an end to tyrannical rule within family life a few generations ago. It did not. In too many families the tyrant still rules – but today he is much shorter.
How did the power balance in our parent-child relationship become so off-kilter? In what other relationship would we give in to someone we love, as a matter of course, saying “yes” to every demand, every whim, no matter how unreasonable – and expect our emotional connection to remain unharmed? “I know, dear, our new neighbor really is a knock-out, especially in that two-piece. Well, okay, but just this once, and don’t be home too late, it’s a work night.”
On the very far end of the non-confrontational parenting trend, and seemingly designed for parents who would rather get out of the driver’s seat altogether, is an organization called Taking Children Seriously. TCS adherents attempt to parent without infringing upon the children’s will. When there’s a conflict, they find a compromise between the child’s and parent’s desires; eliminating the win/lose dynamic. The examples provided on their website seem absurdly idealistic, and impossible for any parent who needs to care for a newborn sibling, meet a deadline or get dinner on the table to implement. Not to mention, this approach seems to overlook the profound limitations of a young child’s capacity for reason and impulse control.
Aside from this extreme example, this recent transformation in child-rearing appears to be a twisted, supercharged version of what began benignly as a “child-centered” approach to family life. Its effect on our children is attracting notice – and not just among our in-laws. Several new books have appeared within the last year, each identifying a cultural phenomenon of concern to any of us who are attempting to raise happy, healthy, well-adjusted children. If the experts’ predictions are on target, we’re facing a future filled with overgrown, ill-tempered, and entitled Baby Hueys who will spend their adulthood wondering why they can’t sustain an intimate adult relationship or hold down a decent job.
It’s not just that many American parents are under-parenting by not setting reasonable limits. Paradoxically, we are also over-parenting by making every effort to ensure that our children are not given the opportunity to fail. At the same time, our pediatricians are urging us to cut back on the excessive use of hand sanitizers and antibiotics (kids need exposure to some germs if their immune systems are going to successfully fight the really bad ones), our child development experts are telling us to stop excessively slathering our children with the word “Yes.” Our kid’s emotional “immune systems” need exposure to life lessons that involve at least the risk of disappointment, failure or emotional turmoil if they are going to be able to withstand the bigger setbacks and losses they will inevitably face in adulthood.
An increasing number of childcare experts suggest that American parents are in dire need of a comprehensive re-evaluation of how effectively we are raising our children. If parents, like most employees, received an end-of-year job evaluation, this year’s would be a particularly uncomfortable assessment. Don’t even think about a performance-based bonus.
According to Madeline Levine, Ph.D, author of The Price of Privilege, How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of disconnected and UnHappy Kids), parents must be willing to “take an unflinching look at their parenting skills. . . and examine the difficult modifications [they] must make to help their children grow into autonomous, moral, capable, and connected adults.” Her book pays specific attention to this new form of extreme parenting, which she and many of her colleagues have identified in their busy family therapy practices, specifically in affluent neighborhoods across the country.
The phenomenon of overly indulgent parenting is described in the latest book to identify societal trends in the US. In Microtrends, The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes, author Mark J. Penn devotes an entire chapter to this topic, titled “Pampering Parents.” He asserts that American parents are more permissive than ever before, but adds that, based on surveys of parenting styles, a majority of parents (55%) describe themselves as “strict” versus “permissive.” Penn suggests that there may be a perception problem at play – parents may perceive themselves as “strict” when in fact, based on their responses to parenting scenarios in which they were asked to choose their preferred parental intervention – their own behavior indicates otherwise.
Apart from the possibility of denial, what is preventing today’s parents American parents are more permissive than ever before. from limit setting and saying “no” to their children, the very behaviors that were formerly assumed to quite naturally come with the territory of parenthood? Babble posed this question to Eugene V. Beresin, M.D., co-director of Harvard Medical School Center For Mental Health and Media, and Director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Child Psychiatry Outpatient Clinic. First, he suggests that although this topic is receiving a lot of attention in the media, the data does not support that this form of parenting spans across all cultural and economic groups. He added, that it does appear in primarily white, upper middle class families: “We do see a number of parents who are overprotective and do not consistently set clear limits.”
Dr. Beresin stated, “Many parents have difficulty saying “no” to their children because they believe there is a conflict between the nurturing features of parenting (connection, attachment, empathy) and the limit-setting features of parenting. Parents might not understand that nurturing behavior is consistent with limit setting behavior.”
He also said, “Some parents are insecure in their parenting and want their children to approve of them,” explaining that these parents avoid appropriate limit setting because “they are unable to tolerate their children’s anger, rejection or disappointment.” Dr. Beresin concluded, “What many parents miss, is that one of the most important ways of expressing love as a parent, is to say ‘no’ to your children.”
Child development expert David Walsh, PhD, president and founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family and author of “No,” Why Kids – of all ages – need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It suggests that primary among the reasons parents are not saying “no” to their children is their fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of self-esteem. Walsh poses a chicken or egg scenario: in the developing child, which comes first: self-esteem or success? He and other experts are sounding the alarm that parents are mistakenly pumping up their kids’ sense of self worth through what Dr. Walsh calls “feel-good chatter,” rather than by providing kids with the varied experiences they will need to actually achieve (not just feel) success.
He asserts that real self-esteem (that is, a genuine sense of positive self regard) comes from children’s experience of success via a sense of competency and accomplishment, not the reverse. He clarifies that, contrary to what many of us have come to believe, healthy self-esteem does not mean that kids will (or should) feel good all of the time. If we are intent on providing our children with real self-esteem, we need to help them discover they have the internal resources to manage the negative feelings associated with the obstacles commonly encountered on the road to success: adversity, disappointment and failure.
Dr. Walsh also points to the powerful advertising and media messages children receive starting from their toddler years and continuing throughout their youth. Stating that we now live in a “yes culture,” he suggests that parents are finding it difficult to fight against the cultural messages that define normal behavior (for adults as well as children) as that which includes unlimited material gain and instant gratification.
What does a child lose when a parent cannot set limits? Across the board, What does a child lose when a parent cannot set limits? those who make a living helping children and their families emphatically warn that when parents create a household where the children cannot rely on them to say “no,” or to set clear limits, the children lose a sense of safety, a sense of organization about the world around them, and the ability to experience and integrate the basic life lessons necessary for them to evolve into well-developed and mature adults.
What this child too often gains when parents indulge and overprotect, unfortunately for him and those around him, is a profound sense of entitlement, a disregard for the needs of others, and an inability to put forth the genuine effort needed to develop – academically, socially, and emotionally.
So, want your child to grow into a thoughtful, loving, creative person who will possess the following virtues: resilience, generosity, curiosity, consideration for others, respect and perserverance? Madeline Levine reminds us that if our children are to learn these things, they will need more than just our love and good intentions. They will also need us to provide some amount of discipline and control, to set clear expectations to which we will hold them accountable, and to give them the room they need to learn to cope with challenges without our constant intervention. Good advice, no?