n The Collapse of Parenting, the Pennsylvania psychologist and family physician Leonard Sax tells the story of a girl named Julia, a high school junior who had always performed at the top of her class. She wanted to take an advanced physics class a year early so she could do an independent study her senior year. But things went awry when she got back her first quiz. The grade was a 74. Her mother thought something was seriously wrong when she found her daughter sobbing uncontrollably. The mother told Sax: “I had to put my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing. Here I thought she had been the victim of some awful crime, and it was just a low mark on a quiz.” But then the mother came unmoored as well. The crying spells continued and “she didn’t want me to try to comfort her.” That’s when Julia’s mother took her to a doctor, who prescribed psychotropic medication.
What’s interesting about this episode is that it reveals not only the fragility of American youth these days—a point that has been driven home by protests on college campuses over Halloween costumes and the demand for trigger warnings before history professors mention slavery—but also the insecurities of their parents. Julia’s mother was sure something must really have been wrong when she could not successfully comfort her daughter. It was not only Julia who couldn’t deal with disappointment or failure. It was her mother as well.
Sax is hardly the first author to remark on the fundamentally altered relationship between parent and child that we are seeing in the U.S. today. It’s been 35 years since David Elkind published The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, in which he argued that the “children’s rights” movement of the 1970s was misguided because it treated children as something they were not. “Children need time to grow, to learn, and to develop,” Elkind wrote. “To treat them differently from adults is not to discriminate against them but rather to recognize their special estate.”
Rather than recognize children as different, we have continued to blur the lines. In some cases this has meant the early sexualization of children. Seeing eight-year-olds wearing low-rise jeans and showing off their midriffs is a visual reminder that we have lost sight of the distinction between kids and adults. But the underlying reality is worse. Parents see it as normal and even desirable to befriend their children, and many seem to be desperately seeking their sons’ and daughters’ approval. In her 1999 book, Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future and Ours, Kay Hymowitz wrote that parents saw it as their job to “empower children, advocate for them, boost their self-esteem, respect their rights and provide them with information with which they can make their own decisions.”
This approach seems to have failed, at least by the measures of many parents who adopt it. And in order to fix the harm that has been caused by forcing our children to grow up too fast and by abdicating our own authority, we have gone running to doctors, asking them to medicate our children.
Sax has treated a great many kids since he started practicing medicine in 1989—he estimates 90,000 office visits over his career. But he began to see more parents like Julia’s when he started to speak out publicly against the overdiagnosis of disorders like ADHD and the overuse of medication to fix them. The kids may become calmer or less restless, but in many cases they don’t. And the side effects can seriously alter the course of childhood and even adulthood.
Sax argues that parents have stopped regulating fundamental aspects of children’s lives—what they eat, how much they sleep, and what they spend their time doing. One father came to Sax about his adolescent son. The boy had been playing video games so much and doing so little physical activity that he was gaining weight. Why did the boy spend so much time sitting in front of a screen? “Aaron was six years old. We were playing Madden NFL Football,” the father related. “Aaron beat me. By some crazy score. I think the final score was 62 to 7.” His father was so impressed that he decided to let the boy become a “gamer.” (This echoes the amazement many parents express at their children’s ability to operate a video-game console or iPad. But why? These things have literally been designed so that four-year-olds can master them.)
Aaron tried out for the football team and was told he’d have to come back the next day to start getting in shape (he couldn’t run a mile in under 12 minutes) if he wanted to make it. He never went back. It was a result his father simply accepted. He played more and more video games and announced he wanted to be a “professional gamer.” “What can I say?” Aaron’s father asks Sax. “Maybe that’s his passion. That’s what he really wants. Who am I to tell him that he shouldn’t go after his dream? I just want him to be happy.”
But the job of parents is not simply to make their kids’ dreams come true. If that were the case, I could have paid the $300 for the “princess package” at Disney World. But something besides the hair glitter stopped me. Absent any common religious or philosophical understanding about the purpose of life, perhaps we can agree that we want our children to be fulfilled as adults. And yet, as Sax points out, the traits we try to inculcate are not generally good predictors of that. “Intelligence predicts both income and wealth,” he points out, “but intelligence does not predict happiness….Nor does intelligence predict life satisfaction.”
It is a ‘culture of disrespect,’ Sax writes. It’s not just that the children he encounters regularly talk back to their parents or tell them to ‘shut up’ in front of other adults. Their behavior is regularly tolerated and even encouraged.
There are modern parents who will dismiss Sax as naive and his demand that parents make their children finish their broccoli before eating dessert as quaint. But there is plenty of evidence he is right. You can offer kids healthy options at lunch in the manner prescribed by Michelle Obama, but if you give them the choice and they know they will get pizza and chicken nuggets later, then it’s not much of a choice.
Parents have not only given up on mandating vegetables, many have stopped enforcing a bedtime. This is a problem Sax has seen repeatedly in his patients. Kids were playing video games or texting their friends well into the night without their parents’ knowledge. And when a child was not focusing in class as a result of this sleep deprivation, his parents turned to medication as the solution.
The constant communication in which kids are engaged is also symbolic of a much larger shift in the culture. Kids, Sax notes, care much more what their peers think than what their parents think. And, he argues, our culture encourages kids to have a low opinion of their parents and adults more generally.
It is a “culture of disrespect,” Sax writes. It’s not just that the children he encounters regularly talk back to their parents or tell them to “shut up” in front of other adults. Their behavior is regularly tolerated and even encouraged. From T-shirts that say, “I don’t need you. I have Wi-Fi” or “Do I look like I care?” to the shows on Disney Channel in which parents are perpetually absent or incompetent, the message kids get is that adults are clueless.
Why, Sax wonders, do parents tolerate this kind of attitude? Among the “misconceptions” he hears: “I want my child to be independent. So when she talks back to me or is disrespectful, I try to see that in a positive light, as a sign that she is becoming more independent. And I support that.” These people sound as if they are suffering from battered-parent syndrome.
For parents today, it might seem that it has ever been thus. It has not. If parents actually enforced their authority, kids would have to care what their parents thought and then might grow to care on their own. And that would ultimately be to their benefit.
Relationships with parents are the source of stability in a child’s life. “In peer relations, everything is conditional and contingent.” Kids can yell “I hate you” at Mom, but their moms will still love them. This may not be true with a friend. Sadly, even parents now seem weirdly concerned with the condition of their children’s peer relationships. It’s not just that they want kids to have friends—a reasonable concern—but that they want kids to be popular. Parents tell Sax: “I’m worried that if I follow your advice, my child will be an outcast. He will be the only one who isn’t allowed to play Halo or Grand Theft Auto. I’m worried that he will be unpopular and that he’ll blame me for that.”
Being a good parent requires a certain kind of fortitude that many modern adults don’t have. Sax’s recommendations might work, depending on how old a kid already is. Will it be enough for parents to “command” instead of asking their kids to do things? Will cutting out junk food at home and taking away video games and ensuring the lights are actually out at bedtime lead to better-behaved kids? What will happen when parents actually use “Because I said so” as an answer to kids who ask “why”?
Sax optimistically suggests that parents could see results in as little as six weeks. But it’s conceivable he is underestimating the other influences on our children. Without the support of extended family or religious communities or even neighbors who agree that kids should not be treated like grown-ups, we would be raising conscientious children in a vacuum. Creating what Sax calls a “family culture” to raise self-regulating children who understand the values of humility and gratitude, who are willing to work hard and are not undone by failure, may be more a fantasy than the surreal landscapes of Grand Theft Auto.