By Rich Simon Back in the Paleolithic era, when I was a kid, parents more or less knew what they were supposed to do. They were to feed, clothe, nurture, discipline, and teach children civilized values, so that they’d grow up to be pretty much like the parents themselves, only, hopefully, a little better off economically. That doesn’t mean, of course, that all parents necessarily performed all these tasks well. Nonetheless, there was a certain deep understanding throughout society that parental authority was necessary and good. Parents were expected to rule the household, kids were expected to obey, and society at large—school, neighborhood, place of worship, media, the cultural zeitgeist—largely reinforced and sustained these expectations.
Well, that was then, this is now. The old compact between family and society—each doing its part to protect and promote the whole—seems to be badly strained, if not flat-out broken. Never before in history have parents had to bring up kids in an environment so inimical to parental authority, so family unfriendly, as 21st-century American society. In the face of invasive, family-destabilizing external forces—including the omnipresent Internet, an overbearing and demanding school system, ubiquitous drugs and alcohol, ruthless consumer marketing to kids, endemic bullying, a family-supplanting youth culture, not to mention widespread economic uncertainty—“authoritative parenting” hardly stands a chance.
So what is our role as therapists in helping parents rise to the nearly impossible challenge of raising 21st-century kids? Back in the heyday of family therapy, we thought we knew the straightforward answers: Shoring up the family hierarchy, maintaining generational boundaries, re-engaging disengaged fathers (and too often blaming mothers), and of course the great therapeutic cure-all—promoting “better communication.” But part of clinical wisdom today means grasping how much more complicated it is than that and recognizing the impact of cultural forces that sabotage the traditional structure of the family and parents’ ability to “take charge.”
If therapists really want to help parents become better, stronger, and more legitimately authoritative fathers and mothers, we’ll need to reexamine some of our usual ways of doing business—the models, tools, theories, and habits of work with which we’re most comfortable. A good place to start is with checking out some of the links to articles that have appeared in the Networker in recent years, as well as our rebroadcast of our popular webcast series Parenting Skills: All You Need to Help Families Today, which will give you an up close and personal look at the work of some of our field’s leading experts in therapy with kids and families today. There’s no better way to get a vivid and immediate sense of what new ideas, methods, and perspectives might make an important contribution to your practice.
What have we learned about dealing with perplexing problems like school bullying, Internet addiction, and the declining economic prospects that appear to be persuading many kids to give up at earlier and earlier ages? How does our new understanding of neuroscience, attachment theory, and the role of early trauma in human development translate into more effective interventions in our consulting rooms?
If you often feel bewildered in just what to do with the children and parents coming to you for help (not to mention in knowing how to be helpful to your own kids), there is some comfort in recognizing that you are not alone. We have entered into a new territory. As Ron Taffel has written in the Networker, in today’s world “childhood and family life have become chaotically unbound and therapists feel the repercussions of that every day in the consulting room, often uncomfortably. But we must try not to be afraid of kids who know no bounds and are often contemptuous of their uncertain mothers and fathers. We must let today’s parents and their children, fellow travelers that they are, teach us where we need to go.”
“The Decline and Fall of Parental Authority and What Therapists Can Do About It” by Ron Taffel
“The ParentCircle: Tapping the Wisdom of True Experts” by David Flohr