When Baby Boomers get together we often talk about our observations of parenting in these postmodern times, one of which is that today’s parents seem, as a rule, to want to be liked by their children, to want to be their children’s friends. That, we agree, is very odd. What is lacking in the life of an adult that they want to be liked by a child? we ask. Furthermore, what could it possibly mean that a child – an emotionally immature, ignorant (no matter how smart) human being – likes you? Or, at any given moment in time, does not?
Well, to begin with, it means to the parent in question that he or she is doing a splendid job. Being liked by one’s child is the measure of a parent these days, or so it seems. If you are not liked, then you need correction and you will know when you have corrected yourself sufficiently when your child begins to like you, or like you again. It is indeed odd that grown-ups – or supposed grown-ups –think in those terms. (If you happen to be one of the parents in question, and you are offended at my characterization of you, fine. Offense may be prerequisite to your coming to your senses.)
What is so bad about wanting to be your child’s friend? the reader may ask. It is an excellent question with at least five bads:
First, a parent’s task is to raise a child out of childhood into adulthood. To accomplish that requires a parent who acts capable of the heavy lifting often required. The parent-friend lowers himself to his child’s level (the child, after all, cannot rise to the level of the adult), thus rendering himself so incapable.
Second, a parent who desires, above all else, wonderful relationship with one’s child is incapable of delivering effective discipline. Discipline, if it is properly corrective, does not make the recipient feel warm and fuzzy toward the agent of correction. That is contrary to the intent of having a wonderful relationship, because the overarching Rule of such is “Thou shalt never make thy child upset at you.”
Third, and for the reason immediately above the parent in question allows himself to be manipulated by his child’s emotional output, which becomes, over time, more and more uncivil. Said parent interprets his child’s emotional outbursts as evidence (a) he has done something wrong and needs to correct it or (b) that something is wrong in his child’s life and he needs to discover it and fix it. That boils down to the child being in COMPLETE CONTROL of the relationship. The parent-child relationship, therefore, is inverted, which is bad for both parties.
Fourth, we have defined a codependent relationship in which said parent becomes an enabler. In this case, the job of the adult enabler is to always make sure his child is happy.
What’s wrong with that? a reader shouts.
Because that is not in your job description, which says you are to prepare your child for responsible living in the real world, and the real world is full of disappointment, failure, loss, and other stuff that isn’t “happy.” Accepting those realities is to become emotionally resilient, and emotional resilience is key to personal satisfaction. It is more important than success. Truly happy people are not in codependent relationships with dedicated personal enablers. People who are being enabled have not had to accept full responsibility for state of their lives. Their enablers are the responsible parties.
Fifth, enabled people almost always think of themselves as victims. Enabling always fails. No amount can defeat life’s realities. So, enabled people are unhappy; either angry unhappy or depressed unhappy.
All of which is why I am convinced that the post-1960s phenomenon of parents trying to be their kids’ friends is a major contributor to childhood, and especially adolescent, mental health problems.
If you think you can defend your attempt to be your child’s friend, I’d love to hear from you. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If I use your defense in a future column, rest assured I won’t use your name.
Putting Child First Can Ruin Marriage
Q: I am stepfather to my wife’s only child, age 8, from her first marriage. My wife always and in every way puts her son before our marriage. We went through counseling several years ago and things got better for a while, but then began slipping back into child-comes-first mode. Believe me, we have a near-perfect marriage outside of her putting her son first and not supporting me when it comes to discipline. My wife struggles constantly to make him happy and it’s really hurting our relationship. Do you have any advice for me or us?
A: You’ve described what is in my estimation the number one reason why the divorce rate is so high (relatively speaking) for marriages where at least one party brings a child or children with them into the union. Specifically, either the male parent cannot shift out of dad and into husband or the female cannot shift out of mom and into wife. Said another way, for the person or people in question, being a parent trumps being a spouse.
A parent-child relationship of this sort is defined by the lack of an emotional boundary between the two parties. Your wife experiences her son’s emotions as if they were her own. Any unhappiness on his part makes her anxious and kicks her into high-enabling. Furthermore, his unhappiness is, from her perspective, indication of her failure as a parent. The solution, she thinks, is more enabling. A vicious and mutually destructive cycle has developed. The more she enables, the more helpless he behaves, and the more she enables. And around and around they go. That is, in a word, codependency.
The following is pure speculation: Your wife may have thought she wanted to get married, but in fact what she really wanted was a live-in male role model for her son as well as your income. I admit to the cynicism of that, by the way. Your wife would certainly take great umbrage over it, but if I was counseling the two of you, I would challenge her to prove that it is not the truth.
More often than not, responsibility for marital problems is shared fifty-fifty, but this is an exception. A stepparent who walked unknowingly into a pre-existing situation of this nature should not be held accountable for solving the problem. He or she can certainly make matters worse (e.g. getting angry at the child), but the heavy lifting must be done by the codependent parent. The good news is that your wife has in the past demonstrated some willingness to come to grips with the nature of her relationship with her son.
