The war on parenthood

kellor_children.jpgThe worst part about being a parent is not the terrible twos or even the teenage years. It’s people too willing to tell you you’re doing it — or did it — wrong.

Several stories in the “news” today are intended to raise questions about the way we raise our children. In today’s Star Tribune, various “experts” decry the “self-esteem” movement “, “in which parents and teachers were told to reward and stroke kids pretty much constantly, supposedly to make them confident.”


If all kids get is kudos, it can be a recipe for lots of therapy later, he says: What are they going to do when they get even the slightest bit of criticism later in life, in college or on the job?

Well, OK, but what’s wrong with that paragraph? “If all kids get is kudos….” is hardly the underpinning of parents who are interested in instilling confidence in their developing children. It’s an argument built on a faulty assumption.

The article also says the “good eye” or “good swing” you hear parents yell at youth baseball games is also misplaced.

National Public Radio’s Fresh Air also jumped into the fray this week with an interview with psychologist Richard Weissbourd, author of a book called “The Parents We Mean to Be.” He takes on the ways to raise a moral child, with the clear admonition that that we’re not very good at it.


Yet we also found much that is troubling. Some adults hold misguided beliefs about raising moral children, and some parents have little investment in their children’s character. And the bigger problem is more subtle: a wide array of parents and other adults are unintentionally– in largely unconscious ways– undermining the development of critical moral qualities in children.

Next to losing a fortune in your retirement account, the easiest thing in America is to look at its youth and declare they’re entitled, self-absorbed, and poorly parented.

I say “prove it” with something other than anecdotes. Because I’ve got anecdotes, too.

And just to confuse you more, a study out today says parents have no effect on the behavior of kids.

I’ve never written a book on parenting, but I’ll impart what little wisdom I have on the subject: (1) Do the best you can. (2) If you turned out OK, raise your kids the same way. (3)Hold on tight (4) Ignore people who claim to be experts at raising kids. Anyone who’s actually done it and still has a shred of confidence in their parental ability, did it wrong.

  • Elizabeth T

    I’m a parent of two (5 & 2).

    Recommendation 1: Do the best you can. What else can the world reasonably expect of you?

    Recommendation 2: There is absolutely no way you can possibly control the actions or thoughts of another person (like you children). Don’t bother trying.

    If my two children grow up and become self-sufficient men capable of loving other people and respecting and loving themselves, I will have succeeded as a parent. Anything else is icing on the cake of life.

    BTW:

    There is a couple of women who started a group: Good Enough Moms. Their goal is to help get parents over the “I must be the best ever” and get back in touch with reality. (they have a talk show on a local station w/ bill boards around town, I think it’s 107.1). So your daughter fails calculus? What does that truly have to do with the rest of her life?

  • http://www.joannao.blogspot.com Joanna

    A triple yes! Down with lazy drive-by parenting (those people who love to tell you that you’re doing it wrong, whatever it is). The kids I work with are on the whole friendly, responsible, hardworking, idealistic and deserving of more respect.

    Right now, we are in the “mom! don’t sing!” stage, but I count myself lucky that she likes to hang out with me.

  • http://davincidad.wordpress.com John A

    Funny thing with the exeprts decrying the “self-esteem movement” is that it was started some twenty years ago by “experts” under the theory that if kids didn’t feel good about themselves they would just give up. (Flashback: Stuart Smalley “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me.)

    I was raised in the Cleaver style. Doing something well got a “That’s great, Beaver” and doing something wrong got a good scolding. I turned out OK, and so, like Bob says, my wife and I raised our son the same way. All I can say is it looks promising.

  • http://linkert.name gml4

    Good post, great advice. The ever present “What’s wrong with the kids these days?” question. Everything will be fine.

    Elizabeth, thanks for the Good Enough Mother mention! Great advice and thoughts there.

  • bsimon

    As a relatively new parent (of a 2 yr old, with another due in 3 weeks), I wonder if we focus too much on the children explicitly and not enough on setting a good example. Growing up, of course I learned a great deal from a combined application of carrots and sticks. But I also learned an enormous amount by watching my parents’ interactions with each other and others. These were not always lessons they inteded to give – or were even aware of providing.

