We face a parenting crisis in America today. All around me I observe parents sending wildly mixed-messages to their children. Instead of the clarity children thrive on, too often they get wavering responses with parents vacillating between extremes. With the best parental intentions, children are treated like equals, as if they are the parent’s best friends. Without pause, children are relegated to subordinates, when parents switch to a mode of control. This is not healthy for children (or parents). In fact, bouncing between extremes is creating a generation of stressed-out children. By adolescence, nearly 30 percent of our teens will have received a diagnosis of anxiety disorder; 8 percent will be diagnosed with severe anxiety; median age of onset- 6.
A recent book by a Swedish psychiatrist and father of six David Eberhard made headlines by proclaiming that his home country’s “child-centric” ways has bred a nation of badly raised children. In America, we’d refer to them as "brats." In this much-debated book, Eberhard foresees a generation of anxious and depressed adults, unable to handle life’s challenges. He goes so far as to claim this problematic parenting style is behind the declining status of Swedish schools in international competitions.
Whether or not parenting style can be held accountable for school or economic decline of a nation is debatable in and of itself. Yet, I do see a similar, equally serious parenting trend in America.
Ambivalent Parenting/Lost Children
The problem I witness can be termed "ambivalent parenting." It begins with the blurring of lines between who is child and who is the adult. In a flash and without the slightest warning, parents switch to micromanaging nearly every aspect of their child’s behavior. Why is this harmful? In a developmental context, in the years up to age 8, children look to parents for guidance or a roadmap on how to manage life. When parental messages and actions vacillate so widely, the child is left feeling alone, ashamed and without that much needed roadmap.
It is during these early years that parental input establishes a base for lifelong development. Exponential neuronal growth occurs before age 5 with 700 new synapses (neural connections) being formed every second until age 3 or 4. Thousands of developmental studies confirm that the relationship with parents is at the center of shaping who that child grows into. Neuroscience has begun to map how this relationship shapes the brain. Interactions between parent and child help mold the child’s brain structures that handle emotions, develop skills needed for academic success, to navigate the social world, to be resilient and kind.
When parents move between extreme parenting actions, children are left confused and lost. It’s led to a generation of children who struggle with making decisions, are afraid to try new things and slow to grow up. Perhaps this is why a survey of college seniors found that 85 percent expect to move back home after graduation. The economy matters, but parenting does, too.
Making Children Happy/ Who’s the Adult Anyway?
We live in an era of "making children happy." This is in spite of evidence that resilience and empathy are built from stumbling, struggling and having the love and support to get up again. I can see where it comes from. Parents are busier than ever. I myself feel that. Parental devotion to their children coupled with time constraints means they don’t want their children to be upset with them in the time they have together. But it is misguided, at best, and more than that, it derails positive development. Parents go overboard in efforts to please and get close to their children. As children get older, parents listen to the same music, adopt their texting lexicon, even dress like them. Ads scream out to us to "stay young, look young" further blurring the generational boundaries.
In efforts to ensure "No child will be upset with me" we prepare separate child-friendly dinners if our children don’t want what we’re eating and buy them the latest electronic gadgets. Our children are asked, not told, to comply with rules: “Put your seatbelt on, okay?” “Don’t you think it’s time for bed?” I watched a mother engage in an adult-like discussion with her 4-year-old about why he needed to wear boots outside on a bitter cold, snowy day. She tenderly pleaded the pros, while he presented the cons. And it was 20 degrees and windy.
The problem is that parents then switch on a dime to the other extreme, micromanaging the tiniest aspects of their children’s lives. It can begin as early as toddlerhood by monitoring children’s every move via a video camera aimed at their crib. It continues into elementary school and beyond, as parents do children’s homework, insist they participate in sports or activities even if the child has no interest, and check grades online daily.
Parental anxieties foster already heightened needs for control. Parents are afraid to let children walk home from nearby schools. No amount of data on the safety of society today can counter this. Parents ask for jungle gyms to be removed from playgrounds fearing their child might fall. There is no question we all want to protect our children from harm, but these "protective" actions actually cause more harm than good to our children. I recall my own terror as my then-4 year old scaled to the top of a climber, far above my (or any adult’s) reach. He did this in trees, too. But I had to let him to do it. His determination was unstoppable, the resulting success his prize. In fact, developmental science confirms that taking appropriate physical risks is necessary for the brain to incorporate motor mapping and planning.
