Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Review & Thoughts On "The Collapse of Parenting" by Dr. Sax

My daughter, seven years old, asked me on the way home form school the other day, "Mommy, when are kids allowed to get a cell phone of their very own?" I quickly answered that's up to the parent(s) but that I thought after high school graduation is the proper time. She was stunned. I explained that neither myself of her dad carried cell phones until long after we were married and didn't think it was necessary for kids to own them. Then, I inquired why she brought up this subject. She stated she sees 6th-graders on the bus with phones and assumed that was the age to get a phone of her very own. I thought 6th grade is a tad young for a phone, especially to bring to school. Next, I asked her if those kids ever looked out the window or paid attention to anything else around them; or did they simple look at their phone during the bus ride. She said, "They talk to their friends, too." Well, at least they aren't texting one another when they are sitting in the same seat. I finally let up my cell phone age threshold to consider it when she's sixteen, got a job, and could pay for it herself.

Our conversation made me think of a parenting book I recently finished by Dr. Leonard Sax title The Collapse of Parenting. I borrowed it from the library after patiently waiting my turn in queue. (If I purchased every book that interested me, I'd go broke! Long live the libraries!) It reinforced many of my opinions over current societal values and modern upbringing. I tend to be old-fashioned in this area. I don't think all the hype over fame, fortune, and power is healthy; in fact, it's suffocating our youth into a waste dump of loneliness and irrational expectations. Our fast-paced narcissistic culture has laid out a platform of failure; and most youth have walked the plank. I appreciated Dr. Sax's insight, observations, and suggestions. Here are my thoughts on the book and a few of the points that held the most significance to me.  

The author brings practical yet brutally honest insight to raising kids in modern day America. When youngsters are left to find their own entertainment with no supervision, a shift in mindsets becomes evident. With all the technology, violent media content, and lack of proper adult supervision, they are encompassed by immature upbringing, over-medicated, and not held responsible to their actions. 

The culture of disrespect is explained in the beginning of The Collapse of Parenting: "For the first time in history, young people are turning for instruction, modeling, and guidance not to mothers, fathers, teachers, and other responsible adults but to people whom nature never intended to place in a parenting role--their peers . . . Children are being brought up by immature persons who cannot possibly guide them to maturity. They are being brought up by each other."

"They are being brought up by each other." Let that sink in. This notion of kids raising one another was terrifying to me; I never took that into consideration during my childhood (who really does). I was shy and didn't have many friends so I guess there weren't enough to "raise" me with anyhow. The few I did have were not trouble makers or disrespectful. I was picky about who I shared my time with. In hindsight, I suppose that was a good thing; a mark of character. Nowadays, kids are using technology such as cell phones, social media, and video games, to provide themselves with entertainment and/or communication. Texting and social media particularly add to this dynamic by making it easy for kids to turn to their friends for instant advice rather than entrusting their parents' wisdom. The problem is that, when left with this entertainment, over time children grow up believing those represent the real world, and that there isn't anything worthwhile beyond an electronic connection. Any sense of true living evaporates. At least that's what I grasped from the book, but there is truth to this. For example: parents who play violent video games are more likely to have kids that enjoy them. But what happens when kids constantly engage with other kids who like those things? . . . "They [will be] brought up by each other." Choose friends and activities wisely and limit any potential people, places, or things that could harm moral character.

Something I found interesting was when Dr. Sax investigated upon asking a group of middle schoolers: Would they still join a social media site if their parents disapproved? The group sneered and laughed because they wouldn't even consider asking their parents! They will do as they please and don't care about what their parents think. Another example of the culture of disrespect. Once again, detaching from responsible adults means "[t]hey [will be] brought up by each other" and not value the opinions and concerns of mature individuals, most importantly their parents! It also puts too much control in the hands of kids. They feel entitled to talk back to not only their parents, but teachers, police, or any authority figure, creating and cultivating the culture of disrespect.

(Another point of interest, is that the culture of disrespect is peculiar to the United States, as per the author's own studies. Other countries don't seem to have this issue with their youth.)