Since the prior round of counseling had a positive effect, it makes sense for the two of you to give that another try. Know, however, that this is one of the most intractable problems a counselor will ever encounter. My question, therefore, to you: Are you prepared to hang in there another ten years or so, in the hope that when said son goes off on his own, the “near-perfect” marriage you now have will realize its full potential? That would certainly be my recommendation.
By the way, the problem of one or both spouses putting parenting in front of being husband or wife is not only the single biggest problem in step- and blended families; it is also the single biggest problem in first marriages where there are children. Unfortunately, the child-centric family has become the norm. That’s why so few husbands and wives these days are found on the same parenting page, or even in the same parenting book, or even in some cases in the same parenting library.
It may sound counterintuitive, but agreement concerning parenting issues requires being married first, parents second.
Debunking Hot Potty Training Myths
“Potty training is a nightmare.” So begins advice from Meghan Leahy, advice columnist for The Washington Post. More accurately, potty training has, of late, BECOME a nightmare, thanks to advice of the sort Ms. Leahy dishes. Her approach? Do nothing. The child will eventually use the potty on his own. That may be true, but what Leahy fails to add is “after the child’s mother has had a nervous breakdown.”
In the mid-1950s, Harvard and several other prestigious institutions found that nearly 90 percent of 24-month-old American children had been accident-free for a month, meaning the mean age for successful toilet training when Grandma was the parenting expert was 20 to 22 months.
This miracle was accomplished by parents – mothers, mostly – simply telling their children what to do. They did not ask said children if they wanted to use the potty, offer rewards, sing potty songs, play potty games, sit with their children while they got used to the idea, follow them around the house asking every three minutes if they wanted to try and use the potty, scream, weep, threaten Inquisitional beatings for wet or soiled clothing, much less consult lists of “readiness signs” pulled out of thin air by a nationally-known pediatrician who ended his career as a spokesperson for Pampers.
They simply and straightforwardly told their children, “You are no longer wearing diapers. You are going to use the toilet like the rest of us. Any questions?” To that end, they provided minimal structure, scolded (sans drama) “mistakes,” and voila! Within several days to a week, their kids were using the toilet reliably. I was one of those kids. My mother, as is the case with many moms of her day, did not even remember toilet training me. That’s how easy-peasy it was before people with capital letters after their names began opining on the subject.
The toilet-babble of said pediatrician became the gold standard in the 1970s and has prevailed since. He said toilet training a child before 24 months required “force” and would result in a psychological apocalypse. Ironically, he admitted that he was trained before age two (demurring, however, that it was his mother who had been trained). He was unable to identify how he had been traumatized by this abuse. That is because he had not been traumatized at all. Before his second birthday, his mother had liberated him from messy diapers and contributed greatly to his socialization. How that amounts to “my mother was trained” is beyond me, but that is the sort of thing one says when one’s lack of logic is exposed.
Ms. Leahy tells her audience that “…many of the timelines we place on our children (pooping in the potty) are not in line with their development.” She means parents expect too much. No, they expect too little, but understandably so. They’ve been led to believe, after all, that expecting what is historically normal will induce a life-long phobia concerning white porcelain objects.
As the result of expert-advice-induced anxieties, today’s all-too-typical mom waits for her child to wake up one morning and announce, “Good news, Mom! I’m ready to use the potty!” This mom does not know that research has found what Grandma intuitively knew: Waiting past his or her second birthday INCREASES the likelihood that a child will resist using the toilet. This problem has become so ubiquitous that pediatricians have come up with a name for it: Bowel-retention syndrome.
Ms. Leahy concludes her advice with “Good luck.” Wrong again. Luck has nothing to do with it. Toilet training success is nothing akin to throwing dice. Like 95 percent of parenting matters, it is a matter of the proper presentation of parent authority – a calm, straightforward authority that contains the subtext “I know what you need to do, and I am confident that you are going to do it.” This is about obedience, not bogus “readiness.” And make no mistake, everyone benefits from pre-two training.
The operative principle: If you want a child to do what he is told, simply TELL.
Isn’t that brilliant? Not really. Your great-grandmother could have told you that. There is, after all, no new parenting insight under the sun.
The Problem of Parent-Child Codependency
An early childhood educator of thirty-eight years standing left a message asking if I had advice for encouraging cooperation from parents. She reports what every veteran teacher (defined as having twenty years or more classroom experience) I have spoken with over the past forty years reports: to wit, that it is the rare parent who does not become defensive, even accusatory, when a teacher reports misbehavior.
The retorts include “My child would never do that sort of thing” (when he clearly did!), “I think you must’ve misinterpreted what happened” (as in, the teacher is hallucinating), “My child tells me that so-and-so started it” (like children are credible reporters), and “I think you’re having a personality conflict with my child” (as in, the teacher expects the child to do what she tells him to do). That is the short list. It is not uncommon for a parent to storm the principal’s office after school demanding that a teacher be fired for failing to treat her child with due deference to his obvious giftedness or “special needs” (often referring to the fact that the child in question is disobedient, disruptive, and disrespectful, meaning he has a special need for firm discipline at home and in the classroom).
