There's a new book burning up newsfeeds. "Why it's time for parents to grow up," says one headline. "Why kids today are out of shape, disrespectful, and in charge," reads another. The problem of permissive parenting—and what to do about it—is at the core of this new book, from family physician and psychologist Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D: The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups.
Joining a growing club of tomes about what's wrong with parents today, Dr. Sax outlines the problems he sees: Kids don't do chores. They value their peers' approval more than their parents'. They're wrongly diagnosed with ADHD and over-medicated. They're generally disrespectful. They're addicted to video games and texting. Selfie-snapping kids don't know humility. They're staying up late and getting fat, and their french-fry peddling parents aren't doing anything about it.
"Over the past three decades, there has been a massive transfer of authority from parents to kids," writes Dr. Sax. "In many families, what kids think and what kids like and what kids want matters as much, or more, than what their parents think and like and want.... These well-intentioned changes have been profoundly harmful to kids."
As I read Dr. Sax's observations, many of them backed up by research he cites in his book, I thought... yep, I know parents like that. Other times I thought, crap, I am that parent.
Chores? Fair point. As a child, I had chores—major chores. My kids? They have...chores lite. (In one 2014 study, 82 percent of today's parents reported having chores growing up, but only 28 percent said they require their own children to do them.) I've done plenty of indulging (caving, wimping out, whatever you want to call it), that my parents' generation would've never done. For example, when my preschooler cried one recent morning that she wanted her raspberries in the purple bowl, not the green one, I dumped them from one bowl into another.
Does that make me a doormat? Probably. But some battles (especially at 7 a.m., when I'm trying to get ready for work) don't seem worth fighting. Besides, even though a small part of me feels like a chump (my 1970s-era mother never would've done that!), if I can do something small to make one of my kids happy, and I'm not inconveniencing anyone (other than myself) that—showing kids we can be flexible—is valuable to learn, too, isn't it?
It would be easy to feel defensive and dismiss this book out of hand, but I found myself relating to many of Dr. Sax's same frustrations, like snarky tween shows on TV that don't do much to stem the "culture of disrespect" that he laments. He's spot on that a generation ago, schools and parents were an alliance. Not anymore: Today, "parents often act as adversaries, challenging the school's authority." Kids spend hours and hours on their devices, and playing video games long into the night in their beds. This isn't great progress.
But the thing that just doesn't sit right with me about Dr. Sax's book is he's advocating for a return to a more authoritative style of parenting. This was how parenting went down in the my-way-or-the-highway 70s and 80s. (Picture the loving but stern father of The Wonder Years, a familiar "type" to many of us who grew up at that time.) It may have been the norm then to expect kids to stay in line and have a healthy fear of their parents at all times, but it's not a style I'm eager to recreate.
No doubt thanks to my strict upbringing under my guardians (long story), I was all the things Dr. Sax would probably approve of: polite, respectful, a chore-doer—but I was also scared of my own shadow, and shy to express my opinions, whatever I knew of them (um, no one was really encouraging kids to have opinions!). Certainly there was value in being responsible, and learning how to do household tasks. But the most frustrating thing about being raised under that authoritative style of parenting, as I recall it, was how rigid it was. So often, we heard, and grimly expected to hear, "no." The reasons were that-is-when-we-go-to-church, and dinner-is-at-five, and you-mow-the-grass-on-Saturdays, and other "rules" we lived by and never bent. Dr. Sax gives an example in the book of a kid who's told he can't go out for post-game pizza with his teammates, because he has to go home and clean the family's chicken coop. The other team parents lightly suggest to the boy's mom that she give in this once, but she resists. "The game was his leisure time," the mom insists. Dr. Sax approves, but chicken-coop cleaner-upper, I feel for ya kid. Surely there's room for a little spontaneity in children's lives?
Today, when I'm in the company of a parent who's permissive to the point of selfish (really? you're going to let your kid hog that swing for a half-hour while other kids are waiting?), I find it irksome. But generally speaking, I'll take the company of an easygoing parent over a really inflexible one any day, who seems stressed by her own rigidity, who can't go with the flow, and, along with her children, can't seem to understand not everyone is marching to the beat of her worldview and strict rules.
What about you? Are you a Sax parent, a lax parent, or somewhere in between?
Gail O'Connor is a senior editor at Parents and a mom of three.