Dr. Sax also emphasized the lack of "willingness to fail" with today's youth. Kids are emotionally fragile because they expect instant success, but "[f]ailure comes to us all. The willingness to fail, and then to move on with no loss of enthusiasm, is a mark of character." His theory is that kids "now value the opinion of same-age peers . . . more than they care about the good regard of their parents . . . The result is a cult of success obsession, because "success is the easiest way to impress." This is only greedily fed by the television networks. How many reality shows are out there for people to sing, dance, etc. in a nationwide competition search to find the next star? It's instant success. Gone are the days of trying it on your own, experience failure as a learning opportunity, hop back up on your own two feet, and make improvements to try again. Well, maybe those days aren't gone, but culture has supported an easier way to get there to shield youth from hard work and the disappointment of failure.

A sheltered or overly cautious upbringing can mean the incapability of dealing with failure. Why try or do something that might not turn out favorably? I remember taking a big risk and trying out for dance team in high school and I didn't make it. I was, of course, tearful and recall people reminding me (sometimes with the told-ya-so-attitude) there was no guarantee in making the team. It was as though disappointment should be avoided instead of learning to deal with it. Luckily, I tried out the following year and made the team. I'm glad I followed my desire to accomplish it. I hadn't given much thought at the "willing to fail" correlation as developing into a sensitive personality, but it makes sense.

Lastly, the most important point Dr. Sax makes is who you are, is more important than what you do. American culture dictates that youngsters striving to be stellar athletes or become highly efficient at a skill, is more important than family time, enjoying solitude, or growing into a person of value. You don't have to look far to find families whose time is consumed shuffling kids from one activity to another. They don't have time to eat together or simply spend time doing simple things such as board games or hiking. Fitting all these activities into a scattered, chaotic schedule must be exhausting; and what is it all for? To make the child a better soccer player or artist at the minute chance they would win a full-ride scholarship? I suppose this may contradict the "willingness to fail" section, but I believe what Dr. Sax is suggesting is that there must be proper balance. One or two activities a week that still leaves six days a week for eating meals together would be balance. Three or four activities per week while one child eats in the car on the way to pick up the second is overkill. Clearly, the more children you have the more complicated it gets, but I think his point can easily be made. Many families are eager to boast their busy lifestyles because they don't want to appear bland, boring, or ordinary. What is wrong with being ordinary anyway? What is so shameful in rearing children to have good moral values through ordinary things? Nothing. Unfortunately, our culture's representation of "ordinary" is shifting to doing everything under the sun in order to have an edge over the general population. No wonder we have a generation of kids who are burnt out and have no desire to succeed. They used up all their energy chasing childhood endeavors. 

If you are a parent, then you surely have become subjected to cultural pressures to get your kids involved in all sorts of activities. To be labeled a good parent requires pushing kids to do all sorts of extracurricular activities. Not only are many of them expensive, they are too competitive. For example: For only an amount equal to your yearly social security contribution, kids can play a sport; complete with parents yelling their displeasure from the bleachers over a volunteer referee's failure to call a penalty. It's absurd. Subjecting children to that environment, or forcing them to do something they aren't enthusiastic about, is not going to enhance parental wholesomeness or develop lasting family dynamics. Personally, however, I encourage my child to try new things. If she says she's interested in something, I will generally allow her to give it a go. Sometimes that means committing to a few days of a trial period. I make sure she understands this and agrees to it. At the end, if she decides she doesn't like it, that's okay. (Certainly, at some point, there has to be some discernment between disinterest or lack or desire.) I must admit, with the endless possibilities of activities to occupy kids' time, it's hard to not get caught up in the hype of worrying over lost opportunities. Balance, balance, balance!

The Collapse of Parenting emphasizes a more traditional family upbringing, and to shift American culture back to putting family values first. Spending time with one another, and appreciating small things are important and necessary. Finding a caterpillar or catching a frog are rather ordinary things to pass time; but they spark natural curiosity, wonder, and awe at a world beyond selfish pity. Perhaps because, when not consumed with a daily parade of activities, there is time for the little things. It's the root of the adage, "stop and smell the roses." Take time for the wonders and beauty of just . . . being. When my daughter asks again (which I'm sure she will later on down the road) when she can have her own cell phone, I'm going answer: "When you know it will not affect family bonds, interfere with parental relationships, contribute to the culture of disrespect, or prevent you from smelling those roses." 

Copyrighted 2016 by Jennifer E. Miller

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