Thursday, December 14th, 2017
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Columns: October 2017

John Rosemond October 2017 Columns

Copyright 2017, John K. Rosemond

Four Things Parents Should Tell Their Kids

In my latest book, Grandma Was Right After All!, I take the top 25 parenting sayings of my youth and explain what they really meant. I do so because they’ve been distorted and demonized by the mental health community as psychologically harmful, which is balderdash given that child mental health is ten times worse today than it was in the 1950s, when their usage was commonplace.

The demonization prize goes to “Because I said so,” which when stated calmly and straightforwardly is nothing more harmful than an affirmation of the legitimacy of parental authority. The long form would be something along the lines of “I provide for your provision and protection; furthermore, I am not your peer. I am your superior in every sense of the term. Therefore, I am not required to, nor will I, justify my decisions and instructions to you. You will obey because that is what I determine will happen, and for no other reason.”

First runner-up goes to “Children should be seen but not heard,” which psychologists claimed reflected a generally negative attitude toward children (mind you, when the number of children per couple was significantly higher than it has been since). Wrong again! As the aphorism makes perfectly clear, the child in question could remain in the room and listen to adult conversation (be seen), but was expected not to interrupt (be heard) – a truly civilized understanding.

Second runner-up goes to “You made this bed, so you’re going to lie in it.” In other words, the child was going to accept complete responsibility for whatever delinquency he had perpetrated. Today, by way of contrast, it is common for the child to make the bed and his parents to lie in it. Or, expressed according to yet another old-fashioned parenting aphorism, today’s parents stew in their children’s “juices.” This flip-flop has occurred as parents have rallied to the idea that they should be “involved,” which is a euphemism for being in enabling, codependent relationships with their kids.

“You’re just a little fish in a big pond” was one of my mother’s favorites. I was, in other words, not the big deal I thought I was or should be. Being told you were a small fish went hand-in-hand with being informed that the world did not revolve around you and you were acting too big for your britches. With the advent of self-esteem babble in the late 1960s, children gradually became Big Fish wearing undersize britches, a condition that benefits no one (but it takes someone my age to clearly understand that high self-esteem is a cultural corrosive).

The all-time favorite of my mother and stepfather was “We knew that if we gave you enough rope, you’d hang yourself.” I have realized in retrospect that my upbringing was very libertarian. I enjoyed a good amount of freedom (a long rope) as long as I accepted as much if not more personal responsibility. The relative balance in that equation prepares a child for proper citizenship; thus, Grandma also said, “Good citizenship begins at home.”

We 1950s kids did not like hearing these things, but then children do not know what they need (they only know what they want). I have yet, however, to meet someone my age who is not thankful for them today. Their restoration, along with the parenting point of view that they reflected, is badly needed by all concerned. 

Is Chemotherapy-Induced ADD a Thing?

Q: After two years of chemotherapy for acute lymphocytic leukemia, our 6-year-old daughter is now in remission. We’ve recently noticed she has difficulty focusing and staying on task. Otherwise, she is bright, happy and well-behaved. Her physician told us that chemotherapy involves neurotoxins that can cause focusing issues in children. He referred us to a neuropsychiatrist who administered a five-hour battery of tests, diagnosed ADD and prescribed an ADD drug. After reading you for years, I don't believe that an “illness” called ADD truly exists. But is chemotherapy-induced ADD a valid thing and if so, what do you recommend?

A: Indeed, chemotherapy-induced neurological problems are a verified reality. They include several that are also symptomatic of what has come to be known as ADD or ADHD.

The symptoms in question – known as “chemo-brain” – include lowered IQ as well as memory, attention span, focusing, and hand-eye coordination problems. In adults, this symptom cluster is associated with strokes, Alzheimer’s, and other neurological events and diseases. In that regard, I’ve never heard of a stroke or Alzheimer’s patient being prescribed an ADD drug.

In other words, I don’t understand how a psychiatrist would justify diagnosing ADD when your daughter’s symptoms are chemotherapy-induced. And then there’s the issue of giving a five-hour battery of tests to a six-year-old. Even my attention span would suffer. Furthermore, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual lists not one test-based criteria for a diagnosis of ADD/ADHD (and sixteen of the eighteen symptoms are prefaced by the word “often,” whatever that means).

Mind you, I am differentiating a set of behaviors from a diagnosis. So, to be clear, “chemo-brain” and ADD are two different diagnostic entities (according to medical literature). I am unaware of something known as chemotherapy-induced ADD but there is such a thing as chemotherapy-induced distractibility, short attention span, and forgetfulness.

Because a child's brain is very "plastic," the symptoms of chemo-brain in a child are generally not permanent. The literature reports a healing process of indeterminate length that eventually corrects or at least significantly diminishes these late effects.

