Back in the Paleolithic age, 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 clear 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. Even though a generation or two back parents couldn’t always count on that celebrated ideal “village” made up of grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors to help them raise their kids, at least the larger society didn’t actively undermine their parenting efforts.
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. Thus, the semi-facetious question on our cover, “Are Parents Obsolete?” alludes to deadly serious challenges not just to parents, but to the entire institution of parenting itself. 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.
What’s worse, because parents are often so isolated from each other, they can’t even share the pain and maybe learn something from each other. In today’s walled-off nuclear families, many parents literally don’t realize that other parents are having the same problems with their offspring. Too often, they muddle through alone, feeling not only helpless, resentful, and defeated, but ashamed and guilty, mistakenly thinking that they’re lousy parents, while others are doing it right. Of course, the big secret is that “other parents” are struggling just as hard to swim upstream as they are—and with just about as much success.
In addition, in the midst of what could fairly be called a national crisis in childrearing, parents are often blamed by school personnel and therapists for “not taking charge” of their kids; for not creating “an appropriate hierarchy.” But if the social and economic environment is, in effect, sabotaging parents’ ability to “take charge,” this family systems golden-oldie just won’t cut it anymore. In today’s world, the authors in this issue argue, an exclusively individualistic (or individual-family), pathology-oriented clinical perspective that ignores the social and economic forces distorting family life is no longer adequate to the task confronting those of us committed to correcting what cover-story author Ron Taffel calls “a childrearing context gone wild.”
If therapists really want to help parents become better, stronger, more legitimately authoritative fathers and mothers, we need to break away from our usual way of doing business—the models, tools, theories, and habits of work with which we’re most comfortable. We need to get out more, go to school meetings, hold public workshops, and do our part in helping to establish “communities of practice” around the critical issue of taking back legitimate adult authority for the raising of kids in a society so dedicated to subverting it. While parents may sometimes feel obsolete, the need of all children and adolescents for parental love and authority isn’t, and never will be. Parents just need a little help from their friends to reclaim what’s rightfully theirs.
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.