Monday, February 28, 2000

No bad kids, just bad parents

Faithful readers will notice the shiny new Amazon links popping up all over "Mothers with Attitude" throughout the week (or however darn much time it takes me to update everything), so it seems an appropriate time to bring up a book recently touted in one of Amazon's periodic newsletters about books on parenting and families. Now, I don't know about you, but I seem to read parenting and family books just about exclusively anymore. I remember a time when I used to read novels, but now, save for the occasional Jan Karon snuck in on a quiet weekend, I'm all about neurology and sensory integration and behavior management and no fun.

Still, this description for a new book gave me pause: "In Reclaiming Our Children: The Healing Solution for a Nation in Crisis, noted psychiatrist Peter Breggin asserts that parents and other adults are the source of our children's problems--not genetics or drugs or television."

Well. Interesting news. Apparently all those teenagers are right--it's our fault. We've ruined their lives. No blaming it on anything else, Mom and Dad. It's you. You, you, you. Shape up!

Now, the first thing I find confusing about this is that it doesn't seem very long ago that another book came out which said expressly the opposite: that nothing parents do matters, and that peer pressure is everything. "The Nurture Assumption explores the mountain of evidence pointing away from parents and toward peer groups as the strongest environmental influence on personality development," goes the Amazon review on that volume. And so here I thought we were off the hook, and we could blame the way our kids turned out on that bad crowd they took up with. But now, it seems, the onus is back on us.

And that's okay, because I was never comfortable with the idea that parents are powerless puppets in their children's lives. But neither am I willing to concede that all our children's problems are due to nothing more than their parents' inability to give them the time, attention, and discipline they need. Some problems, no doubt. But all? That's a heck of a lot of blame to be passing out, even for a self-help book.

I think what this approach fails to take into account--and I don't deny that it's an appealing approach not just to our children, who will blame us no matter what, but to all those armchair parents out there who know that they could do better--is how very difficult it is to be a parent these days. I'm not just talking about jobs that don't value family time and schools that assign so much homework that there is no time for family time and schedules, kids' and parents' both, that have family members passing like ships in the night. I'm talking about discipline, and the absolute lack of a consensus in our society about what's appropriate, and the absolute judgments that are passed on folks who don't seem to be doing that right. And since nobody agrees on what right is, that would be just about everybody.

There's a lot of talk about how parents are too permissive, and let their children run wild, and put the kids in charge of the household. We've all looked askance at parents who let their children scream, or misbehave, or bully others, or talk back. But we've also looked askance at parents who yell at their children, or pull them roughly, or smack them. The words, "Damned if you do, damned if you don't" come to mind. To discipline your child in public is to risk stern looks at best, and police involvement at worst. But don't discipline them, and, well, you're ruining their lives. There ought to be a happy medium there, but it's awful hard to find. No matter what you do, it seems, someone will tell you to lighten up and someone will tell you to tighten up.

In a perfect world where every child was well-behaved, there would be no discipline dilemmas. But I don't know that that world has ever existed. Corporal punishment may have made many children at least attempt to appear well-behaved in front of their elders, but that tool has pretty much been removed from today's parenting arsenal. I'm comfortable with that; I have no desire to smack my kids. But at the same time, I can't help but think how amusing someone like, say, Tom Sawyer would have found time-outs.

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