Early childhood studies assert that taking risks is part of becoming independent and gaining confidence, for children to learn about appropriate risks and what they can and cannot do. By denying these essential opportunities, parents hijack their children’s ability to try things on their own and experience struggle and failure on the way to achieving successes they can own. These are the critical growth opportunities and freedoms we had as children ourselves.
Praise, Control & Conditional Love
Perhaps even more dangerous is another way parents control their children- by lavishing on praise and using shame in attempts to control behavior, good and bad. When a child does what a parent expects, she is rewarded with a sticker, or a gold star. The assumption is that the child learns the "good" behavior "on her own."
In reality, what the child learns is, “When I do exactly what mommy or daddy wants, you reward me and love me; and when I do something else, it is wrong and I must be bad.” This is called conditional love. Studies by Assor & Roth find that these love-contingent tactics are used for control. Their research provides evidence for its harm on children’s ability to become independent, own their mistakes and be empathic. Over time, children equate sticker charts and praise ("good job!") with a view of themselves based on gaining parental acceptance, not on who they are or what they can do. Without praise, they feel like a failure; praise is confused with love. These children engage in an internal struggle resulting in second-guessing and diminished confidence as well as greater dislike of their parents. Praise and shame as control simultaneously defeat both parental and child development goals.
Parenting at the Extremes
So what is the parenting battle here? It is an internal battle for the adults, with children caught between the extremes. On the one hand, children are given too much freedom when we act like their friends; on the other hand, their autonomy is lost to our over-control and the enforcement of "Do as I say." That leaves children without a clear path to follow just when they need boundaries and limits. They get stuck in an ambiguous dilemma, nervous and afraid to make decisions on their own, especially if the decision doesn’t satisfy their parent. This path counters the fostering of autonomy and a foundation for healthy lifelong growth.
That four-year-old who didn’t want to wear his boots, for example, went on to ask his mother for candy (after all, he was 4!). Suddenly, the atmosphere of adult-style discussion with a toddler vanished and the mother responded, in an exasperated, dismissive voice, “You know you’re not supposed to have candy before dinner. Why do you keep asking? You know the answer is no.” Does he? In response, his head tilted down, chin to chest in shame.
One minute, the child was her adult partner. The next, he was a shamed little boy. We should be concerned about how he will learn to trust his own desires, which will become the base for making reasonable choices and decisions. Alternatively, how will he distinguish between what he wants and what his mother wants for him? Independence entails making one’s own decisions. In being allowed to attempt and fail, he will discover the true limits of what he’s capable of at each point in his development. He will develop the tenacity to keep trying or attempt a new way. These are the very experiences that grow competent, confident and compassionate adults.
The Parents Our Children Need
Our children need us as parents, as loving authority, not as friends. Although we want our children to be happy and love us, this is a dangerous guiding force for parenting. Growing up entails being unhappy at times. We need to let them be with reminders that we are here for them, no matter what. At other moments we have to stand by when they are mad at us, which seems increasingly difficult for parents to do.
Our main role as parents is neither to make our children happy nor micromanage/control their lives. Finding the balance is key. In a nutshell, it is to help them develop the capacity to handle life’s hurdles (there will be many), and grow into confident and independent adults capable of caring about others. We can’t do that by treating them like “mini-adults” one moment and controlled subordinates the next.
Do parents mean to do harm? Certainly not. Yet in this age of "too-much-information" and overly stretched lives, we have lost our own roadmap. To solve America’s parenting crisis we must learn to avoid both extremes—instead setting limits with love and support. Then our children will be set on the path they need to thrive.
Merikangas, KR. He, JP. Burstein M., Swanson SA., Avenevoli S., Cui L., Benjet C., Georgiades, K., Swendsen, J. (2010) Lifetime prevalence of mental disorders in U.S. adolescents: results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication--Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A). J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry, 49(10):980-9.
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function: Working Paper No. 11. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu
Roth, R Assor, Avi, Niemiec, CP, Ryan, RM, Deci, EL. (2009). The emotional and academic consequences of parental conditional regard: Comparing conditional positive regard, conditional negative regard, and autonomy support as parenting practices. Developmental Psychology, 45(4), 1119-1142. doi: 10.1037/a0015272