Friday, May 05, 2006

The Failure of Parenting

[rewritten from a post on GT-Talk]
Regarding the discussion about why children eat unhealthy foods, don't get enough exercise, don't know some of the basic academics that were commonplace a few years ago, etc.

I am part of the Boomer/Hippie generation and what I see happening is that my generation rebelled against rules of all sorts. In college, we protested the Vietnam War, in loco parentis became weaker and weaker from freshman year to senior year. Freshman year, we weren't allowed to have men in our rooms, except from 2:00 - 4:00 pm on Sunday and the door had to be open with all four feet on the floor. By senior year, nearly all of those regulations were completely gone. Men stayed in the dorm any time - even over night, with the doors closed.

What I see is that my generation wanted to give their children more freedom from rules, so the next generation grew up with far fewer restrictions. But now, years later, those children are the parents. Not having grown up honoring rules and regulations, they don't even know HOW to impose the rules. They don't have any intuitive feel for when rules need to be respected and when they need to be broken. My generation knew - we had grown up with (too many?) rules and restrictions. Our lives were all about breaking through society's restrictions: sexism, racism, economic disparity. So we had the perspective to know what the rules were, how to break them, and why.

But our children grew up without many of the rules and restrictions, so now they have no idea how to impose them on their children. They make some feeble attempts and think that is all that is required. You see them in the grocery store all the time:
Kid: I want [X];
Mom/Dad: No, you don't need [X];
... repeat N times ...
Kid: Cries loudly;
Mom/Dad: Gives in somehow - by buying the item or a substitute, by promising reward if kid stops crying, etc.

My mother who is 91 was recently watching some old old family videos of me with my older daughter when she was a baby. At one point, she asked me how I knew how to parent my daughter so well. I answered that, as with many things, the key is having a good role model. My mother was a good parent. I followed her example almost unconsciously. But, as my kids got older and got to the ages where breaking restrictions due to sexism, racism, etc., became important to me, I was on less sure footing. I think, to some extent, I didn't impose restrictions I should have - especially in the area of making my children assume responsibility for themselves (except academically - they are both pretty good about that).

I had my children when I was pretty old, so they are not yet parents, and I don't know how they will do at parenting, but many of my compatriots are grandparents and I teach these grandchildren. I see kids who have a lot of trouble with rules and restrictions - even those that are deemed very important by most of society.

If this analysis is anywhere near correct, it will be very difficult to get back to a better position. Some of the parenting techniques have been lost and will be difficult to recover. New parents will have to use reason and outside advice to gain expertise that my generation had intuitively, even if we chose to circumvent it in some cases. And, in our increasingly diverse society, even finding solid advice becomes problematic - one expert says one thing; another says the opposite. New parents feel powerless and confused.

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