Psychiatric medications involve unpredictable side effects in children that need to be figured into this calculus. These drugs, because they act on the central nervous system, might interfere with your daughter’s healing process.

Ethically, I can’t tell you not to follow a physician’s advice. Furthermore, you might have misunderstood something the psychiatrist told you. At the very least, you should go back to your daughter’s physician and discuss your concerns with him.

Nonetheless, I can ethically tell you what I’d have recommended had you sought my advice; to wit, I would have suggested that (a) you exhaust non-invasive therapies before using potentially risky medications and (b) you start by consulting with a pediatric occupational therapist. In my view, your daughter’s brain has suffered enough assault already.

Shift in Paradigm Derailed Child-Rearing

I am sometimes asked if I think the “parenting pendulum” is swinging back, however slowly, toward where it was sixty-plus years ago or at least toward a tolerable middle point.

Before I answer the question, the reader should understand that prior to the psychological parenting revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s, there was no periodic swing in child rearing in America or any other culture. The evidence points to a parenting ethos that remained essentially unchanged for thousands of years (while everything else was changing). This ethos consisted not of methodologies, but of timeless understandings concerning children and parental responsibilities, understandings that crossed cultural boundaries. It is, in fact, still being adhered to in cultures that have not turned to mental health professionals as the primary source of child-rearing guidance but still rely on community elders for parenting support and counsel.

In the cultures in question children are everything American children were before “experts” determined that they had been anointed by some New Age divinity to fix something that wasn’t broken: responsible, mannerly, respectful of adults, hard-working, and trustworthy. As an example, a woman who recently spent two years working in rural African schools told me that it was not unusual to find over one hundred children of all ages being taught in one large space by one teacher who was dealing with virtually zero behavior problems.

That is a hallucinogenic dream in America today, yet I have met a good number of American women who taught, solo, over ninety first graders at one time in the early 1950s. Without exception, they testify to orderly classrooms where discipline was not a major issue.

The major difference between then and now is that parents in the good old days understood their obligations to their neighbors, communities, and culture whereas today’s parents do not have as good a grasp of these obligations. Today, the raising of the typical child is not about strengthening culture; it is all about the child and promoting his accomplishments. You know, helping him get accepted by the “right” university and such. (By the way, the “right” university for me was Western Illinois University – not generally included in a “best of” list.)

So, having put the original question into a proper historical context, my answer is no. I had hope for such a restoration up until recently. Then it became clear to me that most of today’s parents will do such things as give their 10-year-olds smart phones on demand even if they’re aware of research saying that such devices induce changes in brain development that mimic addiction. The inmates are obviously running the asylum.

Which leads me to point out that today’s parents are, as a lot, afraid of their children. They are afraid to upset them, deprive them of what their friends have, afraid of losing their carefully cultivated friendships with them. As is typical of folks in my generation, I am thankful that my parents did not care whether I liked them or not. It never occurred to me to yell “I hate you!” because it would not have caused them to even pause in what they were doing.

American child rearing underwent a paradigm shift fifty years ago and has been off the rails ever since. Indeed, more and more people are recognizing this and resolving to correct it in their own homes. But will the big picture ever be re-balanced? I doubt it, but that’s not the point. The point is to do the right thing without needing someone else to join in, or even cheer you on.

Keep Facts About 'Donor Dad' Mum Until Child Is 15

Q: My son just turned 5 and is starting to ask various questions about parents including why some people have two parents and he only has one. About two months before he turned two, his "donor" said he wasn't “feeling it” (his exact words) with him and didn't want to participate in his life anymore. How can I explain that to my son? My son has no recollection of this person, but his parents still visit and take him places as do two other members of his “dad’s” family. I am really at a loss or how to explain this without hurting his feelings or making him feel unwanted or unloved.

A: Please don't try and explain an emotionally-complicated situation such as this to a child this age. No matter how carefully you choose your words, he will not understand what you want him to understand. The explanation will only confuse him and leave him with more questions than it answers. Furthermore, at age 5, your son does not possess the intellectual and verbal skills with which to even ask the right questions.

RULE OF THUMB: Tell a child ONLY what he ABSOLUTELY NEEDS to know when and only when he ABSOLUTELY NEEDS to know it.

Your son does not NEED to know that “Donor Dad” doesn’t want anything to do with him. By the way, I feel compelled to interrupt this answer to exclaim: What a guy! A real man’s man! A paragon of masculine virtue!

Now that I have purged those faint praises from my system, I would not explain any of the “stuff” in question until your son is (a) well into his teenage years, as in, at least fifteen, (b) is in possession of a sturdy self-image, (c) has demonstrated a good amount of emotional fortitude/resilience, and (d) virtually demands answers to his questions. When all four (not three!) conditions are present, then tell the sordid tale of Donor Dad, but don’t editorialize. As Detective Joe Friday said, “Just the facts, Ma’am, just the facts.”

