Globe and Mail

Are your kids driving you crazy?

Somewhere along the line, things got a little off track.
Children today are not only seen and heard, they expect to be obeyed.
Their battle cry, 'You are not the boss of me!' is ringing out across
the continent. Maybe it's time for a little old-fashioned discipline.

Saturday, April 17, 1999
Special to The Globe and Mail

Toronto -- At a downtown Toronto community centre, there's a rookie ball league with a philosophy that, as at many other such leagues, is noncompetitive -- no scoring, no winners, no team standings. If a kid drops the ball, no sweat. If he makes a limp throw, it's applauded. Heaven forbid that any child gets the sense that he's less than simply incredible.

It probably doesn't harm anyone to be part of a friendly, low-stress baseball league, but this rigorous attention to self-esteem has crept into the way many parents are dealing with their children. And it doesn't always produce the greatest kids.

It all started in the 1960s with American baby doctor Benjamin Spock, who expressed the then-radical viewpoint that parents should just relax and enjoy their children, be warm, loving and show respect for who they were. Other big guns, including British psychologist and child-care expert Penelope Leach and American pediatrician Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, heartily agreed. Repressive 1950s-style parenting was officially out.

But somewhere along the line, things got a little off track. In the name of child self-esteem, parents became overprotective and began to let their youngsters call the shots. Children today are not only seen and heard, they expect to be obeyed: Their war cry, "You are not the boss of me!" is ringing out across the continent.

And many experts claim that the fallout from this explosion of hands-off liberal baby-boomer parents, is a lot of spoiled kids who lack real-world coping skills, who have far less concern for others than they do for themselves -- and who are driving their parents crazy.

Some parents saw the Spock approach "as an opportunity to shirk their authoritarian roots and become more responsive to their children's needs," says Sara Dimerman, a psychological associate and director of the Parent Education and Resource Centre in Thornhill, Ont. As often as not, she says, the family dynamic simply became bizarre, with parents "asking a child permission to stop for milk on the way home, letting a child choose the name of their second-born even though they don't like it." And, she says, "the world is seeing that we are churning out spoiled kids."

Now, the pendulum is swinging once again, particularly in the United States, where parenting is more politicized. More conservative, even authoritarian, child-care experts are taking the stage and trying to reset the parenting agenda. There is always the risk it will go too far in the opposite direction.

"In the States, it's easy to see there's been a movement away from permissive parenting and it goes back probably to the end of the 1980s," says Paul Kropp, the Toronto-based author of the 1998 book, I'll Be the Parent, You Be the Kid. "People began saying our disciplinary techniques don't work very well. Even Bill Clinton talks about school uniforms. These are liberals coming in and saying, 'We want a little more structure here.' "

Earlier this year, a battle broke out between the liberal Dr. Brazelton ("Don't rush your toddler into toilet training or let anyone else tell you it's time. It's got to be his choice.") and an opposing force to be reckoned with, John Rosemond.
Mr. Rosemond, a family therapist turned parenting guru from Gastonia, North Carolina, whose syndicated columns regularly appear in more than 100 U.S. newspapers, argues that parents should shun the toilet-training methods espoused by such softies as Dr. Brazelton and Dr. Spock and get toddlers out of diapers as soon as possible. He called it "a slap to the intelligence of a human being that one would allow him to continue soiling and wetting himself past age 2." Wussy parents, he says, who insist on letting children take the lead with toilet training risk doing psychological damage.

A continent of wusses quaked. Meanwhile, Dr. Brazelton continued his other job, appearing in commercials to flog the new Size 6 Pampers for children weighing more than 16 kilograms.

John Rosemond, like other conservative parenting gurus, is clearly telling a lot of parents what they've been dying to hear. He gives more than 200 talks a year to audiences ranging in size from 250 to 10,000, he puts out a bimonthly magazine, Affirmative Parenting and operates a Web site ( He's the author of such books as Because I Said So (a phrase, that he says, children have "the right" to hear on a "regular and frequent basis" -- an anathema to the ultra-liberal parent who feels bound to explain every decision) and A Family of Value. He's like an old-fashioned doctor with attitude.

