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Opinion & Essays - Apr, 1996 Issue #39 

By: Lon Woodbury, Educational Consultant
Survivor of an out-of-control teenager
Bonners Ferry, Idaho 

(Reprinted from Woodbury Reports, Issue #39, April 1996)

I don't believe in parent bashing, but it seems a lot of society does! All too often, I hear terms like "irresponsible", "dysfunctional", "they just don't care", or "they just aren't there for their children like our parents were" when referring to modern parents. The breakdown of the family has become a major topic of public debate, and much of the blame is usually laid squarely at the feet of parents. The general focus is usually "How can we make parents take their parenting responsibilities more seriously." The two most common solutions seem to be to increase the state's responsibility for children by using tax money to establish public programs, and/or to pass legislation to punish parents for the actions of their children. 

In my practice as an educational consultant, I have contact with several hundred parents a year. It is obvious that actions and beliefs (mistakes) of these parents frequently contribute to the self- destructive state of mind of their out-of-control teenager. Yet, I still don't believe in generalized parent bashing. This is because the root problem is not so much the parents, as it is that American society has forgotten how to raise children. We have criticized and weakened key institutions and ideas that have supported the existence of strong families throughout modern history. Usually, of the parents I have worked with, their mistakes have come from an attempt to do what they thought they were supposed to. My clients are usually well- read in matters of raising children, and usually have made a conscientious effort to take advantage of the latest research in child growth and development. 

There are also several parallel developments in 20th century American society that have had the unintended result of fostering a negative view of parents and families. One is the highly developed ability of politicians to successfully target and demonize various segments of society for political advantage (Perhaps targets of this demonization are the ones who are so furious at politicians and government). Families and parenting have been targets of this "demonization" from time to time. Another was the 19th century discovery that "startling" readers sold more newspapers than "informing" their readers. Another is the understandable custom that "news" is what is unusual, rather than what is commonplace. A fourth development was the enhanced ability of television to communicate impressions and feelings, thus communicating a more powerful emotional impact than ever before possible. The same goes for movies (One important result is the average viewer receives a subliminal impression of what the world is like outside his/her personal boundaries based on what stories are selected, and how those stories are handled). An important fifth development was the wide acceptance of the need for "expert" guidance in virtually all aspects of living (An extension of the "Doctor knows best" to many additional professions, and especially professions related to education and mental health). The emotional impact of all this has been a growing distrust of strangers, neighbors, and even family members on the part of the population in general (Who knows what dark secrets are lodged in the heart of that other person?), along with a growing tendency to trust experts (I'm only a parent, I'm not a -- teacher/counselor/etc.--). 

These developments contributed to radically changing our view of parents and parenting, marriage, children, discipline, and families. The following is how I see it as having evolved since the sixties, based largely on my contact with parents of out-of-control teenagers considering residential placement as a solution. My observations are not necessarily reflective of all parents since the parents I've had contact with are usually successful career-wise, well- educated, and are willing to do "whatever it takes" to help their child with problems. 

FAMILIES: By the 1960s, families had been opened up to study by professionals in ways never before possible or allowed. Stories of abuse, incest, neglect and violence that came out of these studies were perfect for a media looking for stories that startle (In a country of a quarter billion people, even if these horror stories applied to only 1% of families, that would give something like a half million examples for the evening news or movie plots). By the 1970s, firebrand writers were equating the institutions of family and marriage with slavery. The contemporary extreme is stated in bumper stickers I occasionally see stating, "Family Values - Incest, Alcoholism and Violence." This on-going display of the worst cases tends to put parents on the defensive. All parents I have contact with are anxious to be different from those families they have seen splashed on the evening news and dissected in magazine and newspaper articles and movie plots. 

DISCIPLINE: We have gone from where physical punishment was an accepted part of discipline, to where even a spanking is seen by many professionals as potentially damaging to a child's self- esteem, and might be a trigger for intrusive investigation and/or intervention by the state, which can be a devastating event to even innocent parents. Parents are usually defensive by the time they get to me. They are usually anxious to prove they have done all the correct steps in raising a healthy child. They are honestly hurt, confused and bewildered by their child's self- destructive attitudes and behaviors, especially when the child's anger and hostility is being directed at the parents. ("We've sacrificed for his/her good, and we don't have a clue as to why he/she is so angry at us). In reassuring themselves they have been good parents, they commonly will say, "I have never spanked," or "We have always been open, up front, honest, and withheld nothing, and don"t intend to change now", or "We emphasized quality time" or "We provided every opportunity." In the carrot and stick elements of discipline, parents have often bought into throwing away the stick, and used only the carrot, so as to not damage their child emotionally. 

