Right Conclusion. Wrong Questions.

teen miserable

This article in the Washington Post, has been popping up in my facebook newsfeed a lot these days, even though it was written about a month ago, which I am aware is equivalent to a geologic era in internet time.  Let me say, right up front, that I agree entirely with about 90% of it and heartily second the sentiment that the state of our children and youth is a reflection of our society’s investment and interest in their well-being.  All the same, I want to respond, mostly because I question how most of what is presented is related to “parenting advice,” or for that matter, “happiness.”

Unlike the author of this piece, I do not have a Ph.D.  (I was within arms reach of one, if that counts), and I surely don’t have a position at Yale (though I’m available, feel free to be in touch).  In reviewing her bio, however, it appears that short of those two tiny little differences, our backgrounds are pretty comparable.  In the end, it doesn’t really matter–I’ve never let credentials or academic cachet stop me before, and I’m not likely to start now.

As I say, I want to respond, but I feel a bit stymied, mostly because I feel like there are some foundational issues here.  First off, the title: “Americans are obsessed with parenting advice.  So why are our kids so miserable?”  To be fair, the title was probably not the work of the author, but more likely reflects the synthesis of a complicated article by a journalism intern at the Washington Post.  So there’s that.  I know that headlines are not meant to be substantive, but meant to grab attention, even if through deception.  But hey, let’s dissect it anyway, because no matter the intent, let’s face it, a whole lot of people read the headlines and not much more.

The first half is ok.  Americans ARE obsessed with parenting advice–or with objecting to or commenting on parenting advice, anyway.  Fair enough.

Leaving aside the grammatical issues, the second half of the title is a bit more problematic.  Ah, if only they hadn’t put that “So” in there.   So (see what I did there?) if Americans weren’t obsessed with parenting advice, our kids would be less miserable (or if one reads further into the article, less obese, less violent, etc.)?  Are these outcomes really the result of parenting advice…or the lack of it?   Are our kids miserable?  Has that been established?  Or are we miserable with our kids (or in the more popular parlance, are we miserable with “youth today”?)  The two things are different. And even if one was to take and implement all the sagest parenting advice out there, is having kids that are “not miserable” our overarching goal?   This comes up again in the piece itself, right there at the start of the second paragraph, in which she writes “we have very little idea how to make kids happy.”  Is that what we’re after, all we who work in parenting education?  Making kids happy?  Might that goal, if accurate, be part of the problem?

The author points out that: 

“Quantitative measures show that American children are among the most miserable in the developed world, and there’s a growing gap between our kids and those in other nations. America’s teens “trail much of the world on measures of school achievement, but are among the world leaders in violence, unwanted pregnancy, STDs, abortion, binge drinking, marijuana use, obesity, and unhappiness,” (according to adolescence scholar Larry Steinberg.)

Whoa.  That’s a lot of metaphor and outcome mixing.  Lots of these things have very little to do with being “miserable.”  They are social/cultural/societal outcomes, to be certain.  The story behind American school achievement when compared to other countries is a long and complex one, having to do with the size and heterogeneity of our country, the role of religion, the interaction between our federal and state governments when it comes to education, longstanding systems of oppression, and the way in which we fund schools, among other factors.  Children are not “miserable” because our country lags in academic achievement.  Adults or policy makers might be, but that’s a different conversation.   And which “quantitative measures” are being cited here that prove that our children are miserable?  There is no link to those quantitative measures (nor an indication of how many studies we are talking about) only a reference to the book by Larry Steinberg, whose work focuses on adolescence.  As a researcher-practitioner whose work focuses on early childhood, especially the years between birth and three, I would strongly argue that many of these outcomes are things that are set in motion before the ages of three and four, and we cannot speak adequately to changing these trends by restricting our analysis or conclusions to studies of adolescence.  To put it more simply, surely we can agree that, if we do indeed share a goal of raising “happier” children, we need to act upon those intentions well before children approach adolescence.  In the blurb for the book, it is even pointed out that Dr. Steinberg “explains how the plasticity of the adolescent brain rivals that of years 0 through 3.”  Um, yeah.  Rivals.  Zero to three.  And voila, we wind up right back at “parenting advice.”

“So tell us, which parts DID you agree with?”  Oh, there are many.

“America seems mired in the ancient, dehumanizing beliefs about children that will continue to hold our kids back, and eventually the country as well.”

Yes, indeed.  The antidote is found in respectful parenting philosophies (RIE®, Conscious Parenting, Hand in Hand Parenting, etc), for the foundation of these philosophies lies in respect for the child as a full, independent, unique person from the moment of birth.  I often hear people comment that children are “so fun when they start to become people,” or “when you can do things with them,” meaning three or four years of age.  At that point in time, we have already missed a phenomenal window of opportunity for laying in place neurological pathways that lead to the outcomes that we desire.  At a minimum, we need, as a culture–regardless of whether we follow a particular “branded” philosophy or not–to interact with infants, toddler, and preschoolers with respect.  And in order to do that, we need to learn what respect is, and what it looks like when applied to young children.

