Open Book

Who’s the Grown-Up Here?

Helping parents abandon the “buddy” system

Magazine Issue
January/February 2016
Open Book, January/February 2016

The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups
by Leonard Sax
Basic Books. 263 pages.

What’s the matter with parents today? To judge from what family physician and psychologist Leonard Sax says in his new book, The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups, just about everything. For proof, Sax says, look no further than the ever expanding number of kids today who are overmedicated, overweight, overly fragile emotionally, and over-the-top disrespectful to everyone. His prescription: rather than attempting to “buddy up” to their kids as if they were peers, these moms and dads need to “parent up” and act like the decisive, assertive, authoritative figures he believes they should be.

Ho-hum, you think, there’s nothing new about faulting parents for being too permissive and too lax in their discipline. From the 1940s on, there’s been no shortage of critics chiding Dr. Benjamin Spock for his nurturing—or in their view, mollycoddling and spoiling—approach. Also, concern about the disrespectful attitude of younger generations to their elders can be traced back to ancient Greece. But what lifts this parenting critique from being mere curmudgeonly finger pointing (though there’s some of that, too) to being thought provoking is the way in which Sax links contemporary parenting styles to the increasingly common practice of almost unthinkingly diagnosing and prescribing kids medication for ADHD, bipolar disorder, and a range of other issues. Here, as in his two previous books—Boys Adrift and Girls on the Edge—Sax further posits that cultural shifts over the decades in parenting, school curricula, and societal attitudes have reverberated in detrimental ways that we may not be fully aware of. Those insights make his book worthwhile, for parents as well as therapists.

He has much to say, for instance, about the importance of teaching kids the value of conscientiousness and self-control—attributes, studies have found, that are the best predictors of future happiness and overall life satisfaction. Yet the omnipresent message of our consumer-driven culture is that contentment lies no further than being “in” and achieving status by buying something right this minute. As a result, Sax writes, “Exercising self-restraint in today’s teen culture is downright un-American.” Because peer culture only serves to reinforce such hollow values, in Sax’s view it’s the parents’ job to instill more meaningful ideals. Unfortunately, Sax is silent on how kids can hope for another model if their parents are themselves consumed by the surface values he deplores.

Sax presents his case in 10 concise chapters that combine current research (with extensive footnotes for those wishing to know more) with case histories. He begins by repeating the common refrain he hears all too often from parents: “I feel I should I be my child’s most trusted confidante and best friend, but if I’m his best friend, how can I tell him that he isn’t allowed to play violent video games?”

To Sax, contemporary childrearing is plagued by a basic confusion between the role that parents should have in the lives of their children and the parts played by the kids’ friends and contemporaries. Parents need to realize—and demonstrate through their consistent presence as loving but responsible limit-setters—that the unconditional bonds of the parent–child attachment are both deeper and different from the ever shifting conditionality of relationships in their peer culture. If the parents fail to make this distinction, he says, then the kids won’t either, and that’s not good for anyone.

Indeed, Sax is adamant that the main reason why so many of the kids he sees are emotionally adrift is that their parents are adrift, unable or afraid fully to inhabit secure parental identities as the adults in charge. Unable to say no to their kids, they enable a cycle of deferral and delegation of authority that reverses the traditional order of family decision-making and upends basic family dynamics, with parents now subservient to their children’s whims and tantrums.

Without the structure of boundaries and limits, Sax believes, kids can all too easily fall into emotional and psychological limbo, unable to develop the necessary critical judgment and resilience to weather even minor setbacks and disappointments. In this upended family configuration, kids come to view their parents as powerless figures, whose clueless opinions matter far less than those of their clued-in peers. Exit parental influence, and enter peer-culture dominance and a wide range of subsequent problematic behaviors!

Here’s where Sax’s judgmental inner old fogey becomes most apparent. He’s especially acerbic in describing unending “negotiations” in which parents seek to persuade—and too often end up bribing—toddlers to eat or sleep or behave, rather than set a rule from the get-go and stick to it. Still, though his tone can be tough, he makes it clear that by authoritative he doesn’t mean authoritarian, and that by discipline he means setting boundaries, not wielding undue punishment. He further advises that the best family medicine is having fun together as a family, creating the connective glue of family attachment.

But it’s not just to their children that parents yield their authority, Sax believes. They also too easily accede to physicians and psychiatrists who can be too quick in diagnosing children and teens with ADHD or bipolar disorder, and then too cavalier in prescribing an array of powerful medications whose long-term impact we aren’t yet able to gauge. He cites recent studies that compare rates of diagnoses and medication in the United States and other countries. One found that American children were 73 times as likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder as those in Britain. Another calculated that 7.4 per 1,000 students in the United Kingdom had in the past or were now taking ADHD medications; by comparison, while in 1979, only 12 per 1,000 American teens were estimated to have ADHD, in 2013 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated the figure to have vastly increased to 110 per 1,000. And 69 percent of American kids with that diagnosis are on medication for ADHD, according to the CDC. In terms of so-called “atypical” antipsychotic drugs like Risperdal, Seroquel, and Zyprexa, other studies found that American kids are about 8.7 times as likely to take them as kids in Germany, 56 times as likely as kids in Norway, and about 93 times as likely as in Italy.

Sax concedes that sometimes meds are the treatment of choice. But why make this the first, rather than the last, course of action? The rush to prescribe is particularly troubling because most parents, in his experience, have received little or no counseling on the potential long-term effects of the metabolic consequences of these meds, which can include a greater likelihood of becoming obese and developing diabetes. He’s often found that the symptoms of mood swings and lack of concentration many kids present is the result not of an underlying disorder, but of sleep deprivation from overscheduling.

Sax also raises intriguing points about what he views as the gap left when neither parents nor teachers and schools wish to deal with behavioral or disciplinary issues, with each side left to punt to the other—or to a psychiatrist willing to prescribe medication. One reason, he contends, is that preschools today, unlike in previous generations, see their mission not as encouraging sharing and playing fair, but as teaching the rudiments of reading and arithmetic. As a result, if parents want to instill these values in their kids, they’ll have to do it on their own. The bottom line, Sax writes, is that “parents today shoulder a greater burden . . . but have fewer resources to do their job.”

And there’s the rub. I wish Sax had spent less time bemoaning and blaming parental lapses and devoted additional chapters instead to suggesting ways for parents to overcome the dearth of resources for child-raising in an economy that finds so many parents strapped for time and money, even as school and social-service budgets continue to shrink. One way to stave off collapse, after all, is to bolster the supporting structures. The institution of parenting deserves nothing less.

Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.