PARENTING: We have gone from where the parent was given the benefit of the doubt (undoubtedly misplaced at times), to where the CHILD frequently is given the benefit of the doubt (How often have we heard "A child would never lie!"?). The agony, self- doubt and guilt of parents I work with in even considering a residential placement demonstrates how much they have bought into a belief that an out-of-control child is proof of poor parenting. Even hard- nosed businessmen are frequently almost incapable of saying NO to their own child, and parents often have a hard time distinguishing between what a child wants, and what a child needs! It is very difficult for a parent to be confident, firm and decisive with so many other people second guessing and judging every decision. 

MARRIAGE: We have moved from a view that marriage is "Till death do we part!", to where many experts routinely point out how unrealistic it is to expect two people to be compatible for the rest of their lives. "Growing Through Divorce" was a very popular book in the seventies and seems to be a commonly accepted view still. Most of the parents I work with have been divorced. For some, it was obvious divorce was a necessary correction for a poor choice in marriage, and the only realistic option. Others felt they could provide a more positive environment for themselves and their children through divorce. Of those, a few have been honest enough to admit that the problems that made them seek a divorce were nothing compared to the problems the divorce created (My out-of-control daughter hates me for taking her away from her father!). "Enlightened" parents have often accepted the view that divorce can be a positive experience for all involved, and have acted on that view. 

CHILDREN: The traditional view was that children must be civilized by adults (The violence and cruelty depicted in the book "The Lord of the Flies" was a fictionalization that this was what children would do if left to their own devices without adult discipline and influence). The modern view is that children are born naturally good. In this view, lying, cruelty, violence, etc. are seen as learned from the adults who raise the children. Apparently as a prevention to teaching the wrong lessons, many parents emphasize how they have a "democratic" family, have always given serious and equal weight to their children's opinions, and have worked hard to emphasize reasoning with the child why something was wrong rather than punishing them. 

MOTHERS: Motherhood was almost considered sacred in the past, key to a civilized society and, combined with running a home, a full-time occupation ("The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world"). More recently, a common view of a stay-at- home mother seems to be of a frustrated, mind-numbed housewife who by sacrificing herself, also suffocates her husband and children. Many of the mothers I work with have had successful and demanding careers (as opposed to just a job), and many have tried for "having it all" (marriage, family, home, and career). A very common guilt on the part of these mothers is expressed as, "Maybe I didn't spend enough time with him/her when he/she was young!" They might be right, but they were doing what was commonly recommended, and insisted on by many spokespersons. 

FATHERS: The old view of the disciplinarian who provides for and protects his family hasn't done well lately. A commonly expressed contemporary view has been that frequently what the family needs to be protected from IS the father. Spousal abuse, molestation, and child abuse automatically focus on the father as the most likely culprit, with only an accusation needed to throw him in jail in some jurisdictions. Most of the mothers I work with are critical of the weak role the child's biological father played in raising the child, as are MANY OF THE BIOLOGICAL FATHERS. Fathers have become very defensive, and often distant from their children. How are we to have many strong male adult role models when many professionals see a strong male adult role model as part of the problem? 

So the next time you want to blame the parents for being overly permissive with their children, for not being firm enough, for putting their own personal interests ahead of the child's, or not working hard enough at saving their marriage, remember this. It might take a village to raise a child, but the modern American village has been telling parents to not interrupt the child's natural tendencies, that it is vital for parents to emphasize their own self-fulfillment, that parents need to seek a credentialed professional for advice and guidance at the first sign of trouble, that the family can be a very dangerous environment for a child, and that almost any other arrangement is better than a marriage that does not fully satisfy the personal hopes and dreams of the mother and father. We have to look past the parents to find the root problem. The root problem is there is a classic double bind here: Parents are expected to exert more control over their children's behavior, and are criticized when they exert too much authority. 

Children need strong, confident parents who are comfortable in setting firm boundaries. By bashing parents, we will not only be talking just about symptoms, but will continue to undermine and weaken those very adults that children need the most. 

Copyright 1996, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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