First, understand that the problem of the defensive, argumentative, accusatory parent is the consequence of the slow but inexorable collapse of the emotional boundary between parent and child (far more often than not, between mother and child). Over the past fifty years, mother-child codependency has become the norm (please hold off on the pitchforks and torches, moms, because I must add that fathers are not far behind). What upsets the child upsets the child’s mother. The child’s success is the mother’s success (thus the proudly displayed bumper sticker announcing that the driver’s child is a cut above), and the child’s failure is the mom’s failure as well.
For today’s mom to admit that her child behaved brutishly, brazenly, or barbarically is for the mother to admit failure. Before psychological theory destroyed American parenting, it was understood that “every child has a mind of his own” – that every child, no matter how “good” his parents by any standard, was capable of brutish, brazen, barbaric behavior on any given day. Not any longer. If a child behaves badly, the mother is revealed to be a bad mom. And so, she reacts so as to ward off the implication.
That is what teachers are up against. And the deck is now stacked against them because all too often (but not always), administrators enable parents who are suffering from this peculiar form of momentary insanity. I understand. Administrators want peace. They correctly realize that if they support their teachers, Armageddon might ensue. So, they don’t, and it doesn’t, and the principal in question is not transferred to a school in Death Valley.
As for getting these temporarily insane parents to realize that their children – as are all children – are capable of being bad to the bone and cooperate with teachers toward their moral rehabilitation, I suggest that you send this column to them in plain brown envelopes, sans return address. Or, purchase a time machine from Amazon, entice these parents to step inside, and dial it back to the 1950s or early 1960s, when if a child misbehaved in school, four conditions applied: (a) the teacher was right; (b) the child did not have a side to the story; (c) the parents felt that the punishment applied at school was woefully inadequate; (d) the parents’ punishment of the child doubled, at a minimum, the horror of what the child had received at school.
Given that those days are gone, about the only thing a teacher can do in the face of a temporarily insane parent is be a human form of Prozac. There is no point in trying to fight a child’s very own Mongol horde Pray, however, that things get so bad at home that the parent in question finally comes to YOU and asks for advice.
Be prepared to be the best friend that parent has ever had.
The Pre-K Debate
It has long been known, but only spoken of in hushed tones by university professors sitting in darkened rooms wearing Fat Elvis masks, that pre-Kindergarten “jump-start” (aka, “push-down”) programs don’t work other than to increase teacher employment and give parents the false idea that their kids are on the fast track to certain success. The problem is that the programs in question are sacred cows, thus to say publicly what I just said is to bring down the indignation of those who tear up involuntarily at the word “child.” I am, therefore, bracing myself.
Many years ago, research psychologist David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child (and several other excellent works that ought to be required reading for parents and educators), pointed out that the gains pre-K programs produce are fleeting. Everything else being equal, by grade three children who received pre-K academic instruction are achieving no better than kids who did not. Furthermore, there is credible evidence to the effect that premature (prior to age six) academic instruction increases the possibility of later learning problems and aversion to reading.
Most folks who, like me, went to school when teachers were always right and parents did not help with homework (and thus personalize their children’s academic performance), came to first grade not knowing their ABCs and sat in classrooms where the teacher-to-student ratio was around 1/35 on average. Yet by the end of the first grade we were reading at a higher level than today’s kids and outperformed them at every grade. The explanation for that is not that we were smarter, but that we respected adult authority. Furthermore, we were taught to think, whereas today’s kids are being taught what to think.
Since then, academic achievement has dropped considerably across the demographic spectrum. The reason for this is simple: Kids no longer, as a rule, come to school having already learned to pay attention to adults (women, in particular), accept assignment from them, do their best, and fear the consequences if they don’t. In the 1950s, the rare child who came to school having not learned those things was regarded as ill-trained. Today, he has a disorder and needs one or more drugs that have never reliably outperformed placebos in clinical trials. This amounts to a massive cover-up, a scam, a scandal.
A recent study has confirmed what Elkind and others said years ago: Pre-K programs are a waste of time and money – taxpayers’ money, to be exact. Children exposed to pre-K academic instruction entered kindergarten well ahead of children who had not, but the gains were unnoticeable by the end of the kindergarten year and “by second grade, the performance of the control children surpassed that of the (pre-K group) on some academic measures.” By the end of third grade, the control group (no pre-K instruction) were outperforming the pre-K children on every academic measure at a level of statistical significance. The authors of the study, published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, mention that their findings are consistent with outcomes for children enrolled in Head Start.
Nearly 3000 years ago, Israel’s King Solomon wrote “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). The once-hallowed idea that there exist ideal times/seasons at which to introduce certain instruction and concepts to children has fallen to the well-intentioned misinformation of various early childhood education special interest groups.
This latest research simply corroborates what has been known for going on forty years: to wit, irrespective of a child’s IQ, academic instruction should not begin prior to age five, preferably six. The 1950s win again! Or, we can build better motors and computers, but we can’t build better children.