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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.

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When I consulted the school officials, no one had any answers, other than to briefly suspend the perpetrators, implement prepackaged social-emotional interventions, mediate, and hope for the best. In fact, the principal and guidance counselors said they’d appreciate any help they could get. By contrast, Ian’s parents, furious at this ineptitude, told me about numerous “bully-sites” that assist mothers and fathers to help each other. I was stunned to discover the extent of the practical suggestions and concrete action steps parents (and increasing numbers of professionals) offered, which I then shared with school officials. In the end, finding one key “popular” boy to approach Ian in a friendly way changed the tide and let him slowly emerge from the hell of middle-school ostracism.

To the extent kids feel abused socially and academically, their parents feel abused and held hostage by fears of what might become of their children. The integrity of almost every parent I work with is undermined by catastrophic scenarios of how his or her child will be dragged under. One dad is afraid that if he doesn’t offer praise for shoddy effort on a term paper, his son will stop functioning and fail in school. A mom fears that telling a guidance counselor about the excessive drinking of her daughter’s best friend will destroy her child’s social standing forever. A father believes that if he tries to teach the value of “moderation,” his teen will become even more oppositional and refuse to come home at night. A mom is scared that if she follows through on grounding her 11-year-old from a birthday party, the girl might be excluded from weekend play dates.

While all this can sound absurd, a chronic sense of being held hostage by kids and the culture at large helps explain why parents so often show up in our offices looking and sounding like spineless wimps. With so little time to bond with their children, parents are afraid to take even one step that could drive them farther away, undermine their already shaky school performance, and ruin their chances for social success when little else seems to matter. Not surprisingly, a multibillion-dollar public and private enterprise monetizes these insecurities by selling a raft of social modules and remediation services—including tutors and homework helpers for the well-heeled and supplemental educational materials designed to jack up reading and math scores. The issue isn’t just parental abdication, but what I call the “merchandising of childhood,” based on a deep-rooted fear of failure.

Cynics and Refuseniks

In a tightening economy, with overcrowded feeder-schools and an uncertain future ahead, it’s easy to understand why kids aren’t enthusiastic about school. College is so exorbitantly expensive that students frequently drop out, unable to pay the tab. And if they do manage to graduate, young adults still face high unemployment and skyrocketing living expenses, which often drive them back home, still owing thousands of dollars in student loans. No wonder many kids I meet do the mental calculation of all the money and effort and decide not to kill themselves trying. “Is it really worth it?” they ask. Besides, instead of this potentially unrewarding grind, many of them harbor a new 21st-century, techno-driven fantasy. When I inquire about their hopes for the future, I often hear them earnestly voice expectations that a single YouTube gone viral or a cell-phone app or a reality TV part will instantly “explode” them into a life of bling.

Kids notice that many schools have been forced to drop programs and facilities (music, art, physical education, libraries) because of mass layoffs and underfunding, while better positioned, more “competitive” schools in more affluent areas have turned into deadly serious, four-year cram-courses geared to standardized tests. In either case, as numerous studies show, play, imagination, and downtime have been crowded out, and with them, the time for the young brain to synthesize and actually learn what’s been taught. Whether it’s “No Child Left Behind” or “Race to the Top,” parents feel that they and their kids are victims of a kind of educational and social scam, and are deeply cynical about a system that treats kids as if they’re commodities. They see the top 5 to 10 percent, mostly from the wealthiest families, making it to elite colleges, thanks to private schooling and “legacy” admissions, as well as a multibillion-dollar infrastructure of tutors, special courses and study-abroad opportunities, and parent-funded “community service” points. Meanwhile, lower- and middle-class parents have no or limited access to such “helping hands” so readily available to the privileged.

 
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