    As it relates to self esteem, kids are smart enough to recognize when they’re overpraised. I hope to be able to raise my children in a way where they appreciate that some things take work and persistence to achieve – that not everything merits a ‘great job’ accolade. As to whether or not that happens, check back in 20 years…

  • Bob Collins

    bsimon, you’ve bought into the false argument. That there’s a serious belief that “everything deserves a great job.”

    The weakness of the points in the Strib argument is that they need to invent a philosophy (or at least, significantly alter it) in order to dispute it.

    I think, actually, the best advice for parents would be “beware of experts selling books.”

  • Paul

    I think it’s clear that parents in the US have pushed “childhood” out to the age of 23-24 years old. Consequently young people really do seem to be having trouble transitioning into adulthood in a variety of ways. Parental preoccupation with their kids resumes to the exclusion of all else also appears to have had a detrimental effect on a variety of social institutions and public policy.

    We now have a generation of young people with great looking resumes graduating into an economy with no jobs and a nation with severe political and environmental problems largely because “adults” have neglected public policy issues.

    The extension of childhood also appears to have stunted certain social skills, many young people seem to have difficulty adjusting to work environments because a), their parents didn’t let them get jobs as teen agers and b) their social skills are largely confined to finding and joining social clicks. Young people seem to have trouble coping with the distinction between a co-worker and a friend. They don’t seem to realize that you have to work with a co-worker even if they aren’t your friend, and that a disagreement with a co-worker doesn’t make them your enemy. In other words the products of the last 20+ years of parenting seem to have difficulty realizing that they are not in High School anymore.

    Finally, as a generation, they do seem to think they are more talented than they really are, the extent to which this is a product of overly affirmational parenting is worthy of consideration.

    These are general observations that I think may lie behind some of this current push-back your describing.

  • Bob Collins

    I think your assessment — which sounds more anecdotal than scientific — mirrors the assessments every generation has made about the subsequent generation over the decades.

    One of the things that’s interesting about observations about parenting based — especially anecdotally — on mere observations is that there’s usually no associated data with how that person was raised. And to the extent that self-esteem may have been reinforced in the family — it’s highly unlikely the method for doing that is the same from family to family, and I’d guess that the people who leap to the conclusion that reinforcing self-esteem also means a lack of discipline — are probably wrong.

    Theoretically, a set of twins raised in a home, should turn out exactly the same. But they rarely do. As a twin, I still don’t understand why that is.

  • bsimon

    ” you’ve bought into the false argument. That there’s a serious belief that “everything deserves a great job.” ”

    Does it matter whether there’s such a widespread belief? Like many people in our society, I had essentially zero experience with infants or toddlers before having one of my own, so I have to learn how to parent from books, observing others and the good old standby ‘trial and error’. Like most people – or most people I know – I want my kids to be ‘above average’. So, whether or not there’s a widespread belief in over praising children, a discussion of the subject is still helpful to people who are making this up as we go along.

    Some of the parenting books I’ve picked up have been laughable in their tone, but they still often offer helpful hints. None of them are gospel – and they often contradict one another. So, certainly, none have risen to the top as the perfect “how to raise a child properly” guide to new parents. But at least they give me something to chew over when I’m interacting with my children.

  • Bob Collins

    //Like most people – or most people I know – I want my kids to be ‘above average’. So, whether or not there’s a widespread belief in over praising children, a discussion of the subject is still helpful to people who are making this up as we go along.

    It can be, except that these days it’s very difficult to have that conversation in a non-judgmental way. The experts in the Star Tribune article are perfect examples.

    Of course, in *my* day, we had Dr. Spock. Dr. Spock was never judgmental.

    BTW, you were given an instinct on how to interact with your children.

  • Paul

    Actually there have been sociological and anthropological studies documenting the extension of childhood in the US into the mid twenties so it’s not all anecdotal. I don’t don’t have time to look these up for you right now. I can tell you for FACT that there were absolutely no parents attending my orientation to the U of M in 1981, and we did not walk around with our keys on lanyards so we wouldn’t lose them.

    I think it stands to reason that a delay of adulthood like that could have broader consequences for society at large as well as the individuals.

