Recently Cathy Gulli, a seasoned journalist at Maclean’s magazine, hit one out of the ballpark. Her essay, "The collapse of parenting: Why it’s time for parents to grow up," has caught the nation’s attention. In fact, it is one of the most read articles in the history of the magazine.
First, let’s celebrate that we have a shared concerns for our youngsters. That’s progress from previous generations who never talked about the care of children. The historical perspective was that personality and behaviour were all genetically determined so environment didn’t matter.
From reading the comment section on Gulli's post, there appears to be two basic opinion camps: "old school" and "modern." (Even those labels are sure to spark up complaints from readers, but understand they are just my shorthand terms.) Let me briefly describe each.
Old school (or firm)
These folks believe parents should be tougher and get today’s arrogant kids back in line by taking up the parenting reins like the “good old days.”
Modern (or friendly)
These people argue that parents should first and foremost ensure that children’s needs are met. They respect children and the child’s needs subvert all others.
Who do I think is right? Both -- or neither, depending on how you look at it.
Research shows that children who are raised with firm limits and boundaries that are enforced in a loving, friendly way thrive best.
Authoritative parenting (both firm and responsive) promotes healthy development and decreases social risks. It is associated with increased academic success, decreased smoking, decreased drinking and less chance of being engaged in violence.
That means we need to be both FIRM and FRIENDLY simultaneously. This presents a challenge to parents who see these as opposite attributes instead of qualities that could co-exist.
Traditionally, parents tyrannized the child who was made to obey and mind their parents’ will. Parents held the reins and the child submitted. Those kids were made to behave well and were forced to show respect to their elders.
The trouble with this method is that it stifles children’s development and makes them fearful of their parents.
So, after about 100 years of research on child development under our belts now, “modern” parents want to finally abolish firm-style parenting and build healthy, respectful relationships with their children. Kudos! I like this objective.
However, and this is where we have to open our eyes, most parents have overshot on their ambition for respecting the child. Ironically, it has resulted in a similar pattern of relationships in the home, just with a role reversal.
You see, (and Gulli discusses this in her article), in the absence of clear leadership, children will step up and take charge. This results in the children tyrannizing parents.
“I don’t want to eat this, make me chicken fingers instead!” and we hustle back to the kitchen to act as short-order cook.
“I can’t sleep, sing me another song” and we oblige, bleary eyed and exhausted.
Tantrum for a cookie and we cave in to their demands.
It's easy to see how the “old-school” thinkers recognize how disrespectful these scenarios are to parents. The “modern” parents often have their blinders on, focusing only on their child and not thinking of themselves or the improper treatment in these interactions.
While I agree that “modern” parents are being treated disrespectfully by their children and don’t even notice it and I agree this is leading to a generation of entitled misbehaving youth, the answer is NOT to return to past generations.
Two wrongs don’t make a right.
All relationships based on the tyrant model are unhealthy and disrespectful. I don’t care if it’s the parent or the child who acts as tyrant -- they are both equally distasteful arrangements.
Instead, I suggest mutually respectful relationships with an appropriate sharing of power -- firm and friendly parenting. This is a new concept that is hard for parents to get their heads around. The end game is co-operation instead of control and manipulation.
Let me try to describe a few of the main tenents.
With “firm and friendly” parenting, the roles and responsibilities of parent and child are clearly defined. Parents can think of themselves as the CEO of the family with more power, more decision making abilities, etc.
Family members are granted freedoms but with freedoms also comes responsibility and accountability. Like any democracy, everyone has a say about things that impact them and to their level or ability, but that doesn’t necessitate they always get their way.
To Gulli’s point, parents do need to step up (or “grow up” as she writes) and take a leadership role in the family, but not as dictator (as the firm camp suggests). Parents should be leaders who take conscious steps to inspire and stimulate co-operation among family members.
I know -- it’s a whole lot harder than it sounds.
When parents act in ways that are firm and friendly, the child learns the social rules and how to function in a group without being given special consideration or evading their responsibilities to others.
If it’s time for bed, we can be empathetic that a child is disappointed the day has come to an end. Yes, they may cry that it's time to put the toys away and get into jammies. We can give them calm comfort to cope while still enforcing the need for a consistent, predictable, age-appropriate bedtime.
After all, little bodies need sleep to grow. So we are being respectful of their physical needs and supporting their emotional needs. Plus parents need alone time in the evening and have the right to claim their private time, too. Consideration is given to all -- not just some.
I know what you are thinking -- but what if they refuse? What if they come out of their room a hundred times? These are the burning discipline questions every parent wants to know and I promise you, if you follow this column you will learn how to respectfully put a child to bed without punishments or rewards and without emotional consequences for either you or your children.
You don’t have to revert back to ruling with an iron fist to raise a child. But you do have to learn new methods of parenting that have not been a part of our cultural history.
So thank you, Gulli, for shining a light on today’s parenting. We do need to eradicate misconceptions and teach new methods to parents. But has parenting collapsed? Well, it sure has erred on the side of being too kind and friendly and this is a good start to getting it back on track.
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