September 18, 2005

Modern American Parenting: "Ill-tempered, ill-mannered, self-centered, joyless children spoiled by too many choices"

In an article (available to magazine subscribers) found in the September 26 edition of National Review, Meghan Cox Gurdon has written a book review entitled Where the Buck Stops:

...But once you read It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting Is Hurting Our Kids - and What to Do About It — and if you have children, you should read it — you may feel almost gleeful, as I did, to follow your own instincts instead of the honeyed rules of the parenting culture.

These rules pervade the bulk of current writing and thinking about child-rearing, and will be embarrassingly familiar to anyone who has spent time recently with children and their parents...

What is the creed? First, even if it means bending like a circus contortionist, parents must always "empower" children and "use directives sparingly" to avoid the crushing negativity of that awful word, "no." To "help our children make wise decisions in their lives," we must give even toddlers abundant choices: "Would you like apple juice, or orange juice? In the blue cup, or the red sippy cup? Do you want to sit here at the table, or — oh, you want to sit on the floor? Okay!"

Our behavior must reflect the understanding that building children’s self-esteem is the most important task of parenthood. We must assure our children that they are wonderful just the way they are ("our kids deserve to feel good about themselves," enthuses one expert quoted by Hart, "simply because they exist"). We must criticize only the behavior, never the child (who is, remember, wonderful just the way he is), and must reassure turbulent infants that their feelings, in the words of another expert, "are always okay — they are never right or wrong."

"“Feelings are never right or wrong?" Hart writes. "I’m going to go out on a limb here. I think Hitler’s hatred of Jews was wrong." She goes on: The "entire focus on feelings in the parenting culture is only about the appropriate expression of feelings. The focus is almost never on the feelings themselves, nor on the idea that some feelings are not okay or that some feelings may need to be reconsidered, because they’re a clue that our hearts are not okay, before they lead to unwholesome, dangerous, or malicious behavior."

When Betsy Hart writes "heart," she is talking about the soul, which, for too many children, she believes, goes neglected amidst all the parental straining to be fun, understanding, and non-confrontational.

"There’s no doubt that as religious influence has waned in this country, many parents are trying to fill a void in their spiritual life by vainly putting everything into the one thing that will live on after them — their kids," Hart argues. "So, each child is nurtured and protected and fawned over like a hothouse flower, when they are actually hardy little geraniums who need to be outside soaking up the sun. Even if being left out in the sun means they will experience a lot of wind and rain. After all, they need rain to thrive, too."

The result is a society awash in ill-tempered, ill-mannered, self-centered, joyless children spoiled by too many choices.

So, what to do? Betsy Hart’s book is not so much an egg-headed analytical treatise as it is a bracing pep talk from a wise friend, and the wisdom begins in the title: It takes a parent, not a Clintonesque village. Please, the author exhorts mothers and fathers, be parents: Be not afraid to assert your authority rather than cede it at the first childish howl, or at the first gasp of disapproval from the parenting culture.

Our job, she reminds us, is not to be our children’s friends, or facilitators, or self-esteem coaches; our job, for heaven’s sake, is to civilize the little savages, and we can hardly do that properly if we fear we will smash their self-esteem by denying them a choice in the juice they get for breakfast.


An interview with Betsy Hart follows here.

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Just reading this excerpt of the article by Gurdon shows me that Hart is way off base. She is absolutely incorrect in her implied assertion that feelings can be wrong. It would only be acting on those feelings that would be wrong. Her problem comes from ascribing hatred to the category of feelings. Just like it's opposite - love - hatred is more a decision or an action performed; often on the basis of a feeling. I cannot tell, just from the excerpt, but it does not seem like she even explores the connection that hatred may be the expression of the joy somebody might derive from inflicting pain or torture. If Hitler had only had feelings of loathing for Jews but never acted on them, he would not have become a symbol of hatred that he is today. Hart needs to quit fooling herself about this. The problem in parenting with regard to trying to build up the child's self esteem is that it is discounting the unpleasant feelings the child may experience. By telling the child that they always deserve "to feel good" about themselves, a parent indirectly teaches the child a conflicting lesson from the lesson that feelings are neither right nor wrong. The best way for a parent to improve a child's self-esteem is to show the child they are worthy of time, or worthwhile. And that means spending some time with them instead of carting them off to a dizzying collection of soccer games and other activities.

Posted by: smmtheory at September 19, 2005 12:14 AM