The XX Factor

Today’s Parents Aren’t Wusses—They’re Struggling

It’s important not to ask  but to  command  the child to toss the salad.

That American parents have all turned into ineffectual disciplinarians and chronic child pleasers is a perennial critique. There’s been a bevy of books in recent years devoted to chronicling the wet-noodlization of today’s moms and dads and the subsequent special unicornization of their kids. The latest entry in this genre is Dr. Leonard Sax’s The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups.

In a recent Macleans story on the book, Sax explains that today’s parents are wrong to ask—rather than tell—their children to do things. The seemingly innocuous act of requesting that a child eat her peas, instead of commanding her to do so, flips the familial hierarchy, with the children landing on top.

“Empower has come to seem virtuous,” Sax told Macleans. “Empower everyone, why not?” The problem with this empowerment of children isn’t just the decline of the old world order—something the conservative-leaning Sax might very well lament— but also, he argues, the rise of emotional disorders and obesity among children. Teaching them to respect their parents will, he says, make many these problems go away.

What frustrates me about critiques like Sax’s is the way they place all the responsibility on parents. Parents can be plenty obnoxious, sure, but not just because they speak to their children in questions instead of commands. Today’s overindulged children are a product of forces far outside their parents’ control.

Consider how stressed and rushed parents feel. Our family structures have changed, with a sharp increase in single-parent and dual-income households—but our workplaces and public policies have not. When you’re pressed for time, as so many of us are, it’s hard to find the patience to stick to your guns. Instead, you turn to whatever gets you through your day, be it negotiations, bribes, or electronic babysitters. A lot of parents are in survival mode, far more focused on the here-and-now than the long-term results.

The other factor is the specter of rising income inequality and the way it influences parents to try to protect their children. In her book A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting, Hara Estroff Marano looks at well-off parents who are increasingly concerned about diminishing opportunities for their children. As a result, they’ll do whatever it takes to help their children get ahead, indulging them along the way; declining confidence in public schools, the place where parents felt they could outsource some of this work, certainly doesn’t help.

Critiques like Sax’s can’t be effective unless they take in the full scope of what parents are facing. Focusing on parents and children in isolation is just not helpful.—and anyway, too many parents have already got that covered.