The Culture Wars and Parental Guilt
Massive cultural changes have led to troublesome parenting practices.
Posted May 04, 2015
In my last post, I addressed a parenting problem that has recently become widespread: parents who try to protect their kids from every possible hazard and failure, and in doing so actually impair their childrens' ability to learn to fend for themeselves.
The popular parenting advice columnist John Rosemond writes about a seemingly opposite problem: Parents who seem to let their children do whatever they darn well please. This problem has led to an epidemic of out-of-control children. For instance, he notes that behavior such as children biting their parents has become increasingly common.
Shortly I will discuss how these two patterns are related and tied together by the phenomenon of widespread parental guilt caused by some massive cultural changes over a relatively short period of recent time. But first, back to out-of-control children.
In a column in the Memphis newspaper (8/31/14), Rosemond noted that in cases of parents whose children are disrespectful and refuse to do what they are told, the parents often are not actually telling their child what to do. Instead, they are “…pleading and bribing and bargaining and cajoling and encouraging and then, when all that fails, demanding and threatening and screaming.”
He points out that there is a huge difference between saying “You could really help mommy out by picking up these toys” versus “I want you to pick up these toys right now.” If the child asks "Why?" he recommends the old standby, "Because I said so!" He correctly points out that children will usually, although of course not always, do what they are firmly and unambiguously told to do.
It seems that whenever anyone dares to point out that that maybe the problem in cases of out-of control, temper-tantrum-throwing children is not the child but the parents, they are often met with rage and accusations of “parent bashing.” This is accompanied by protestations that their child is in some way a problem child who was, I guess, just born that way.
Such parents will react this way even when their children are running wild in a restaurant or in a store or even in church, and it is blatantly obvious to anyone who has eyes and actually looks that they are doing absolutely nothing to control the kids' behavior.
A good example of such an angry response was seen in a recent column by advice columnist Amy Dickinson. In an earlier column (6/30/14), Ms. Dickinson had responded to someone who asked about the best way to advise a parent with an out-of-control child with the following:
“Talk to them about it and be supportive and uncritical. This is not a mutually exclusive concept. Tell them, "You can turn this around. Do you want to hear some of the things that have worked for us?" At the risk of providing yet another resource your sister-in-law will ignore, I highly recommend the work of Jo Frost, the ‘Supernanny.’ She enters households like your sister-in-law's, diagnoses the family dynamic and then offers sound and practical fixes.”
After she published that letter, another letter writer responded (7/15/14):
Dear Amy: "Perplexed" sounded like a sanctimonious parent with two "perfect" children, complaining about a family member with a typical tantrum-throwing 3-year-old. I can't believe you didn't call him on this. — Not Perplexed Parent
While all toddlers of course do sometimes throw tantrums, parents routinely letting them run wild and doing absolutely nothing at all about it is something else entirely. Ms. Dickinson wisely responded that she “…felt sorry for the tantrum-throwing little boy whose parents let him rule the household and then worried about his behavior. Calm and confident parenting would benefit this child, and I hope the parents get a clue.”
When out-of-control children escalate their behavior, in some cases things can get really out of hand due to a variety of factors that differ somewhat with each particular family. Parents may in frustration start to become verbally and/or physically abusive, or they may just abdicate their role as parents completely—something known in the literature as biparental failure. Or do all of the above at different times.This latter pattern can be the beginning of a process by which a child starts to develop borderline personality disorder.
While seemingly the opposite, both the overprotection and lack of discipline parenting styles are actually two sides of the same coin. In fact, some parents go back and forth unpredictably between severely restricting their child's activities, and then letting them do whatever they please. These two practices represent two extremes of the same continuum. Ironically, both of them often have the same troublesome result: children growing up who don't know how to be responsible adults.
This phenomenon is something I refer to as the principle of opposite behaviors in personality and family issues. In this case, seemingly opposite parenting styles produce almost the same results in terms of children developing significant personality problems, self esteem issues, and self-destructive or self-defeating behavior as adults.
So why are these two problematic parenting styles becoming more and more common? What is behind this? The explanation for both extremes that I propose is that there has been a relatively sudden—on the adapting to cultural changes time scale—and all-encompassing cultural shift that has led to a dramatic increase in the level of guilt among parents. The guilt has in turn led an increasing number of parents who become either over-solicitous of and afraid to discipline their children, and/or who adopt helicopter parenting styles. The kids act out in response, which then causes the parents to get angry with them.
What is this cultural shift? Well, it’s the all of the elements of the cultural upheaval that happened during the infamous 1960's. In particular, it was the emancipation of women combined with economic changes that made surviving on only one income increasingly difficult for families.
Now please don’t get me wrong. The emancipation of women is of course one of the greatest things to have ever happened, as are most of the other changes that occurred during the sixties: civil rights for minorities, the revolt against mindless conformity, and the sexual revolution.
So it is not the new freedoms themselves that are the problem, but the reactions of people to the changes, and the difficulties some families have in adjusting to the new cultural contingencies. As many pundits have pointed out, we are still even now fighting over the sixties. Almost constantly. It is referred to as the “Culture Wars.” It is part of the reason we have “red” states and “blue” states on the election maps of the United States.
