Are We Losing Our Parental Will?

Some time ago, a pediatrician that I respect greatly stopped by my office to chat.  In the midst of the conversation, he smiled, and spontaneously mentioned that he had seen a rash of a particular condition lately.  When I inquired what it was, he stated Helpless Parent Syndrome.  

Over the weeks and months that followed, I have found myself coming back to that conversation often.  Sometimes, it is in reflection on my own parenting decisions.  Other times, it is during my interactions with parents both in session and through various community connections as they acknowledge feeling rather powerless in stemming a negative tide at home.  But what remains consistent, and what I feel is supported through the scientific literature and current trends, is that parents of this current age feel less equipped to manage the onslaught of demands that their children bring.  If in fact this is the case, it is ironic for a few reasons.  The first of which is that never before in the history of the United States have we had so few children, which theoretically should make it easier to manage their demands.  Secondly, we have tools and knowledge at our fingertips that parents of previous generations would have never imagined.  In 1960, there were six parenting books written (Curtis, 2013).  Today, the number easily ranges in the thousands and more.  Thirdly, as a generation, we pride ourselves on the fact that the Flynn Effect says we are smarter than generations before.

But I would suggest that many parents today do not feel they have evolved in a positive direction.   A recent poll supports this idea.  Seventy five percent of parents reported that it was better to be a parent when they were growing up; even more strikingly, almost 80% believe it was better to be a kid when they grew up.  Parents I speak to regularly bemoan the fact that their will, and their resolve, is being challenged in daily ways that have caused parenting to lose the joy that they had hoped for.  In speaking of will, I want to be clear.  Will is not synonymous with the parenting style “It’s my way or the highway.”  Data on outcomes of authoritarian parenting is no better than that of permissive parenting.

What I mean by will are the collectively conscious, authoritative, intentional acts that allow us to significantly impact our children’s lives in positive ways so that ultimately we give them a framework to pursue a contented, productive, meaningful, and empathic existence as adults.  It is the feeling that what we do really matters for our kids, both now and in the future.  I worry that increasingly, parents are losing this will, and as my pediatric colleague noted, are feeling helpless in the noblest profession of all.  Below I will explore eight reasons that I sense this is occurring, in no particular order.  I by no means feel that I can capture the breadth or depth needed for this topic in this article, but rather I hope to stir further discussion in pivotal areas.  In some of the sections, I have also included dates of articles from my column where relevant topics are explored in greater detail.

Immersion in Media/Technology at Increasingly Younger Ages:  Beneath all the incessant hype and exponential growth lies an ominous story about the health of our youth tied to the technological age.  Although research indicates that media/technology used strategically can have benefits, the unabashed reality is that this is largely not how it is being used.  Over the last fifty years, the preponderance of evidence clearly indicates that the technological revolution is playing a significant role in the increased psychological and physical difficulties with our youth.  But just as much of a story is the remarkable influence that this revolution has had on kids, who today often look (and sound) like walking advertisements.  Both in overt and unconscious ways, parental influence is being challenged by ever present media/technology, often creating distractions and pathways that run contrary to important values, ideals, and future goals (January/September 2013).

Decentralization:  Televisions in bedrooms, mobile devices for elementary school-age kids, portable gaming devices, and much more tie into media immersion.  But this issue is one of parental access and awareness.  Never before have our youth had so many opportunities to receive input and give output, whether it is through conversations with peers or downloading pornography on their mobile devices, than they do today.  As entertainment and socialization move away from the home (and family room) and becomes less about direct interaction, parents are faced with the monumental challenge of trying to keep tabs on it all.  In the meantime, their will is being tested as eight-year-old children increasingly misconstrue having a cell phone as being synonymous with a divinely-granted right to “privacy, ” which defies the supervision and monitoring needed for healthy youth maturation (January 2013).

Use of Quandary Ethics versus Character Ethics (or Limited Teaching of Ethics At All):   Researchers including Edmund Pincoffs have noted a Westerner trend that is new in the last forty years.  Previous to this, youth were first instructed on ethical decision-making through the use of character ethics, which was based on virtues such as courage, justice, wisdom, and temperance, that almost all considered vital for a healthy existence. Although these could be misconstrued in practice, they provided a clear pathway for the types of behaviors that were acceptable. But over the past forty years, the focus has switched to quandary ethics, which emphasizes using specific examples/dilemmas, and then discussing with youth about how they should be handled.  Pincoffs and others have expressed worries that this has not only left youth in a significant state of uncertainty, but it has also compromised parents ability to influence youth in clear ways that have been proven to make a difference, even for those children from significantly deprived and at-risk populations, such as those kids educated at KIPP academies through the United States (October 2013).

