What this is about is reading that I think we could all stand to look at for a few minutes, ESPECIALLY if you have children.
Child and family psychiatrist Robert Shaw says he wrote the latest book in the child-care advice genre because he had to. After the teen shootings at Columbine, he asked himself, "How would you have to raise your kids for them to do this?" His answer lay in the past three decades of books on child rearing. Although he admits there have been some stellar examples lately - Carol Eagle's "All That She Can Be: Helping Your Daughter Maintain her Self- Esteem," Michael Gurian's "The Good Son" and Audrey Ricker and Carolyn Crowder's "Backtalk: Four Steps To Ending Rude Behavior in Your Kids" - the majority have pushed a child-centric view that elevates the child to head of the household.
Shaw's book, "The Epidemic: The Rot of American Culture, Absentee and Permissive Parenting, and the Resultant Plague of Joyless, Selfish Children," (with Stephanie Woods; ReganBooks, $24.95) is a primer on how to raise an empathetic kid who will benefit society. It takes the reader on a detailed, instructive journey through a child's life, and is filled with concrete examples from patients Shaw has treated in his more than 45 years of practice. Shaw founded and serves as director of the Family Institute of Berkeley.
The book may not be welcomed, especially in the Bay Area-Shaw is a firm believer in children being raised by their parents, not by day-care providers. He agrees there are ways to be a working mother and still bond with and nurture your children, but he also stresses what a strain it will be. Parents should approach parenthood with eyes wide open and once on the path, keep the kids in line and out of trouble. The book can be as inspirational as it is frightening as a reader vacillates between "Is it too late for my kids?" and "That's it, we're cracking down tonight on those tantrums."
Shaw admits to a nagging fear of being "lynched in his hometown," but soldiered on anyhow; he's under the impression the public is now ready to hear how to fix our kids. He lives in the Bay Area with his wife, Judith, and practices in Berkeley. He has four grown children.
Following is an excerpt from the first chapter of the book, which hits bookstores in October.
Alison Biggar, Editor
We are in crisis. Large numbers of children, even including those who could be considered privileged, are no longer developing the empathy, moral commitment and ability to love that is necessary to maintain our society at the level that has always been our dream. The emotional, psychological and moral well- being of the current generation of children has reached a frightening low point, and it's going to require a powerful shift in thinking to save them. A few short years ago, we were in serious denial that there was such a problem, but recent catastrophic events in our society are forcing us to face the inevitable: Our culture no longer offers what children need to truly thrive. While happy families were once the norm, more and more we see parents and children rushing frenetically from one task to another; children whining, bickering, tantruming, pouting; parents nagging, complaining and trying to ignore their unruly, surly offspring. Can you go to stores, restaurants or libraries without seeing these joyless children screaming, throwing food or pulling packages or books off shelves? Are you comfortable seeing such scenarios-or tempted to look the other way?
We can no longer turn a blind eye: There is a mountain of evidence now telling us what's truly good - and really bad - for kids.
When you hold a baby in your arms and see her sweet face looking up at you, you hope and expect that she will naturally grow up to be a well-developed, compassionate person. However, it doesn't happen naturally - children can be trained to a variety of outcomes. As a culture, we need to start noticing that the path to severe dysfunction is often subtle. Like termites, the epidemic of problem behavior silently burrows into your life and does great damage before it's discovered. If we as parents don't "train" our children in constructive, safe and expressive ways of operating in our society, their natural drive to connect with someone or some idea may well lead them toward some of the most destructive behavioral manifestations. They'll be "trained" all right, but perhaps by wayward peers, gangs, media or radical religious cults.
Teachers and grandparents have been complaining for years that today's children are out of control. The day of reckoning has arrived: We simply can't afford to raise our children this way.
We Determine Our Children's Future
Children are extremely malleable and plastic, and how we rear them is the major determinant of their outcome. I believe the parenting trends that have evolved over the last 30 years promote the development of unattached, non- communicative, learning impaired and uncontrollable children. We are experiencing an epidemic of school problems, both learning and behavioral. Teachers everywhere report that children are arriving ill-equipped to engage in school because they lack focus, purpose, connection, an ability to fit into a rules system and a desire to learn. At the extreme, our current culture may well be breeding a generation of unattached, predatory children who may be cognitively smart but who lack the capacity to appreciate the feelings and positions of other people.
