The Terrible Shrinking Parent

What happens when parents shrink from using adult authority to guide their children?

A new child-rearing book is on bookstore shelves: The Collapse of Parenting by Dr. Leonard Sax. “So I’m not asking you—I’m telling you: Don’t read Sax’s book,” declares Melinda Wenner Moyer, Slate magazine’s parenting advice columnist. Moyer’s advice, actually an authoritative command to her readers, convinced me that I needed to write this article.

Parents need help. The truth is, they are not getting it from the hundreds of parenting advice columnists writing today. I would hope today’s parents would have enough gumption to investigate when a columnist states, “So I’m not asking you—I’m telling you: Don’t read Sax’s book.” Believe me, it is not on par with the Communist Manifesto, or full of ruinous, morally corrupting mental poison. No book is perfect, but this is one of the best secular books on child rearing I have seen in a long, long time. It can help you help your children.

Sax has an impressive list of educational achievements: He is a practicing family physician with an undergraduate biology degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an M.D. and a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. However, earning degrees doesn’t make a physician an expert on family. Experience with families—especially families in trouble—can. Sax has practiced family medicine for 19 years in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, d.c. “My primary sources for this book,” he writes, “are the more than 90,000 office visits I have conducted in my role as a practicing physician between 1989 and today.”

It is not his Ivy League education or his extensive experience as a family physician that makes this book unique and more valuable than all the parenting books by other Ivy League authors. The Collapse of Parenting has merit because it looks squarely at the unrecognized toll modern society has taken on families and offers workable, commonsense solutions to fix family problems. More importantly, this book matches up with a more authoritative and often rejected source of instruction on proper child rearing. Parents who want to be successful at parenting should keep an open mind and examine what Leonard Sax has to say.

Kids in Charge

“Here’s my diagnosis. Over the past three decades, there has been a massive transfer of authority from parents to kids. Along with that transfer of authority has come a change in the valuation of kids’ opinions and preferences. In many families, what kids think and what kids like and what kids want now matters as much, or more, than what their parents think and like and want,” writes Sax. Here Sax describes the main maxim of modern liberal parenting: Let the kids decide.

So, what’s wrong with that?” you may think. Let’s look at several examples that Sax gives to help us come to a satisfactory answer.

In his introduction, titled “Parents Adrift,” Sax relates a story about a couple he knew who were concerned about a reduction of funding in their only child’s public school. The music and art programs were being cut because of a budget shortfall. So the parents decided to search for a private school. They took their 8-year-old daughter along as they visited four schools. The parents found what they considered to be the best school. It had a warm, friendly environment, enthusiastic teachers, and well-documented student outcomes.

However, their daughter preferred a different school. This school had a dilapidated environment, ho-hum teachers and administrators who refused to disclose where graduates of the school went to high school. Why did she prefer it? She had connected with the school’s 9-year-old tour guide, who liked to read the same books and play with the same dolls as she did. These parents gave their daughter the right to choose her own school.

Sax writes, “When I asked Tammy why she and her husband allowed their 8-year-old daughter to have the final say, Tammy answered, ‘I think good parenting means letting kids decide. That’s how kids learn, right? If I make all the decisions for her, how will she ever learn to decide on her own? And if I force her to go to a school that wasn’t her first choice, what can I say if she complains about the school later?” Are you dumbfounded? The scenario is hard for me to believe.

“Even 30 years ago, when I graduated from medical school, it would have been unusual for parents to let an 8-year-old have the final say in the choice of school. Today it is common,” continues Sax. Parents today suffer from role confusion. Parents should be loving and friendly with their children. However, they should not allow 8-year-old minds to make decisions that are challenging for even 30-, 40- or 50-year-old minds.

Children do need to be taught how to make choices. Yet, an 8-year-old should never be put in a situation to decide where to attend school. To be allowed to decide to wear a blue or red sweater—yes!

The Right Parent-Child Relationship

“We now live in a culture in which kids value the opinion of same-age peers more than they value the opinion of their parents, a culture in which the authority of parents has declined not only in the eyes of children, but also in the eyes of parents themselves,” explains Dr. Sax. “And with regard to parents and children: The authority of parents, and, even more significantly, the importance of parents, in the lives of their children has declined substantially,” he continues, referencing German sociologist Norbert Elias.

Getting back to a solid parent-child bond, where children value their parents’ opinions first and all others’ second, is essential to repairing America’s plague of broken families.