On his Web site, he has a bill of rights for children. Kids, he notes, have "the right to hear their parents say 'No' at least three times a day." They have the right to learn "that obedience to legitimate authority is not optional" and consequences for disobedience are "memorable and therefore persuasive."

For exhausted, demoralized parents, those are mighty empowering words.

There are others like Mr. Rosemond, some even more conservative. James Dobson, who comes at the subject as a Christian, is the author of the 1970 book Dare to Discipline and the updated The New Dare to Discipline. He's based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where his organization, Focus on the Family, publishes a newsletter and runs a telephone counselling service. He also has a syndicated radio program, heard daily in seven languages in more than 70 countries, and a Web site ( Mr. Rosemond and Mr. Dobson have millions of followers, millions of parents who are now laying down the law at home.

How did it come to this? How did the Me generation lose control of their children? Part of the answer lies in a change in demographics.

During the 1950s, families were larger, with an average of just over four children each, and typically only one parent worked. Subsequent generations of families have tended to have about two children each, with both parents working, all of which has resulted in more focus on the child.

According to Dr. Claudio Violato, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Calgary and director of research at the National Foundation for Family Research and Education, in 70 per cent of households both parents work outside the home at least part-time, even those with infant children. The resulting time pressures and parental guilt, he says, have given rise to "the professionalization of child care, with eminent psychologists and pediatricians like Spock handing out advice."

And boomer parents were receptive to the non-authoritarian approach to child rearing that the experts were encouraging. "It was the flow-over from the 1960s counterculture attitudes, which, generally speaking, did not respect authority and resisted authoritarian postures," says author Paul Kropp. "It wasn't a thought-through thing.

"Parenting has always reflected the values of the cultures. The big bulk of culture became more liberal, so parenting changed. It follows."

Many people who are products of 1950s parenting styles didn't want the same for their children. Ms. Dimerman, director of the parent-education centre in Thornhill, is delivering the keynote address on 100 years of parenting at the annual Parenting Now conference in Kingston, Ont. "Baby boomers didn't turn out too badly as a bunch," she says, "but personally speaking I didn't want my children to be told, 'This is where the adults sit, this is where the kiddies sit' -- usually somewhere cramped and closer to the ground -- and I didn't want my child to be tapped on the head like a dog and told, 'Good girl.' "

This kind of liberal attitude meant parents had to look for alternative ways to discipline. "We have more clever means of discipline than our parents did," Mr. Kropp says referring to such tactics as "time outs." "Children are less likely to be abused now than in the past, and that's a good thing."

That's the good news. The bad news is that, in many cases, discipline, clever or otherwise, has fallen by the wayside. Although Dr. Spock et al were advocating a warmer style of parenting, they certainly were not rejecting control of children. "On the contrary," says Dr. Violato, "Spock advocated authoritative parenting. Authoritative parents set limits and controls on children, help them set goals and also help them with positive interaction."

Nevertheless, the silly season began when the concept of winners and losers was eliminated from sports, when parents asked permission for everything from their children and when they felt that any reprimand or move to control would somehow harm the child.

"We began to become afraid to correct and teach," says Dr. Mark Genuis, executive director of the National Foundation for Family Research and Education. "We had to say that everything was great. We couldn't get in the way, we couldn't direct."

And boundaryless parenting hasn't necessarily done any favours for the kids, either. "It's become clear that this whole self-esteem movement is petering out in the way that it was conceptualized and operationalized in the past," says Dr. Violato. "It became obvious that it was kind of shallow and empty and too focused on children. It led to detrimental development."

For one thing, kids raised this way may have trouble coping in any situation where there's an imposed structure. "Children have a really hard time," says Ms. Dimerman. "They have problems in relationships where responsibility is important because they haven't learned the value of responsibility."

What value system they are growing up with (if any) is of real concern. Joan Grusec, a developmental psychologist at the University of Toronto, believes that the search for improved ways of parenting is partly triggered by media attention surrounding kids' anti-social behaviour. "When sensational things happen -- like young kids murdering small children -- we start to say we have lost some of the basic civilities and concern for others," says Professor Grusec.