Decreasing Psychological and Physical Health of Parents:  As detailed in Anatomy of an Epidemic and other significant areas of study, the psychological health of our population is declining in conjunction with large increases in physical issues such as obesity and diabetes.  As parents increasingly experience a myriad of psychological issues, especially increased anxiety, it is little surprise that their ability to make timely, conscious decisions and regulate their own emotions becomes compromised.  In the process, children test their parents’ will even more, resulting in a struggle to respond in ways that will provide a lasting, positive effect for their youth.

Confusion of Demographic Diversity for Moral Diversity:  One of the best trends of the last century, despite continued areas of needed growth, is our embracing of those from different ethnic, cultural, and experiential backgrounds. But beneath all of our differences, research has always been clear that we share more similarities than divergences. However, it appears that we have begun to confuse two very different ideas: demographic diversity versus moral diversity. In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathon Haidt notes that in our noble and necessary attempt to promote greater rights for people of all backgrounds, what he calls demographic diversity, evidence suggests over the past century that we have slipped into moral diversity. He characterizes moral diversity as a “lack of consensus on moral norms and values.” Values such as self-restraint, sacrifice for the public good, and delayed gratification, which previously were held dear by the masses, no longer seem to be promoted consistently throughout our communities and homes.  This issue ties into the ethics dilemma, and appears to have left many parents confused about how to teach their children to embrace those of different backgrounds while remaining committed to critical moral practices (November 2013).

Increased Reliance on Psychiatric Drugs (especially for subclinical, developmental issues):  As the use of psychiatric (and all) drugs increase both for children and adults, many argue that the drugs are being employed for issues that could be seen as increasingly minor, societally driven, and developmental in nature.  Although others may argue that many parents are being proactive in acknowledging their weaknesses, and seeking out treatment, all can agree that the heightened use of drugs signifies that parents, teachers, extended family members, clergy, etc… do not feel that they can manage psychological issues appropriately through more natural, collaborative means.  In the process, I worry that for children especially, pharmaceuticals have become increasingly seen as a first line of defense despite limited data that long-term outcomes are better (and may even be worse) than for those who do not use drugs.  The other significant concern is that many parents see psychiatric drugs as a cure-all, and do not necessarily invest time, money, and willful pursuits in finding therapeutic, holistic ways (both for themselves and their children), which ultimately may give them tools and methods to have a lifelong positive influence.

Fracturing of the Family/Spousal Unit:  The significant rise of divorce since the late 50’s has been well-documented, and although there has been a degree of leveling of this trend in the past twenty years, a corresponding rise in single and non-married families has occurred.  Especially in urban populations, the demise of the father has led to tremendous hardships for many children, mothers, and extended family members.  Anyone that has children knows just how tough it can be to provide firm, consistent, yet critical guidance when there are two parents in the household.  But maintaining healthy parental will with just one parent is especially challenging, as the sobering data on children raised by single parents reveals in regard to social, educational, psychological, and behavioral outcomes (August 2012).

Trend of Early Indulging:  One of the most critical things that all parents must have in their arsenal is leverage.  Yes, leverage.  Leverage starts early, when the choice between giving children one jelly bean or three sets the stage for just what children will come to expect.  Every day, parents have opportunities to decide just what, and how many privileges their children will have, even as pressure from outside forces remains.  But if parents indulge their kids early, and children come to expect that they should be given privileges and goods rather than earning it through good behavior, chores, and other means, parents find that their will is increasingly tested, and their leverage quickly becomes compromised.  Leverage should not be misconstrued as sheltering or depriving, but rather as a conscious, calculated approach to raising children that are both grateful for what they are given and aware that privileges must be earned, not demanded.  It also remains a key to teaching self-control, which research indicates may be the most important malleable quality a child can acquire (November 2012).

In reflecting on these trends, it becomes very personal for me as a father and a psychologist.  At work, the only people I love more than the kids who walk in my office are the parents who bring them in.  For many of them, it takes a lot to get there, and I so appreciate those who are willing to acknowledge that they (as we all are) may be part of the problem.  But what pains me the most is when parents admit that they are chronically overwhelmed by parenting their children, and even worse, when parents have come to fear the time they spend with their own kids.  We all know the fear that comes with taking young children into public places, but for many parents, this type of fear never recedes and their will only grows weaker as their children grow older.  But as with all challenges, the potential for change always remains even if the course that must be taken is sustained counter-culturalism.  I  for one am happy to leave the trends behind in search of much greater goals, none more important than to find love in my life at home in hope that my children someday will do the same as parents themselves.

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