Teach Your Children Well
“Spare the rod and spoil the child,” resounded as the disciplinary mantra of parents in the early 20th century. Armed with leather belts and hairbrushes, parents tanned many a naughty hide at the first sign of disobedience in an effort to instill responsible behavior in their offspring.
Then came Benjamin Spock. Published in 1945—just in time for the post-World War II baby boom—Spock’s renowned book, Baby and Child Care, challenged conventional wisdom and changed the way parents raised their progeny. Widely accepted as the last word on parenting, it remained the second best-selling book next to the Bible throughout its first half-century of publication.
Spock’s prevailing message: “Don’t be afraid to trust your own common sense.” Running against the grain of previously accepted best-practices, he encouraged parents to show their children love and respect rather than coolness and corporal punishment.
While many of Spock’s teachings still influence parental attitudes today, the road map for raising little Johnny and Jane has grown murky. From smother mothers and panda parents to helicopter dads and tiger moms, the ways in which children are now brought up reflect the latest trends more than parental instincts.
So, what happened to the days when parents were simply parents? Well, life grew busier, more complex, and increasingly uncertain. “Parents, particularly those in affluent communities like Wilton, feel fear and responsibility for things they have no control over,” observes clinical psychologist, ADHD coach, and parenting consultant Susan Bauerfeld, PhD. “Wanting their children to excel in life, parents may guide them into activities that do not match their child’s abilities, skills and interests, then end up doing much of the work themselves so their kids can keep up.”
School can present similar challenges. “Most students are average, yet many parents find anything other than exceptional performance—taking AP courses and getting straight As—worrisome,” she continues. “As a result, top performing students wind up anxious and stressed while the rest feel marginalized. In the real world, people do not excel at everything, so why press children to do so?”
According to Bauerfeld, who runs parenting workshops and seminars, as well as sees private clients, there are many satisfying and rewarding careers out there, so why not let children explore, reflect, and figure out who they are and where their talents and interests lie? Focusing on metrics-based outcomes such as GPAs and SAT scores doesn’t cultivate the collaborative skills, problem-solving competencies and good old-fashioned ingenuity needed in today’s world. Concerned about whether or not their kids are making the grade, parents may not afford children the room to make the mistakes that allow them to develop the self-reliance, resiliency and innovative thinking so important in adult life.
Dr. Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Weston and adolescent consultant at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan agrees. “As a parent, I understand how difficult it can be to watch your child fail. However, we’re doing our kids a disservice if we don’t allow them to make mistakes, sit with the negative feelings that result and learn to deal with them,” she says. “Disappointment is part of life.”
Fretting they’ll lag behind their peers socially, many parents acquiesce to their children’s demands for video games, smart phones, and other electronics. “You need to have backbone to be a parent today,” says Wilton mother of 12- and 15-year-old sons, Nancy Gany. “There’s a new level of oversight required of parents once their kids start accessing more graphic TV programming and the Internet. Parents have to be comfortable saying, ‘R-rated movies may be allowed by your friends’ parents, but they’re not okay for our family.’” Adds Lisa Raymond, a Wilton mother who likes to keep things simple, “While other families head out of town for vacation, we stay home. That’s just fine by our daughter. She’s very happy playing outdoors, swimming at the Y, and being around her relatives.”
“At the end of the day,” advises Bauerfeld, “parents need to ask themselves, ‘What is our goal for our family—meaningful connections with our kids or another decal for the car?’ I believe the majority of parental energy should focus on building loving, collaborative, respectful relationships with children, which is empowering for everyone.”
Spock would agree.