Mark Genuis says there has been a breakdown in the family as an institution and children are suffering for it. He cites a recent report stating that 20 per cent of Canadian youths have a clinical level of emotional disturbance; the increase in suicides in children between the ages of 10 to 14, he adds, is up 1,300 per cent since the 1950s.

"That's just disgusting," says Mr. Genuis. "Parents are seeing this and they're saying, 'Wait a minute. We love our children. Maybe our predecessors, for their good intentions, could have been a little clearer.' "

Although the connection between laissez-faire parenting and emotional disturbances is not clear-cut, experts say that parents are sending a very strong message that things just aren't working. Baby boomer parents will likely never follow the advice of conservatives such as Mr. Rosemond and Mr. Dobson to the letter, but they're certainly casting a lingering glance in their direction.

"As a society, we're moving to the right," says U of T's Prof. Grusec. "And part of that move is back to a somewhat more authoritarian way of dealing with children." The label "family values," she adds, implies greater emphasis on respect for authority, obedience and honesty "and maybe a little less emphasis on tolerance and concern for others, all of which are good values."

Naturally, that means the debate about spanking is still very much alive and well. Many experts cautiously cite research that appears to indicate spanking, if done properly, occasionally, in a loving environment and to a child who is not too old, does not do any long-term damage.

"There are certain times when a spank is a very reasonable thing to do," says Mr. Kropp, who admits he's probably as close as Canadians get to a conservative child-care expert. "There is reasonable research to show that the child who is spanked on occasion does not turn out to be a monster. I would rate it way down on the list of issues affecting children during childhood."

Dr. Violato agrees. "I think for a five-year-old child who does something dangerous or hurtful to others or to themselves, a slap on the bum isn't going to have long-term negative effects."

Still, experts such as Ms. Dimerman continue to express the concern shared by many people that spanking doesn't teach kids anything except that it's okay to hit someone if you're bigger than they are and that it may clear the path to other less benign forms of discipline.

"It's not only a bad way of trying to teach values to children," says Ms. Grusec. "It's also a focus on a subset of values which have to do with duty and obedience, and there are people who would argue that a child who has high self-esteem and a child who is functioning psychologically better is a child who also understands other values and comes to accept them in a more autonomous way."

It's a fact of life, it seems, that no matter which way we swing, we never seem to get things quite right. But Dr. Maggie Mamen, the Ottawa-based author of Who's In Charge? and 1998's Laughter, Love and Limits: Parenting for Life, believes the trend -- in Canada at least -- is heading in the right direction.

"We've known for decades that the best-adjusted children and most contented parents come from families where discipline is authoritative -- kind but firm, warm but loving," says Dr. Mamen. "We should expect reasonable behaviour from them. But it is hard to find that line."

Nora Underwood is a Toronto writer.


From spanking to spoiling and back again

John B. Watson, author of Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928): "There is a sensible way of treating children. Treat them as though they were young adults. Dress them, bathe them with care and circumspection. Let your behaviour always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. . . . Try it out. In a week's time . . . you will be utterly ashamed of the mawkish sentimental way you have been handling it."

Benjamin Spock, author of Baby and Child Care (first published in 1946): "Don't be afraid to kiss your baby when you feel like it."

James Dobson, author of Dare to Discipline (1970): "I am recommending a simple principle: When you are defiantly challenged, win decisively. When the child asks, 'Who's in charge?' tell him. When he mutters, 'Who loves me?' take him in your arms and surround him with affection. Treat him with respect and dignity, and expect the same from him. Then begin to enjoy the sweet benefits of competent parenthood."

Penelope Leach, author of Your Baby & Child: From Birth to Age Five (1989): "Show, don't tell or force, a child how to behave. The first rule is do as you would be done by."

John Rosemond, author of Because I Said So (paperback in 1996): "If there are two words that underlie self-esteem they are 'I can.' Well, I was in a school recently. I walked into the boys' bathroom. Above the mirror, there was this sign that said, 'You are now looking at the most special person in the whole world.' This isn't self-esteem. This is narcissism."

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