This epidemic seeps like a fog into all of our culture. Parents find themselves enslaved by a materialistic, overachieving society that leads them to spend so many hours and so much money that they can't make the time to do the things necessary to bond with their children. They are worried that they might crush their children, stifle their self-esteem or kill their creativity, to the extent that all sense of proportion is lost about the role of a young child in a family. Their children are rarely given limits or permitted to experience frustration, and their moral and spiritual development are overlooked. As a result, essential values like empathy, effort, duty and honor do not develop. And on top of that, children are abandoned to the influence of the media - so much time is wasted on mind-numbing electronic entertainment such as television and video games that literacy, social development and creativity are all inhibited. These unbonded, untrained children agitate in ever-widening circles of problem behavior until they finally bump up against real limits - which all too often have to be supplied by institutions such as schools or, eventually, the law.
What are the chances that this will happen to your child? The answer lies within the lifestyle choices you make. Each decision that moves your family away from what we know is good for children - secure attachment to a primary caregiver; a safe, structured and ordered environment; lots of free time to exercise creativity and imagination - increases the level of risk to the child's development. The choices are tough ones, and with each decision, you set the odds, one way or the other.
The Roots of the Epidemic
Where does it all begin? The epidemic of which I'm writing cannot be imagined as a function of poverty, of the inner city or of a minority race. It is occurring in the homes of comfortable, educated parents. Its symptoms can be observed in every classroom, every playground, every supermarket and restaurant-in more and more households across America. The evidence begins early, and can be observed anywhere, in both parental and childhood behavior:
-- The parents of an 18-month-old leave her with a baby-sitter while they work all day. The sitter, in turn, plops her in a high chair to watch an endless parade of Barney videos. The child's response: She enters meltdown mode the minute Mommy arrives to take her home. Naturally Mommy can't wait to escape back to the office the next morning.
-- The two-career parents of a 3-year-old, too tired to cook, drag him out to yet another restaurant at the end of his own long day. The child tosses his food on the floor, whines incessantly that he wants to leave and then climbs off his seat, under the tables, and around the chairs of other patrons, ruining their meals as well. The parents pretend not to notice so they can finish their conversation.
-- A father goes to pick up a 4-year-old from a play date. The child spits in the face of his father, then screams all the way out the door. The father, clearly not used to being in control of his son, begs and cajoles ("we'll stop for ice cream on the way home") in a desperate effort to end the embarrassing scene.
-- Parents on the way to a friend's child's birthday party make a stop at the toy store with their own 5-year-old in tow. They explain that they are here for a present for Suzy, not her. The child throws a fit in the toy store until her parents give in and leave with two purchases. One can only imagine the scene at the party when the other child opens her presents.
As parents, our lives are filled with these critical moments. They may seem insignificant at the time, when you just need to get through that restaurant dinner or trip to the toy store, but how they're handled sends a vitally important message to your children about the nature of their relationship with you. From that sleep-deprived decision in the wee hours that it's easier to let a toddler come into bed with you than not, to that evening when you're too tired or lazy or even afraid to stand up to a rebellious teen, by not acting you are acting - and potentially in a harmful way. The parents of the younger children in the previous examples who tolerate public meltdowns now will likely be the same ones who have underachieving, disrespectful, vandalizing teens later.
Today's parents seem to have absorbed the notion that a child's life should be totally serene, totally self-expressive and totally free from frustration. But creating an atmosphere that feels satisfactory to the child all the time does her a disservice.
When you look at it this way, it's easy to see how the breeding ground of the epidemic goes all the way back to infancy. Of course, a newborn still adapting to her overwhelming new world needs and deserves immediate and constant attention. But by six months of age or so, a baby should have developed the capacity to doze off on her own and sleep through the night, or entertain herself with a toy for brief periods while a parent goes about the everyday tasks of life, such as cooking or making a phone call. Yet more and more often we see high-demand older babies who react intensely the minute they are put down and who continue to awaken their now zombie-like parents hour after hour throughout the night demanding complicated soothing routines. These infants grow into temperamental toddlers who refuse to accept routines and resist toilet training well past the age when they are capable (the manufacturing of a totally new product - large-size disposable diapers for preschoolers - is but one example of this trend). As 4- and 5-year-olds who should be evolving into happy, eager-to-please little people, they continue to react with tantrums when limits are set and suffer emotional collapse in the face of frustration.