Until then: Why do some children have only one parent? Because sometimes one parent is all the child needs. Why do some kids need two parents? Because they’re not as sweet as you are. Where is my father? We don't know…he was never here. What’s his name? (Answer with first name only.) Any more “intimate” questions, answer with, "I'll answer that when you grow up." And let that be that.

Everyone – meaning grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and so on – on both sides of the family need to be on the same page about this. The bottom line is that no one, and I mean NO ONE, should be answering this child’s questions with anything but “I don’t really know. You should ask your Mommy about that.” He certainly does not need to hear one thing from (fill in the blank with a well-intentioned relative or maybe even a relative with an agenda) and another thing from you.

A personal, and hopefully helpful, story: My parents divorced when I was around two. My father didn’t come back into my life until I was nine, and then only superficially until I was a teenager and could play golf with him and understand his jokes well enough to laugh genuinely at them. Shortly after Dad showed up again, I began asking my mother why they got divorced. She would answer, “That’s none of a child’s business.” So, I would ask my father the same question when I next saw him. He would answer, “You don’t need to know that stuff…I’m not sure I even know.”

They were both on the same page about one thing, anyway. The answer to my question was none of my business and I certainly didn’t need it. What a blessing! What I was really trying to figure out, of course, was who I should blame. Kids see things in black-and-white. Furthermore, the world to a child is a simpler place if heroes and villains are clearly defined, which they rarely are. I was trying to make sense out of something that defied my brain’s ability to comprehend. (Add into all this the fact that I was the one and only kid in my neighborhood whose parents had divorced.)

If you ask me today why my parents got divorced, the honest answer is “I can give you some superficial information, but beyond that, I really don’t pretend to know. The answer is much too personal to who they were for me to understand it. And not knowing the answer and not really caring is one of the best things that ever happened to me. It has relieved me of a burden that would certainly have weighed heavily on my life.”

Another rule of thumb, learned from my parents: One of a parent’s responsibilities is that of making a child’s life as simple as possible. Children do not need to worry about things they can’t understand, and when adults try to force such understandings into their heads, worry they will.

Overcoming Bad Parenting

I was standing in the lobby of an auditorium in which I’d just spoken, talking with a small group of attendees, when a 30-something woman took me aside and told me that her parents were bad role models. One was verbally abusive; the other, distant and emotionally unavailable.

She tells me that because of her parents’ negative examples, she yells a lot and is often insensitive to her children’s emotional needs and asks, “How can I overcome that handicap?”

I’ve been asked variations on that same question more than I can count. The list of parental defects in question is short and predictable: alcoholism, addiction, abuse, a string of failed marriages, lack of affection, mental/emotional disorder, sociopathy, and abandonment (or a combination thereof).

Having a fair amount of personal experience with family dysfunction (my mother’s second marriage, ten on a dysfunction scale of one to ten), I have lots of empathy for people who grew up under such circumstances, but I also absolutely know (been there, done that) that childhood experiences of that sort are not reasons; rather, they are excuses. In other words, such circumstances, in and of themselves, do not explain why any otherwise responsible, reasonably intelligent individual is struggling with parenting issues. The person is struggling because they (a) have convinced themselves that their childhood is a handicap and (b) believe in the Freudian myth of parenting determinism.

First, (a): If a person knows that his/her parents were a mess, then the person also knows how not to be a similar mess. The negative, in other words, can easily be transformed into a positive. “My parents were bad role models” is a form of self-enabling. The problem is not the parents; the problem is the person’s persistent use of their childhood to avoid personal responsibility. Said another way, the person describes their childhood as a handicap; therefore, it is a handicap. The positive, functional statement is “I know how to be a good parent precisely because my parents were such miserably bad parents.” The difference between being handicapped or not being handicapped is a choice, a difference of point of view only.

Then, (b): Sigmund Freud, the so-called “Father of Modern Psychology,” proposed that parenting produces the person. That amounts to a denial of free will. It also gives people permission to create soap operas out of their childhoods. Freud was, of course, just plain wrong. Examples abound of people being raised badly who turned out well, and vice versa. But the myth persists, which is why so many therapists make so much ado of their client’s childhoods.

Putting (a) and (b) together: People believe their less-than-desirable childhoods explain why they are not the parents they want to be because they believe in parenting determinism, but the problem is their belief, not some inescapable cause-effect relationship.

So, to the mother’s question, “How can I overcome that handicap?” I answer, “You change your way of thinking. Begin by celebrating the wonderfully paradoxical examples your parents set for you, and move on from there.

“It’s a much better use of mental energy, believe me.”

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