According to two recent magazine articles, I’m one of the worst parents ever. That’s nothing new—it’s a refrain I’ve been repeating to myself time and again in the shower, or after a particularly disastrous dinner, ever since I had kids. But it still rankles me all the same.
In the Maclean’s feature “The collapse of parenting: Why it’s time for parents to grow up,” Pennsylvania family physician and psychologist Leonard Sax says that parents ceding control to kids is at least partly to blame for children becoming overweight, overmedicated and disrespectful of others. According to his new book, The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups, parents are trying too hard to please kids in an effort to avoid conflict.
Sax cites the rise of picky eaters as proof that parents are negotiating themselves into a corner—our commands have become questions, capped with a bribe. “How about three bites of broccoli, and then you can have dessert?” is one of the examples provided in the article. Because we parents are asking and not telling our kids what to do, kids end up “doing us a favour” by obliging—and expect a favour in return. Basically, it’s made to sound as though we’re raising the junior mafia—kids who are ready to cash in their chips (and perhaps get some Doritos) at a moment’s notice. This behaviour, Sax says, puts kids in the driver’s seat, and without a strong authority figure, kids don’t know where to turn. It seems to me like Sax is more than a little wistful for the good ol’ days when parents were more authoritarian and kids knew when to fall in line.
Well, as an admittedly not very bossy parent, I’m calling a time-out.
I’m “terrible” at many aspects of parenting. I’m not a good disciplinarian, I negotiate too much, I’m not an alpha. I also don’t set strict screen time limits. Basically, my family situation could be a manual of what not to do when setting house rules. Sax is right—I should be more consistent and clear. However, I don’t believe I need to come across as the “boss” in order for my kids to understand the family rules and expectations. They do not need to clean their plates.
I resent the implication that my kids are confused about whether or not I’m the adult in our house. Just because my 15-year-old son calls me by my first name doesn’t mean I haven’t taught him what’s expected in our house. He’s usually the first one to make his bed in the morning and set the table for dinner, without being asked. He doesn’t choose the dinner menu, I do. And he can make himself a snack if he doesn’t like it. This isn’t a perfect system, I know. He can be disrespectful occasionally and sometimes I’m at a loss when he breaks the rules, but I’ve created an environment where everyone in the family gets a voice. Finding the right balance of how to parent is never easy, and when you have a challenging kid it’s only that much more difficult. I fundamentally believe our family’s interactions are less toxic as a result, though, because everyone’s needs are met. My kids’ opinions and emotions are entirely valid. That doesn’t mean they’re always right, but my role as their parent is to teach them to manage themselves, while still following the rules.
My kids know that my love for them is unshakable, and it’s not dependent on how much broccoli they eat or whether they made their beds that day. I try not to emotionally blackmail them into any of those things. But sometimes, despite my best intentions, I make mistakes. In fact, I make them frequently. Like most parents, I’m flying by the seat of my pants.
Our generation is remaking the mould for parenting, and we’re making a lot of mistakes along the way in an attempt to redefine what it means to bring up kids in the new millennium. It’s important to note that our parents’ generation didn’t write about the world of parenting in the obsessive way we do now. They weren’t looking around and judging the micro-movements of everyone else’s kids, and social media feeds didn’t exist. But is the issue really that we aren’t a commanding-enough presence?
My underlying belief—the thing that assuages the guilt at 4 a.m.—is that the little things don’t matter, like bribing them to eat broccoli. It’s love that makes the difference; the confirmation that we love our kids no matter who they are by allowing them to make their own choices, and grow into who they are meant to become. I believe that requires both a gentle hand and a firm approach. You can be a good parent without being “The Boss”—it just takes both structure and empathy.
While the Maclean’s piece put me on the defensive, I can relate to Katrina Onstad’s article in the February 2016 issue of Today’s Parent. In “Are we the worst generation of parents ever?”, she writes that our generation’s problem is that we want our kids to be exceptional, and it has turned us into neurotic messes. She writes, “We don’t just fear they’ll fail; we fear they will be ordinary.” I’ve seen parents fall into this trap, even the more authoritative ones. Parenting is complicated and there’s no real right or wrong answer. I wish I was better at being an alpha, but the one thing I know I’m really good at is seeing my kids for who they are—and meeting them in that spot.
I’m already aware of my weaknesses when it comes to parenting, so when I read articles that clearly highlight my “faults,” I’m left a little shaken. Criticism from flavour-of-the-month parenting experts—and being called the worst parent ever—can make me feel insecure. And yet, despite this, I choose to remain true to my values. While I may not be the boss in my house, I can choose to “fire” the parenting experts.