Parenting “Experts” are everywhere. They’re there to tell us exactly what to do in just about every situation, usually with the moralistic, judgmental attitude of… well, parents. Parents voluntarily subject themselves to these “Experts” and their opinions because parenting is stressful, and it’s nice to think other people have this stuff figured out. In order to examine the ongoing biological, philosophical, moral, and psychological debates that other people have about raising your children, Full-Time Dad presents Parenting Expert Wars. Today’s topic is The Collapse of Parenting.
Dr. Leonard Sax wants you to know that in Australia, parents are way better at their jobs. And in Europe, too. The American parenting culture has failed, collapsing into a “Culture of Disrespect” that causes obese, overmedicated, fragile kids. The culprits? A nefarious combination of sleep deprivation, social media, video games, and permissive parenting.
Sax’s new book The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups reads like an out-of-touch curmudgeon railing on things he doesn’t exactly understand and lamenting the good old days before The Instagram, The Facebook, and Nicki Minaj. It is the Parenting Expert equivalent of “Get off my lawn!” However, there is some thought provoking information in here. Information that may make you want to dive deeper into some of the root causes of big picture issues you will have to face as a new parent. Sax zeroes in on real macro cultural problems, such as the overmedication of children1 and puts the blame on today’s parenting culture which has caused children in today’s society to “value the opinion of their peers more than their parents.”
The solution, according to the good doctor, essentially boils down to telling your kids they can’t have dessert until they finish their vegetables 2 and making sure they get plenty of sleep. The fundamental problem with Sax’s thesis is he claims to support one parenting style (Authoritative) but actually recommends another (Authoritarian) that has fallen out of favor.
The Parenting Experts have established what amounts to a taxonomy of Parenting Styles using a handy 2×2 matrix3:
Responsiveness refers to the level of emotional engagement with your kids, while Demandingness refers to the expectation that your kids will do what you say. For instance, a strict authoritarian parent has low Responsiveness and high Demandingness, which essentially boils down to telling your child to do something “Because I said so.”
Permissive parenting is the inverse: high Responsiveness and low Demandingness. Catering to a child’s every whim, this is where parents have difficulty drawing boundaries and let their children dictate the rules.
The Parenting Style currently preferred by popular Parenting Experts like Julie Lythcott-Haims4 is authoritative parenting: strong boundaries and enforcement of the rules, coupled with highly demonstrated levels of empathy for your child. Acknowledging your child’s feelings from her perspective, goes the thinking, will allow your kid to feel heard and understood and help her develop the coping mechanisms needed to deal with what life throws at her.
Dr. Sax says he recommends authoritative parenting, but he prefers authoritarian parenting. I don’t understand why he confuses the two. The preference for authoritative parenting is strong in the Parental Industrial Complex, so maybe he wants to piggyback off of the popularity of it to sell his book? Regardless of what his claims are, his recommendations are inarguably from the Authoritarian school of parenting. Sax summarizes his parenting philosophy like this: “Command. Don’t ask. Don’t negotiate. … When you lay down a rule, and your children ask why, answer, ‘Because Mommy (or Daddy) says so, that’s why.” The flagrant confusion of the concepts destroys his credibility.
Sax does bring up real problems in American parenting culture, but he peppers his data with anecdotes from his clinic and his travels, where he engages with mostly upper- and upper-middle class families. Stories like the teenager who told his mom to “shut-up, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” The six-year-old who threw a prolonged temper tantrum because her mother asked the child for permission for Dr. Sax to swab the child’s throat. The eight-year-old in the airport who loses his mind because he wants donuts and wants them NOW.5!
Sax believes that the overmedication of American children is caused by sleep deprivation which, in turn, is caused by parents allowing their kids to stay up late playing video games or “photoshopping selfies for Instagram6” He then repeatedly points to Australia and a number of Western European countries, and their massive population of well-behaved children as demonstrable proof that there’s a better way.
Except for two very important problems:
- Sax doesn’t give any examples of how their approach is different. He just kind of… says things are better in Sydney.
- I’m pretty sure they have Facebook, Instagram, and Call of Duty in Australia and Germany. And they also have American TV and movies7. So there is obviously something else at the core, here. What is it, Dr. Sax? Care to elaborate a bit8?
There are also a lot of subtle details that reveal Sax as out of touch. He calls the video game Grand Theft Auto a “first-person shooter,” which it’s not 9. He says American marketing campaigns, like Pepsi’s “Live for Now” and Nike’s “Just Do It,” are reinforcing a spontaneous mentality that are destroying our children’s abilities to engage with the world at large, and that this is a new phenomenon. Never mind the fact that “Just Do It” has been a Nike slogan for 28 years.
Leonard Sax is a great example of why Parenting Experts are often useless. He flaunts his degrees10 as if it somehow legitimized the egregious use of anecdotal evidence and over-generalizations. He speaks from a position of authority but offers advice based on his biased, old-fashioned philosophies. He improperly identifies concepts, half-remembers ideas from pop culture and technology, and lends bad advice for how to handle situations. It’s a classic example of a self-styled “Expert” identifying real problems and offering half-cocked solutions.
I’m not even sure who this book is for. If you’re an authoritarian parent, it’s preaching to the choir, and if you need a book to tell you that you shouldn’t allow your son to play Call of Duty until 2 a.m., then you’re probably beyond help, anyway.
- He cites a disturbing statistic that 10.3% of all American children are medicated for ADHD.
- A bit of an oversimplification, perhaps, but Sax does give this advice in the book.
- This was first explored by renowned Parenting Expert Diana Baumrind
- Whose book “How to Raise an Adult” has a similar premise to “The Collapse of Parenting,” but a very different approach to solutions.
- Sax claims the mother’s acquiescing to the child’s demands is evidence of a widespread collapse of parenting. Of course, the child was about to board a flight to England, so maybe the mother was just trying to shut the kid up before getting on a plane for six hours? Just a thought.
- This belies Sax’s understanding of what Instagram actually is, which just makes him sound out of touch.
- Sax blames American media, too, for our children’s attitudes
- No. No, he does not.
- I know this sounds like nitpicking, but this detail speaks to a bigger issue: if you won’t do cursory research to understand the difference between styles of video games you say are destroying our parenting skills; if your understanding of how Instagram works involves a sophisticated and expensive piece of photo editing software; if you can’t differentiate between authoritative and authoritarian parenting styles, then why am I listening to your synthesis of data? It smacks of cherry-picking and laziness to me.
- The book is authored by “Leonard Sax, MD, Ph.D.”