As a good example, consider the fact that many people still have not gotten the message that the sexual revolution was won by the revolutionaries. Surveys show that around 90% of both men and women today are not virgins when they get married. And that’s just the people who will admit that. However, you would never know this from listening to the abstinence preachers who are still ubiquitous in our midst.
And of course we also have those people who give lip service to encouraging abstinence while somehow still recommending that we should be more “realistic” about the fact that teenagers are going to have sex. They just cannot bring themselves to say that having sex responsibly is really just an OK thing to do.
A lot of people continue to feel the need to lie about sex. Anyone really think the Jonas Brothers pop group kept those promises with the “promise rings” they wore, when they were constantly being besieged by legions of groupies? And some promise ring wearers admit that they do not consider oral sex to be “sex.” How bizarre is that?
In fact, there are still many casualties being generated from the sexual revolution of the sixties, even though it’s been over fifty years. One wonders if all the people having unprotected sex do so as a way of punishing themselves for having sex because they feel guilty about it.
They like to make excuses for being careless, such as saying that condoms interfere with their “spontaneity.” Well perhaps, but so does an unplanned pregnancy or an STD. The real issue is that these people still cannot tell themselves and others that they believe deep inside that they are not doing anything wrong.
I recall a middle aged divorcee I saw for therapy, the son of a minister from a highly conservative church, who was repeated trying to justify the fact that he was having sexual relations with a woman he was going out with. I asked him, “So are you saying you don’t really agree with the teachings of your church on this issue?” He replied that the teachings were absolutely correct, but then added, “It’s just that I have these needs…” (Therapists should definitely not face palm during sessions. I didn't but I sure felt like it).
I mentioned the time scale by which individuals and families adapt to cultural changes. The process moves a lot more slowly than most people realize (cultural lag). After all, people are raised by parents who grew up in a somewhat different time. The parents, in turn, were raised by grandparents who grew up in yet another different time. And so on and so forth. Old rules get passed down from one generation to the next, even when they have become obsolete and counterproductive due to cultural shifts.
The rapid cultural changes in gender roles during the last few decades is what I believe to be behind all the parental guilt that we are seeing today, and which have led to the problematic parenting patterns which seem to be increasing in prevalence.
It is hard to believe that just four or five generations ago, even in advanced industrial countries like the United States and England, women were treated in ways that are not all that much different from the way they are treated today in traditional Muslim societies. Recently on the Ancestry.com plugfest television show, Who Do You Think You Are (on TLC, formerly on NBC), actress Cynthia Nixon discovered that her 3X great grandmother, Martha Curnutt, killed her abusive husband, Noah Casto, with an ax in 1840s Missouri.
The show’s narrator explained that she did not really have much choice. Her husband apparently told her in no uncertain terms that he was going to kill her, and the law would not protect her. It was not just that women did not obtain the right to vote for another 80 years (in 1920 in the US—less than three generations ago). They were completely at the mercy of their husbands. The narrator explained that in United States until the late 1800's wives were ruled by a legal doctrine called coverture.
Coverture stripped women of almost all civil rights upon marriage, and they were considered legally indistinct from their husbands. Women could not keep any money they earned, own property, sign legal documents, serve on juries, get educated without their husband's consent, or retain custody of their children in the event of divorce. Men were legally allowed to physically punish (although not kill) their wives, and wives had no legal right to refuse sexual relations.
Some aspects of coverture lasted until the 1960's in some states. In fact, it was not until 1973 that women could serve on juries in all 50 States.
Flash forward to the 1950’s—within my lifetime. When I was a child very few married middle-class women had careers. Children played outside freely while their mothers were almost all home, and were all looking out for all the kids behind the scenes. These mothers were the granddaughters of the women that were ruled by coverture!
Despite the mothers mostly all being at home, kids were seldom actually actually spending a lot of time with their parents. They kept busy playing with each other. Since I grew up in sunny Southern California, it was almost always nice enough to play outside, and that is where we all were sent. "It's a nice day, go out and play!" was a frequently heard maternal refrain. And a lot of it was free play, not organized activities—although there was Little League if you liked that sort of thing.
These mothers, who came of age in the thirties and forties, had no idea what was about to hit them when their daughters became college aged and joined the "women's lib" movement en masse.
In my post about the parents of borderline personality disorder from 5/28/12, I discussed the peculiar situation of these women, who as Rosie the Riveter types got a taste of what it was like to have careers, only to sent back to the kitchen with advice from the government to get barefoot and pregnant again at the end of World War II.
As mentioned, their daughters came of age during the Women’s Lib movement, which set up a real “generation gap.” I discussed how those developments led to tensions which spilled over into the future parenting practices of the younger of the two generations. I would refer the reader to that post, as a prelude to part 2 of this one, which will discuss the details of the individual and family dynamics that have been creating today’s guilty parents and dysfunctional parenting styles.