In a healthy family unit, parents and children are not equals. Parents should maintain their position of loving authority. That is a parent’s responsibility. Children should be loving, obedient and respectful of that parental authority. This is the only family structure that produces healthy, happy and successful children.

Yet our society has gone experimental and refuses to accept this truth. This sound family structure, centered on the prime position of parents—especially the father’s role—has been systematically undermined for decades in colleges and universities, on television, in movies, books, psychology journals and popular magazines.

“Did you know that some of America’s most pressing ills—obesity, psychiatric illness, and our eroding educational system among them—have a single cause that can be easily fixed? I didn’t either, until I read Leonard Sax’s new book, The Collapse of Parenting. And you guessed it, dear parents: It’s all our fault,” wrote Moyer in her Slate article, “There Has Been No Collapse of Parenting” (January 22). I believe many family experts, teachers and even honest parents would disagree with Ms. Moyer.

In defense of Dr. Sax, his book is not just assigning blame to shame parents; he is working to encourage parents to get back on the right track. Essentially, I hear Sax cheering all parents on to do better. I can hear him calling out from the sidelines of the parenting challenge, “Parents! Be parents and use your rights as a parent to guide your children with your authority.” There is nothing discouraging about that.

Here’s a truth that Sax espouses: Strong, strict and loving parents build confident children of character who can lead productive and successful lives.

Culture of Disrespect

Sax does assign shame where it belongs. He points his finger primarily at the family-destroying messages pervasive in American culture—created by media-mogul adults who are specifically targeting children.

“It’s not just hip-hop and T-shirts. It’s everywhere,” states Sax. “Even the Disney Channel actively promotes the culture of disrespect and undermines the importance of parents. Consider the most popular shows on the Disney Channel, such as Jessie, a sitcom in which the parents are most always absent (and irrelevant), while the three kids are more competent than the bungling butler and the ditsy nanny.” He also mentions the Disney shows Liv and Maddie and Dog With a Blog, in which the mother and father are always outsmarted by their children. Although not all family tv shows in the 1950s and ’60s were the best, there were several that didn’t rip apart the family as most shows do today. Father Knows Best comes to mind as one of the better ones. Blondie, as I think back on it, was one of the worst. Dagwood, the father, was always portrayed as a bumbling idiot.

There is no doubt our 21st-century American culture has affected most parents and others in authority, such as teachers. I have worked in our public schools where kids rule! It is unfortunate that parents and teachers have so easily given up their authority to modern culture.

“It’s tough to be a parent in a culture that constantly undermines parental authority,” Sax writes. “Two generations ago, American parents and teachers had much greater authority. In that era, American parents and teachers taught right and wrong in no uncertain terms. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your neighbor as yourself. Those were commands, not suggestions.”

It takes a deep-thinking, confident, sacrificing, selfless adult to stand against the opinions of modern American culture. It can be done. Parents must not fear exercising their authority to help their children.

“Today, most American parents and teachers no longer act with such authority. They do not command. Instead they ask, ‘How would you feel if someone did that to you? The command has been replaced by a question,” continues Sax.

It is important to recognize that when parents allow children authority over their own lives, they surrender their own responsibility. I know from experience that it is difficult to get control and maintain order in classrooms today. The lack of student self-control and self-discipline severely undermines a teacher’s ability to instruct. Teachers cannot effectively teach a group of unruly, disobedient students. It is the parents’ responsibility to teach their children obedience, respect for those in authority, how to respect others, how to get along with their peers, and how to act in public settings. Much of this kind of training has been pushed onto the shoulders of schoolteachers, who don’t have time to teach such skills and also meet the curriculum requirements.

So, if parents aren’t teaching and teachers aren’t teaching, then who is? That’s the big question Leonard Sax asks in his book.

Culture of Youth

Who is truly raising and teaching children today? “We have allowed kids to be guided by same-age peers rather than insisting on the primacy of guidance from adults,” writes Dr. Sax. We now have a culture where kids are raising kids.

How is this happening? “The main mechanisms by which contemporary American culture asserts its primacy in the hearts of American kids are the Internet and the mobile phone,” Sax answers. “Neither of these existed 25 years ago. But today, it’s common to see an American 4-year-old playing with an iPad, complete with Internet access. That’s particularly true in affluent communities. And it’s becoming common to see an American 9-year-old with her own cell phone—again, especially in affluent communities.”

Are high-tech devices connected to the Internet really that harmful? You bet. Does it undermine parental authority? Yes. This technology and the devices connected to it are widening the gap that divides the generations as quickly as newer technologies and devices are being designed.

