A friend of mine who is a very experienced preschool teacher recommended a book about parenting that I got the opportunity to read on a long plane flight this week. The book is by pediatrician and psychologist Leonard Sax, and is called The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Children When We Treat Them like Grown-Ups (Basic Books, 2015). Sax has some important observations about his twenty-five plus years of experience seeing parents, children and teens in his private pediatric medical practice. He also has extensive experience both within the US and around the world lecturing, listening and learning about the challenges families, parents and schools experience while helping to raise great kids.
I found the book well-researched and a very easy read in a few hours. Sax gives you a peek into his pediatric office to observe parenting shifts and disasters, like teens telling parents to shut up (in front of him!), or well-meaning parents giving an 8 year old complete control of a major life decision, like which school they want to attend.
While the title sounds like it might be critical of parents, I found that he's really trying to empower parents to use their positive leadership to guide and direct their children and teens into better outcomes. Sax suggests that changes in society becoming more egalitarian in the past several decades has put parents in a more unsure position about what is fair to ask of their children. He reminds us that parents are, from my perspective as a structural family therapist, the co-architects of the family. While we want families to be democratic, and I like children to have a say, it's not in their best interest to always have their way.
It's hard at times to be a kid or a teen. Having strong, loving parents who can set limits effectively and create rituals for connection like family dinners, bedtimes, boundaries and chores helps young people prepare to be better adults who have successful skills for operating in the world they will launch into. None of us grow up to be the center of the universe, so growing up learning how to contribute and cooperate with others is essential.
Here were a few of the ideas that Sax presents that I concur with as a therapist in private practice in Newport Beach, California for the past 25 years:
1. Parents are not meant to be their child's friend. You're the parent. You want to be approachable and loving, but not a doormat. An active parent is involved, provides structure, love and limits, but is also a leader in your child's life. You're not all equal. I want parents to be the executives in the family, involving the kids input, but not afraid to set the tone or some rules and traditions.
2. Family dinners are super important. Have as many as you can work out each week. All kinds of studies support that this helps children and teens feel more connected, feel less anxious and/or depressed and do better in school. Put all interruptions away and make it positive connecting time.
3. Don't allow everything outside the family to obliterate time as a family. Like Dr. Sax, I have for years seen loving and well-intentioned parents here in Orange County be exhausted taking each child to multiple extracurricular activities each week so that family time becomes the last priority and gets only fragmented leftovers. Make some sacred times that are just for family every week where everybody knows to protect that time. It's reasonable for the kids to have activities, but don't let any activity overtake your parenting vision of what your family needs to stay close.
4. Parents and children need to have fun together where we are completely present. As working parents, we are often overwhelmed or tempted to multi-task, but being fully available to enjoy some time together every week is critical. When families with teens come in to my counseling practice with concerns about a teen's behavior, I usually ask parents to increase the positive (fun) time together with their son or daughter, as well as other interventions that we will work on to improve their situation.
5. Teach your child humility and self-control. Rather than offering praise just for accomplishments or "wins", use your powerful positive parental attention to praise effort, resiliency, compassion, kindness, tolerance, and being brave enough to try something they fail at.
6. Don't become a short order cook. Sax has some interesting thoughts and observations about family meals and the increase in childhood obesity from his perspective as a pediatrician. Just as you can't let a 4 year old decide if they want to brush their teeth, it's best not to let them dictate the meal plans you are making. I work with a great nutritionist on this issue with families and find that it's best to serve a variety of healthy foods. It's easy to incorporate some of the things the kids like, while encouraging them to try new things.
7. Limit screen time. I think we all know this one, but it bears repeating as Sax correlates his observations with kids behaving better, feeling happier and getting more activity and creative time when parents hold the line on some reasonable amount of screen time with phones, computers and tablets. Make the amount of screen time age appropriate. Most teens are not sleeping enough and he recommends all phones be docked with parents overnight.
8. Friends are important developmentally for children and teens, but so is family time. Set some boundaries to protect family times, to play together, eat together, do chores together and travel or vacation together. In recent years, friends have been elevated in importance with children and teens, sometimes to the detriment of family connection and memory making.
9. Do not allow disrespect. Don't treat your children disrespectfully, and don't accept that behavior from them. Mutual respect is the most important ingredient in families and relationships.
Sax also shares his own views on ADHD and psychotropic medications, preferring that they be used as a last option rather than the first one. Sometimes I find these medications essential and completely necessary, but it's often prudent to try to work in counseling to talk through issues and shift parenting first. While some of his suggestions may seem a bit unrealistic for families now, but there are still plenty of good ideas in this book to pick from and to help you feel more empowered as a parent to create the family you hoped for.
I recommend Dr. Sax's book as important reading for parents. While parents can feel adrift and unsure, this book will give you permission to hold strong as the architects of your family to avoid being a doormat or a dictator, but become a strong, loving parent raising young adults who will thrive as they launch and move into the real world. That's essentially our purpose in parenting anyway, isn't it? That's what I want for my children and all the children, teens and families I help.