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The Decline and Fall of Parental Authority

American parents now face social circumstances that undermine the foundations of parental authority, leading them to challenge the context of childrearing.

 American parents today face a perfect storm of cultural and social circumstances that undermine the very foundations of parental authority. In response, mothers and fathers are beginning to see therapists as irrelevant and to challenge the entire social, educational, and economic context of childrearing. On a day long before the Occupy Wall Street Movement began, I met with a large group of 21st-century child professionals who were on a tear about the multiple inadequacies of today’s mothers and fathers. Sparks of indignation about parents’ inability or refusal to take charge of their kids—to create any kind of appropriate hierarchy in the family—lit up the auditorium. “They’re scared of their own children!” one proclaimed to nods of agreement all around. “If I ever said just one thing to my parents the way they allow their kids to talk to them every single day, I know exactly what would have happened to me!” said another. “They’ve abdicated, handing their children over to us to raise!” yelled a third. The general consensus was that today’s parents had become a “doormat generation” to their own kids, and that they were resisting all efforts by well-meaning professionals to help them grow parental backbones. It was enough to make one’s head spin.

Well, until later. That evening, I met with hundreds of parents from the same community. In a weirdly antiphonal response to what I’d heard earlier in the day, they rocked the school auditorium with their complaints of how hard—no,impossible—it was to be a parent today. School was a bureaucratic, relentlessly demanding, social and academic rat race that wasn’t even preparing their kids for the future. A vast and frightening Internet culture was hijacking their kids, and they were helpless to do much about it. These parents said they were trying so hard to make ends meet that they had little time left over just to be with their kids, much less maintain consistent authority over their lives.

Besides the more familiar complaints, these parents railed against accusations that they weren’t trying to take charge of their own children and teens, even as they admitted just how hard that had become. It was as though the earlier meeting with school administrators and educators had been bugged. In fact, the parents made clear that they wanted to be more effective and engaged, but were blocked not only by social forces, but by the very childrearing system that was supposed to prepare their children for adulthood. More and more, the collective verdict was clear: the conveyor belt of 21st-century childrearing was seizing up, and the academic and therapeutic professionals working with children “just weren’t getting it.”

Not long ago, I might have heard parents talk as if their kids’ problems—drugs, school failure, or acting out—were matters for individual families to resolve, sometimes with the aid of a therapist. Now, I’m seeing mothers and fathers challenge the entire social, educational, professional, and economic context of childrearing—a system, they increasingly believe, that’s made effective parenting almost unachievable.

It’s no accident that since the economic implosion of 2008, following decades of stagnant or declining income across the socioeconomic spectrum (except for the very top), the tone of my conversations with parents has shifted dramatically. Adults were already under siege trying to handle the incomprehensible newness of what seemed to arise each week in kid-universe. That was followed by financial stress, chronic joblessness, underwater mortgages, and college savings raided to cover family living expenses. It’s little wonder I’d begun to register parental impatience and resentment toward child “experts.”

There seems to be another, noneconomic reason for parental dissatisfaction with the current childrearing situation: the tendency on the part of child experts, including too often me, to blame parents for what’s going on. In fact, as I speak with child clinicians and educators across the country, the parent-blame knocks me over. I can’t help but think, How can we help the very parents we seem to hold in such disdain? It seems particularly ironic that, as therapists, we don’t appear to have empathy for parents who are trying to muddle through a perfect storm of interconnected cultural and social circumstances that undermine the foundations of parental self-confidence and integrity, even of family life itself. After all, “post-boomer” parents, a majority born after 1964, are watching the implicit social contract they grew up with—“If you try hard enough, you’ll get ahead”—disappear right before their eyes. Parents across the economic spectrum, the other 99 percent, are the first post–World War II generation to be told that their children will be less prosperous than they are, perhaps much less prosperous.

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