It is totally human and expected that children are going to test out their parents and other authority figures - not to do so would also be abnormal. Rather than seeing all limit-testing as a bad thing, we must recognize its merits in helping the child safely determine what it expected of him in the world. The trouble is, indulging and distancing parents have allowed it to go beyond an acceptable level. When parents don't teach their children acceptable behavior, defiance becomes the norm. Of course a 1-year-old tries to pull hair or bite; he needs to be taught not to or he will continue to do it. Of course a 2-year-old will throw a tantrum; he must learn that such behavior is not permitted and will not get him his way, or he will continue to do it. Of course a 2- or 3-year-old will feel reluctant to share her toys; she must be taught that it's a nice thing to do, or she will continue to refuse to. Of course a 3- or 4-year-old may try to run into a dangerous street; he must learn that he can't. Not enforcing appropriate limits is neglecting the teachable moments that will ultimately civilize and protect your child.
Many of today's children have gotten the message that their frightened, guilt-ridden parents will give in if they put up enough of a fight. So rather than trying to please them, they oppose, resist and irritate; their parents, in turn, cringe and cower and cave in. Control has come to replace attachment and love, skewing development in an abnormal direction that has become accepted. Palatable labels ranging from "high-energy" to "hyperactive" to "temperamental" to "oppositional" are bandied about like personality traits that must be tolerated. Parents are lulled into believing these behaviors are the norm by the parenting gurus who preach child-centric theories: never let your baby cry; he'll use the potty when he's ready; discipline is disrespectful; the child's feelings should come first (well before yours, of course).
The media are part of this problem. In one recent issue of a popular child- rearing magazine I saw the following query from a reader: "My 3-year old is a delight in most ways, but if I ask her to do something, she'll say no, throw herself on the floor, and tell me I'm not her mommy anymore. I've raised her to express her feelings, but have I gone too far?" The answer from a noted pediatrician: "Her behavior is perfectly normal for a 3-year-old."
It is extremely sad to me to think of the children whose parents are being influenced by statements like this. If this were normal, why would anyone want to have a child? Children like this are being injured in their emotional development every day by being allowed to behave in totally inappropriate ways.
That a pediatrician is alleged to have accepted this as normal indicates to me how far this epidemic has penetrated into the fabric of child-rearing. Yes, a child might do something like this on a rare occasion, with provocation and stressful circumstances. But one time should be enough. It is possible to make clear that you will not bargain under duress. Children are very bright and learn the rules rapidly. The problem is that we are teaching them the wrong rules.
Those children who progress down this distorted developmental track are much more likely to become angry and alienated and assume a cold or contemptuous attitude toward others, especially authority figures. At home, they are secretive, sullen, broody presences. In school, behaviors such as distractibility, indifference, overdiagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
(ADHD), disdain for adults, whining and nagging detract from their ability to learn. Well-intentioned parents then take them to psychiatrists, who prescribe the latest medications to calm them down, help them focus in school and become more manageable.
To the parents of these out-of-control children, the daily indignities are frustrating but easy to rationalize: "She'll grow out of it," "I'm too tired to deal," "He's a high-spirited kid," "It's probably just puberty." But the saddest fact is undeniable: family life for many has become too much work, too little fun. Sheer lack of time and performance pressure on both adults and children have diminished the importance of seemingly less productive pursuits like playing peek-a-boo with a gurgling baby, sitting down to a family board game or chasing twinkling lightning bugs under the summer stars. Instead we find ourselves slaving after children who laugh in the face of our weak attempts at discipline, demand to be amused all day, and stay up late because we're too exhausted to put up the struggle it takes to get them to bed. These kids are fully in charge. No wonder they have piles of untouched toys - the real live playthings that are their parents are far more entertaining.
