Examples of American families living out of balance are easily found in today’s pop-culture phenomenon of reality-based television programming. And it’s easy to watch these shows and condemn the children and their outrageous behavior. But who’s really to blame?
In The Super Nanny, viewers watch a child care professional enter the lives of families ruled by spoiled, out-of-control children in an attempt to put the parents back in control. The MTV hit, My Super Sweet Sixteen documents extravagant birthday celebrations in which parents lavish their entitled teenagers with expensive gifts to avoid their wrath.
“Parents have become needy,” says parenting and education expert Malcolm Gauld. “They have created situations in their homes that have spiraled out of control and many are desperate to find help and don’t know where to turn.”
Rather than serve as mentors and disciplinarians in their children’s lives, parents are choosing to become their friends. It’s an effort to win over their children’s approval and maintain harmony in the home, but it has the unintended results of lowering the bar and causing a shift in the balance of power in the household — moving it from the parents to the children.
This parenting trend is spawning a generation of kids who feel and act entitled; who do not respond well to any kind of authority; and who are accustomed to being coaxed and manipulated with monetary rewards and empty compliments.
“Parents have become ineffectual in their efforts to reign in bad behavior and address the kind of attitudes most of us don’t like to be subjected to, much less see when we’re out in the world,” says Gauld. “Somewhere, somehow parents stopped paying attention to the kind of people they’re offering up to the world and more attention to how to make and keep their kids happy.”
But this harmful trend, says Gauld, is not irreversible. Gauld and his wife, Laura – who co-authored the parenting book, The Biggest Job We’ll Ever Have and who deliver workshops based on the book’s principles — offer a blueprint for shifting this course, which includes four guiding principles:
- Parents, understand the job — The foundation of parenting lies in a strong understanding of the responsibilities. Most of the unproductive habits parents pick up stem from the roles they want to play in their child’s life rather than from the role they need to play. Many adults parent in reaction to their own parents, rather than take the best from their life experiences, and learn from, accept and appreciate the struggles they overcame, and apply that wisdom to how they raise their kids.
- Raise children to be accountable — Life requires young people to work hard, stick with things they don’t always want to do, and develop the inner strength to connect their dreams to an action plan. If parents do for their kids what they should do for themselves, they take away opportunities to develop the traits necessary to face life’s challenges with grit and dignity.
- Build family traditions — The big picture of raising children is done with the actions, routines, and practices that make up a lifetime of memories, habits, and character. It is never too late to start a family tradition, and often the value of these actions is seen looking back on one’s upbringing.
- Example is the true legacy to a child — Parents’ own character development will trump any successes and talents they think will inspire their children. Children are more inclined to develop high expectations for themselves when they see hard work and strong principles modeled and they are given a fine balance of space and direction to test that example on their own. Parents should tackle fears, find the courage to pursue dreams, and most importantly, model the curiosity to continue to grow.
A high school educator for more than 30 years and parenting expert, Gauld and his wife Laura address the parental “letting go” process and other issues with parents and families in their schools and the workshops.
“We try to help parents understand that what they do, what they pay attention to is what they reinforce in their kids’ lives. And if they’re worried because their kids are unprepared to take on the challenges of independent life, they have to take a look at what they pay attention to and maybe back off.”