Has parenting collapsed?

What is it like to be a parent in America? Is it any different from what it is in India? We find out from one of the renowned psychologists in the US, Dr Leonard Sax.

By Virgina Jacob

Has parenting collapsed?


The last decade or so has seen a dramatic change in parenting patterns. Parents today are more indulgent in the name of protecting their children. But, this is proving counter-productive, even causing a case of role-reversal, where children have begun dictating terms to their parents. Is there a case for ‘collapse of parenting’? We findout in this exclusive conversation with Dr Leonard Sax, author of four books for parents, most recently, The Collapse of Parenting.

Q: What inspired you to write on this topic?

Dr Sax: The main inspiration for The Collapse of Parenting came from my experience as a practising family physician. When I earned my medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania - School of Medicine, back in 1986, it was rare for an American child to say ‘shut up’ to a parent, or to disregard a parent’s request without comment, or to talk back disrespectfully. Today, it is common. My book, The Collapse of Parenting, is, among other things, an effort to understand why these changes occurred and what parents can do about it.

Q: You have spoken about the emerging culture of disrespect among children. Can you explain why you believe this can be ‘toxic’?

Dr Sax: By ‘the culture of disrespect’ (the title of chapter 1), I don’t only mean that American children are now disrespectful to parents and teachers, although that is certainly part of it. ‘The culture of disrespect’ also means that American kids now disrespect one another, and even themselves: hence the growing propensity of American teens to post photos of themselves in various states of undress. This new norm – the casual obscenity of sexting – would have been unthinkable even 20 years ago. “Everybody does it” is what kids tell me, with a shrug. “It’s no big deal.” Without clear adult authority to guide them, they live in an unstable moral universe in which everything is relative, in which self-worth is contingent on the opinions of same-age peers.

Q: Can it be overturned?

Dr Sax: In the United States, it is now common to find parents who, almost on a daily basis, ask what the kids want for supper, and then prepare the meal to order, even if that meal is pizza and French fries. It is common to find parents who do their kids’ homework for them while the kid is playing video games. It is common to find parents who allow their kids to stay up past midnight surfing the Internet or posting photos on Instagram. It is common to find families in which the kids say to their parents, “Shut up, you don’t know what the h*** you’re talking about.” So, in those families, yes, there has been a collapse of parenting. I hope that my book can help concerned parents to strengthen their family and to protect them from this virus - the culture of disrespect. I share strategies which have been deployed successfully by parents in the US and elsewhere, to create an alternative culture of respect within a home; to create a culture in which the opinions of parents matter more to their children than the opinions of same-age peers.

Q: You have also spoken about gender issues. Does parenting differ on the basis of a child’s gender?

Dr Sax: Every child is unique. It’s dangerous to make broad generalisations. However, boys are more likely than girls to be susceptible to online pornography and violent video games. Girls are somewhat more likely than boys to become addicted to Instagram and other social media tools which emphasise ‘selfies’. Parents need to understand the differences in what’s ‘cool’ for girls and how that is different from what’s ‘cool’ for boys. More importantly, parents must ensure that their sons and daughters do not accept the values of their peers uncritically.

Q: What are the outcomes of this ‘culture of disrespect’?

Dr Sax: On almost every parameter, the standing of kids in the United States relative to kids in other countries has declined over the past 30 years. That’s dramatically true in academic achievement (chapter 5) as well as in physical fitness (chapter 2) and most troubling, in psychiatric diagnosis (chapter 3). An American teen is now 14 times more likely than a British teen to be on medication for ADHD; 40 times more likely than a German kid to be on medication for bipolar disorder; and 93 times more likely than a kid in Italy to be on medications such as Risperdal, Zyprexa, and Seroquel. The outcomes, which are not good, indicate many Americans are not parenting the right way.

Q: Is social media the biggest culprit? What should parents do to get out of the mess?

Dr Sax: Perhaps the biggest challenges facing American parents right now are the challenges posed by new technology: social media, the Internet, and texting via mobile phone. I encourage parents to govern and guide their kids’ use of devices. Parents must know what their kids are doing with every screen the child possesses. There should be no unsupervised use of the Internet or social media at any time. That’s not just my opinion anymore; that is the official recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which I have re-posted online at http://www.leonardsax.com/guidelines.pdf. Turn off the screens whenever possible. Teach the art of face-to-face conversation.

Q: In India, children often have tight schedules. Will that affect their attitude towards their parents?

Dr Sax: The family must be the top priority. If after-school activities are displacing the family meal at home, then that child’s schedule is hectic. The parents and the child must make whatever changes are necessary to ensure that they all are having at least one meal at home together every day.

Dr Leonard’s tips to manage kids:

  1. In scheduling your child’s time, make the family the highest priority. In many families, play dates and soccer practice now routinely take precedence over the family meal together. The family meal at home should be more important than piling on after-school and social activities.
  2. Guide and govern your child’s involvement with video games and social media. No unsupervised screen time: the screen should always be in a public place, not in the child’s bedroom.
  3. Model a culture of respect within the home. Do not permit disrespectful language. Disagreement is OK; disrespect is not.
  4. Instead of boosting self-esteem, teach humility. Fight the contemporary cultural imperative to be ‘awesome.’
  5. Reduce or eliminate screens when you are with your child. Put your cell phone away. No devices at the dinner table. Teach the art of face-to-face conversation.