    It’s true that generations always complain about each other, but that doesn’t mean there are no real differences between generations, and it doesn’t explain those differences away. Besides, I think one characteristic about these recent generations has actually been a lack of generation gap. I think there has been far less generational conflict in the last 25 years for instance than there was in the 60s and 70s.

    Now I’m not saying that any generation was better than another, each generation has it’s strengths and weaknesses. My generations is clearly responsible for this socio-political-economic mess we’re currently saddled with, so I’m not bragging about my generation- I’m 46 years old by the way. But I don’t think we should sweep observations about current youth under the rug with a “people always complain” broom.

  • Bob Collins

    I don’t sweep it under the rug, I just think people pick and choose based on what they see, and ignore data — also anecdotal and selective — that conflicts with a previously held view.

    What you can accurate conclude, perhaps, by your observations at the U is that the actions of parents at the U with regard to children have changed. But you can’t associate it with an entire parenting style because there’s no data to know WHAT that parenting style is.

    We also don’t know whether parents who DO attend orientation and who DON’T attend orientation have similar parenting styles (or not).

    In many ways, this is a subject that is debated on very much the same level as poverty. Someone once saw someone buying cigarettes with food stamps or knows someone (who knows someone) who was on welfare and drove a Cadillac and upon those, public policy is built.

    There’s simply too many variables and too little specific study make the sweeping conclusions that expert/authors tend to make. The suicide rate in the U.S., for example, has been falling since the ’60s. Is that a reflection on parental approach to raising kids? Maybe. Maybe not.

    Similarly, divorce has been increasing and more children have been growing up in single-parent households. Is that good? Is that bad? Is that even calculated when people raise the question of whether shouting “good eye” at kid’s ballgame is detrimental to a kid’s development?

  • Paul

    Just because you’re not aware of the “data” doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Actually this stuff is studied ad nauseum, there’s plenty of data on parenting styles and outcomes on both social and individual levels. As to the role of parenting in eventual divorce and suicide rates, personality types, genetic history, and familial backgrounds have also been studied extensively.

    I think some people just need to be a little more careful when they choose their “experts”.

  • Bob Collins

    My challenge to the experts was clear: Prove it.

    I’m not aware of a single study that incorporates all of the things I mentioned — and so many more — that features the kind of exhaustive selection and investigation of ALL factors in a family and concludes with a definitive blueprint for exactly how people should parent.

    And one, by the way, that also considers that every kid is different. They learn differently, they react differently, they respond differently to the same stimuli.

    Maybe it’s out there, but I see far more unscientific guesswork masking as science.

  • Elizabeth T

    About different results of siblings, looking at me & my 2 younger brothers is quite interesting, comparing the households we grew up in. Between birth & 10, I had two married parents; by 10, brother #1 lost his father in a divorce and vaguely remembers living with a dad; brother #2 has no recollection of ever living with his father. I’m the one who got divorced, though.

    It’s like reading tea leaves, trying to predict a child’s future. And, there are expert tea-leaf readers.

    Scientific studies provide – as bsimon mentioned – fodder for thought. For example, “Time Outs”: I find them useful. Are they some new-fangled thing? Probably. Does it always do what I want? No. But, it seems to help, therefore add it to my parenting tool box.

    No expert is perfect; that alone should underscore their advice to parents.

    We haven’t managed to destroy Western Civilization in the past 500 years of totally uncontrolled, un-expert, unscientific parenting. I think we’re safe for another few generations.

  • Paul

    I realize it’s kinda crappy of me to point to studies without citing them, but I don’t work in the field anymore and I don’t have easy access to the U of M’s reference library anymore. There are entire journals devoted to these issues. Bob says he’s not aware of any studies…, well why would you be aware of such studies? You don’t work in the field. I’m aware of them because I used to work in the field and study these issues. Thank you for acknowledging that your not aware of the data instead denying it’s existence at any rate.

    Anecdotal observations are not necessarily invalid observations by the way. My observation of parents accompanying their “kids” to orientation at the U. clearly indicate that parents today are more involved in their kids lives than parents of my generation were, and no, this is not limited to the U. it’s a nation wide phenomena, as almost any parent reader with kids in or starting college will tell you. I have anotherobservation, I didn’t “graduate” from grade school or middle school. Who’s idea was it to turn mundane transitions into “graduations”? Will you deny that this a characteristic of an affirmational approach to parenting and education?