For example, one of the most frequent criticisms (or points of mocking) of RIE® (which is not really a criticism, but a misunderstanding or misinterpretation) is that it demands that we treat and talk to babies “like they’re adults”–which in the most hyperbolic posts sometimes even gets expanded into “baby talk should be replaced with long, adult conversations”–there is no truth in such a statement.  Rather (to my understanding),”as you would speak to adults” is simply a familiar benchmark of respect, for the benefit of those who can’t seem to picture what respect toward infants would look like. In other words, when a toddler cries, and we say, with a tone of disgust, to someone else in the room “she’s constantly crying about something, and most of the time, about nothing!”, we ask ourselves if we would say that about an adult friend who was crying–would we say that about them to other people in their presence?   Probably not.  If your frail grandmother was sitting on the couch, and you wanted to sit next to her, but you needed her to move over a bit, would you just, without saying a word, pick her up and move her to another spot on the couch?   Or would you politely ask her if she could please move over a bit, or ask if she needs help to move over, and explain that you’d like to sit there, next to her?  Why would we do these things differently with adults?  Because we feel an obligation to show some basic respect.   These respect-based philosophies are simply suggesting that parents use a similar rubric to examine whether they are routinely and casually and maybe unconsciously treating young children in ways that are not respectful.  It’s really quite simple.  And why the defensiveness, anyway?  Is there some reason we wouldn’t want to be respectful of our children?  So what are we missing?

In reviewing the comments on the article, (I know I’m not supposed to do that, but someone has to read them.  Let’s just say I do it for you, so you don’t have to.) I was struck by one particular comment:

What is the problem? Americans are a cruel, crude and violent people. Why should their children be well-adjusted? And, BTW, if they are well adjusted, they will be cruel, crude and violent.”

In its brevity, this comment highlights the critical issue that we somehow fail to address: Why as a society do we consistently imagine that American children will be better behaved than American adults?  As in all things, when we can step back and look at ourselves, we will be well on our way to shifting some of these outcomes in generations to follow.  It’s not about “parenting advice”, and it’s not about getting kids to change.  It’s us.   That’s what we’re missing.

Today, I read an article about young children being “sore losers” at board games or in sports–yet another example of the “parenting advice” that is clearly not solving our problems.    While it did not take into account developmental status–most particularly the limitations of cognitive development in young children–it raised one point that continues to ring in my ears:

“If your child sees you losing your cool when someone grabs the seats you wanted at the movie theater or the parking spot you had your eye on, they will get the message that winning matters. Be aware of what your [child] sees you doing when things don’t go your way.”

Do your children overhear you and your spouse badmouthing someone with whom you disagree?  Do you model for your children powerful reactions to “your team” (i.e. professional sports) either winning or losing?  What do your children see and hear when something goes wrong with an appliance or a repair?  How do you behave when you win or lose a game?  Are you aware what is “fake” or simply dramatic to adults  (i.e. “I lost AGAIN??” as the head hits the table,) does not mean the same thing to young children who are intensely literal?. Don’t get me wrong here–there is no great sin in any of these.  We are all human.  We win.  We lose.  But how is it we expect a four year old to handle all losses better than we do?  Or do we judge our losses as “real” and theirs as “silly?”

There are people moaning every day about how “parenting advice doesn’t work,” and how it proves that we should not listen to the purported “experts.”

Let me fill you in.  Parenting advice doesn’t work because we want it to be about them–the kids.  We want the methods to change them.

It’s a hard truth.  We are the ones we have to change.

If I may be so bold, “Why are our kids so miserable?” and “Why doesn’t parenting advice make a difference?” are the wrong questions.  Let’s start with questioning the behavior and mores of our elected representatives, our cultural and civic leaders…and ourselves.  Here are  few questions, just to get you started:

Who do you know who is actively and loudly standing up for children?  Is it you?

Who do you know that is insisting on respect and attentiveness and funding in and for the first three years?  Is it you?

Who do you know who is actively involved in advocacy for robust grassroots support for parents up to and until our culture catches up?  Is it you?

Who do you know that is busy reminding others that to tackle these problems when our children are nearly adults is akin to closing the barn door after the horse is out?   Is it you?

Who do you know who is actively speaking out about the rights of children, both from the perspective of the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child, and in contrast to the vigor of the “parents rights” movement in the U.S.?   Is it you?

Why are we miserable?  Why are we antagonistic and mocking of “parenting advice?”  Is this you?

What questions would you add?

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