Meanwhile, modern moms and dads are encouraged by a culture in overdrive to push and prod and force their children onto an endless track of achievement, desperately squeezing one more enriching activity into their already too-tight schedules. The not-so-subliminal message: If Johnny doesn't do it all, he'll never keep up with the multitalented majority, he'll go the state university route instead of Ivy League, he may never discover his true calling and reach his potential. Driven by such superficial goals and constant consumerism, parents abdicate their children's day-to-day routines to others so they can work longer, while the beautiful home sits forlornly, the dining room table goes unused, the long family weekend away gets postponed when work calls. They feel regret, but they can't mobilize themselves to stop and relax and enjoy this family life that they so carefully cultivated.
Never before has the degree of dysfunction I have described afflicted privileged families in the numbers we're seeing today, nor has it begun so early. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry estimates that about 5 percent of children and adolescents suffer from depression, and suicide has risen to the third leading cause of death among teens.
These stricken children are proving ill-equipped to cope in the more demanding world beyond their homes. A recent study of more than 13,000 college students seeking psychological counseling revealed that their emotional difficulties are far more complex and more severe than in the past. Researchers at the counseling center at Kansas State University found that the percentage of students treated for depression or suicidal tendencies doubled in the 12 years from 1989 to 2001. More than twice the number of students was taking some type of psychiatric medication. Problems related to stress, anxiety, learning disabilities such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, family issues, grief and sexual assault also rose.
I find it painful but no surprise that these constantly placated children are growing into adults who are unable to take the rough-and-tumble of life. They have not been given the inner resources to deal with the stresses of responsibility and accountability. Then they land in the college counseling office, leaving the school responsible for their mental health.
THE BIGGGEST MODERN PARENTING MISTAKES
-- Failing to establish a strong emotional bond with your child by not spending the necessary time and attention.
-- Not reading to, talking to or playing with young children to provide the experiences we know help them acquire literacy.
-- Accepting the idea that excessive non-parental care will be an adequate substitute for your relationship with your child.
-- Not having firm rules and routines that you administer calmly, fairly, assertively and without guilt or hesitation.
-- Not conveying to your child - through both actions and words - the moral, ethical, and spiritual values you believe in (or not having moral, ethical, and spiritual values in the first place).
-- Allowing your child inappropriate control over his life. A certain amount of control, doled out as a child is ready to handle it, is wonderful; too much control when your child is ill-prepared for it is disastrous.
-- Yelling at and threatening your children. You can be firm and reliable in reinforcing rules without resorting to these tactics. When you lose your temper, it says that you have delayed handling an issue until your frustration and impotence have become overwhelming. You can act firmly right away; you don't have to wait until you get angry.
-- Over-identifying with your child, to the extent that you assume he wants what you want, will fulfill your own aspirations, or will perform in a way that will enhance your self-image. In short, expecting your child to build your ego and solve your doubts.
-- Expecting too much while demanding too little. For instance, letting him loll around playing video games all day, then expecting him to win honors at school.
-- Not allowing your child to experience the rewards of earning and achieving on his own.
-- Overexposure to media.
-- Not giving your child the type of activities and experiences that promote his ability to sit quietly, concentrate and listen, then expecting schools to "fix" him. Not even the very best private schools or stellar public education systems can accomplish the same goals with underdeveloped children as they do with those who are well-adjusted and ready to learn.
-- Failing to talk things through. Direct, honest, complete communication should be the constant characteristic of your relationship with your child.
When parents commit these all-too-common mistakes in an effort to suit their own needs and concerns or through their own ignorance or lack of energy, they thwart their child's natural course of development. When you put off toilet training because you're too busy to deal with it, or allow your
6-year-old to keep crawling into your bed at night because you're too tired to put up a fight, or dole out money on demand instead of insisting on an allowance, or let curfews slide, you will cripple your child in the long run. These developmental tasks can feel endless at times, but it's naive to think that children will turn out fine if you just leave them alone. Values are not instinctual; they are passed on to your children day after day, in your every interaction with them. That is why, with effort, even very deviant children can be helped to gain the values they need.
From the book "The Epidemic," by Robert Shaw.
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It is something to think about.