    Are you really asking for proof that the parenting style of the 80s and 90s was to be more involved, and affirmational? Where were you in a cave? Even my wife who worked in a day care in the late 80s reports a policy change in phrasiology from “don’t run” to “walk” because “don’t run” was considered to be a negative exhortation.

    Are you saying there’s no difference between generations? Or are you saying that a predominant style of parenting produces no effect on a generation of children? Are you denying that too much affirmation or praise can have unfortunate consequences? Have you never met a spoiled child?

    There’s always a problem translating the general into the specific, so general observations may not apply to a particular individual. But to deny that a predominant parenting style will produce some basic generataional characteristics good or bad is just plain denial.

    One of unfortunate characteristic of my generation is distinct aversion to being held responsible. Someone makes some mundane observations about contemporary parenting and people think they’re being “attacked”. Everything isn’t about YOUR kid. What’s happening here is that some people are making some general observations about some possible unfortunate consequences of a particular parenting style. All parenting styles can go wrong in some ways. The idea is simply to learn from mistakes, that’s hard to do if you don’t admit mistakes. Unfortunately my parents produced a generation that is particularly skilled at denial.

  • http://tinyurl.com/cu4rfy Bob Collins

    // You don’t work in the field.

    Trust me. When you raise kids, you work in the field. I remain unconvinced of the existence of the definitive study I’ve challenged the “experts” to provide. They can’t. I suspect because there isn’t one because if there were, it would be so well publicized, you wouldn’t need to be “in the field” to be able to cite it .

    //Are you really asking for proof that the parenting style of the 80s and 90s was to be more involved, and affirmational? Where were you in a cave? Even my wife who worked in a day care in the late 80s reports a policy change in phrasiology from “don’t run” to “walk” because “don’t run” was considered to be a negative exhortation.

    “Don’t run?” Oh, please. Precisely my point. I parented in the ’80s and I never heard that. But because you — or you wife — did, you apply that across the board as THE parenting style of the ’80s and ’90s.

    If what you say is true, there’ should PROOF of the cause and effect from that period. So round up all the kids who weren’t told “don’t run,” and compare them to the kids who weren’t raised that way and let’s begin to see what the effect was on how they turned out and compare the two.

    So much of these “debates involve “talk show rhetoric” alleging that people others don’t agree with must’ve grown up in a cave, and we certainly don’t need you misstating what I have said (“Are you saying there’s no difference between generations?” — where do you get THAT kind of conclusion?) in order to have a response that might fit. That’s always a red flag, in my book. (Although it gives me a good example to use the next time I need a good example of the proper use of the term “begs the question.”)

    Of course there is a generational difference in parenting style. And, as such, there should be a corresponding difference in results that would affirm or reject the associated conclusions. Let’s see the scientific sampling that was used.

    What parents deserve isn’t more arrogant condemnation from the types of “experts” we saw in the Strib article. We need good useful research and science. And that’s my point — there isn’t anywhere near enough and those who point to an afternoon on campus and make their own conclusions without so much as investigating how those kids were raised know that. That’s why “here’s what I think” gets substituted for science. So many “in the field” who are selling books are selling opinions as fact and should be called on it. It’s very much like getting parenting advice from Sarah Palin.

    So get back to me with the peer reviewed solid research. That’s what constitutes proof.

    By the way, one of the reasons you MIGHT see a difference in the number of parents who attend orientation from, say, the ’60s, is because the percentage of people who attend college now is higher. It’s also possible that colleges now encourage it more than they did then. I don’t know. But from a statistical view, I would think that would have to be factored in.

    So tell me about your parental style, Paul, and how your kids turned out. I assume you didn’t embrace the “involved and affirmational” approach. What worked for you?

  • Paul

    //Trust me. When you raise kids, you work in the field. …

    Don’t take this personally, but one of the most irksome characteristics of your generation of parents is ridiculous notion that simply being a parent makes you an expert of some kind. Look, any pair of doofus’s can make a baby. Almost every animal on the planet raises their young, and many do a much better job than their human counterparts. No, being a parent does NOT equal a Ph.D in child or developmental psychology, or pediatrics. You may be a good parent, an average parent, or a bad parent, but simply being a parent does not make you an expert, if it did there would nothing but good parents.