I recently made a trip to England to visit my daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren. I purchased a new cell phone with a better camera and microphone to do some radio interviews while there. I did not have time to go through the phone’s manual before I arrived. My 10-year-old grandson asked to see the phone. Within about 20 minutes, he was able to show me features on the phone I would never have suspected were there. I asked him how he knew about these features. He was able to apply the knowledge he had picked up while watching and questioning a television technician who was performing computer operations as he edited one of our organization’s tv programs.

Do you see the potential danger to the bond between your child and you because of these devices? No? Because of my experience with my grandson, I can.

Here’s the point: “Your daughter and her friends are more likely than you are to know how to upload a photo from a cell phone to an Instagram page, complete with digital special effects. That’s one reason why your daughter may come to value her friends’ opinions over yours. Her friends seem to know more about important things than you do. And the more time she spends on Instagram, the more likely she is to think that knowing about Instagram is important,” writes Sax. Now do not misunderstand. Dr. Sax does not say children should not have access to these devices. However, he does say that children should be monitored carefully. He is adamant that young children and teenagers should not have these devices alone to themselves in their bedrooms. That is sage advice.

Moyer further criticized The Collapse of Parenting by saying, “Other things Sax cites as clear signs the world is going to hell in a handbasket: Kids today wear obnoxious T-shirts, tv shows aren’t as good as they used to be and Miley Cyrus. You’re probably starting to get the drift: The foundation for Sax’s theory is light on evidence, heavy on old fuddy-duddy.” I think this comment proves Sax’s point. The book is worth reading.

You Can Fix Your Family

Dr. Sax gives many examples of family situations where the parents could have made better decisions for their children. Then he offers commonsense solutions jam-packed with timeless wisdom that could have helped fix the problem. Parents need to take back their authority and responsibility, not shrink away from it. He suggests parents and children spend much more time together with no electronic devices allowed. This means you too, parents. He believes families should take vacations alone, no friends allowed, to strengthen the bonds between parents and children. Parents and kids should eat dinner together.

He stresses above all that parents must assume the role of “first” teacher and instill moral virtues into their children. His chapter titled “The First Thing: Teach Humility” is profound. Sax believes that one of the biggest problems in American parenting and schools is that children are being pumped full of self-esteem. “Most American parents are fine with the idea of teaching openness, agreeableness and so forth. But humility? They don’t know where to start, or how, or why. Some parents no longer even understand what the word ‘humility’ means,” writes Sax. Are your children humble? Or do they believe they are the greatest, the most amazing, marvelous, the best? Sax warns, “[A] puffed-up ego at age 8 or 14 can lead to resentment at age 20 or 25.” I had to learn early in my writing career that there were associates much better at writing than me. But I wasn’t shattered by that knowledge. I kept working at getting better. Yet Sax shows clearly that many American kids fall apart when they come to understand that some other kid is better than they are at some sport, class or talent. Sax states with a big ring of truth that humility has become the most “un-American” of virtues.

Why do parents no longer teach virtues to their children? Well, let’s be honest. Just like Ms. Moyer, many people believe morals and virtues are just “old fuddy-duddy.”

“There is a 2,000-year tradition along the same lines with regard to virtue. If you compel children to act more virtuously, they actually become more virtuous,” writes Sax. “In the biblical book of Proverbs, which scholars tell us was written more than 2,500 years ago, we read, ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.’” That’s not “old fuddy-duddy.” It is timeless wisdom from the mind of the Creator God who designed the human family. This perspective, more than any amount of 21st-century scientific evidence from psychology or sociology, is what sets The Collapse of Parenting apart from all other child-rearing books on bookstore shelves.

Ms. Moyer stated that Sax’s book is worthless because it doesn’t rely on scientific evidence. That is a very misleading claim. Sax provides extensive reference notes for each chapter. He cites scientific studies and refers to many supporting articles. The truth is, families are falling apart because there is a collapse of parenting.

We at the Trumpet can say this with absolute certainty. Not only by what we see in society, but because God tells us clearly in Isaiah 3:12 that there is a collapse of parenting. Study this verse. It is a perfect picture of what has and is taking place in 21st-century families.

Also, be sure to request a copy of Conspiracy Against Fatherhood by editor in chief Gerald Flurry. This booklet shows you how God designed the human family to function. This publication is jam-packed with vitally important family instruction. You can build a successful family life.