    //”Don’t run?” Oh, please. Precisely my point. I parented in the ’80s and I never heard that. But because you — or you wife — did, you apply that across the board as THE parenting style of the ’80s and ’90s.

    Dude you are indeed talented in the arts of denial. I didn’t say that the practice of saying “walk” instead of “don’t run” was itself universal characteristic of parenting. I said it was a characteristic of affirmational parenting. Are you seriously denying that your generation of parents have been more sheltering, controlling, and affirmational than the previous generation of parents? Did your parents to go to your college orientation? Did you graduate from elementary school?

    As to the studies, I’m afraid I don’t have the time and the easy access to look them up, but I bet you $5.00 they’ve been done. Comparative studies of the kind you’re asking about are the staple of developmental child psychology and anthropology. If you really want data, it’s there.

    I didn’t see anyone in the Strib article condemning your generation of parents by the way, I just saw them pointing to some unfortunate consequences of the predominate parenting style. I’m sure your kid is great, but this isn’t about your kid, it’s about kids that are having some difficulties.

    Getting back to this expert thing. I didn’t see anyone in the article describing themselves as experts on parenting in the sense you seem to be looking for. Most people in the field would scoff at anyone who would declare themselves to be such an expert. It’s pretty well understood that human beings are pretty resilient and most people turn out OK regardless of parenting style. Researchers don’t study “parenting” per se, they look at components, specific outcomes and influences. The idea is to identify good and bad tools for the parental toolbox not claim to have designed the perfect toolbox. So yeah, if your having trouble finding “experts” who will actually describe the perfect parent, or give you a blueprint, you’ll have trouble finding that because most folks realize that would be a foolish claim. Beyond the basic of nurturing, safety, and correctly identifying a child’s best interest and acting accordingly you’re pretty much on your own. You’ll find stuff on when corporal punishment becomes detrimental for instance, but no ones writing papers on “how to be a parent” in the journals. What you have are people looking at how or if parenting contribute to things like eating disorders for instance. Again the idea is simply to learn from mistakes. Mistakes have been made, they always are. You’re not being condemned, you’re being analyzed- like a bug in microscope. Ha!

    Now, as to the morals thing in your story, that’s a whole-nuther issue. Producing moral individuals en masse has always been a problem. I think somewhere along the line we do seem to have become a nation full of jerks, but I’m not sure parenting is cause of that. There is some interesting research on sports and it’s tendency to weaken integrity, but it’s hard to say that one generation is more immoral than another. For example academic plagiarism has increased in both high school and college, but that could be an artifact of technology rather than weak morality. If we’d had google and word processors instead of type writers who knows what we would have done.

  • Bob Collins

    //on’t take this personally, but one of the most irksome characteristics of your generation of parents is ridiculous notion that simply being a parent makes you an expert of some kind.

    It doesn’t make you an expert, but it does give you perspective and humility on the subject. Parenting is unbelievably easy as long as you’ve never done it.

    // Are you seriously denying that your generation of parents have been more sheltering, controlling, and affirmational than the previous generation of parents? Did your parents to go to your college orientation? Did you graduate from elementary school

    The issue is whether that is in itself harmful. So you don’t like affirmation, involvement and, I guess, graduations. That’s great. But what I’m looking for is scientific research on effect

    Maybe it’s there. Maybe it’s not. You don’t want to look for it and I can see whether that would be a time suck, but that still brings us back to the original post.

    There’s a difference between the kind of parenting you don’t like and a declaration that it does or doesn’t work.

    I don’t care about the former; I’m very interested in the latter.

  • Paul

    Humility? Ha! I have to three words for you: Frank and Amelia. I rest my case.

    Actually, you’re not looking for scientific research. I’ve told you where it is, have you looked? Your the one with kids.

    As far a graduations are concerned, alls I know is if it weren’t for graduations this whole global warming thing wouldn’t be happening!

  • Bob Collins

    heh heh