OK. So we’re the psychologically enlightened baby boomer parents sensitive to our children’s emotional well-being. We don’t discipline; we discuss. We don’t punish; we have “lap time-outs.”
And just how is all this working out? If you don’t already know, just visit a mall, or your local high school, or the children’s section of your library, or a family restaurant, and it will become clear soon enough.
I recently watched the movie Doubt, in which Meryl Streep plays a nun who’s the principal of a Catholic school in New York City in 1964. Sister Aloysius doesn’t put up with any nonsense from her young charges. They’re punished for their misbehavior. She assigns them tasks like writing out the multiplication tables if they talk during class. If they break the rules, they suffer the consequences. She doesn’t try to be their friend, nor does she smile at them a whole lot.
As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that Sister Aloysius cares deeply for her students. Ultimately she goes up against the very formidable powers-that-be, putting herself, her job, and her reputation on the line to protect them.
By today’s standards, Sister Aloysius seems positively harsh and downright dour. But everything Sister Aloysius does—from exerting authority over her students to going head-to-head with the church hierarchy—she does out of love, with the children’s best interests at heart.
The current crop of parents and teachers, on the other hand, seems to have difficulty being in healthy authority over children. Far too often we choose to do things to make children feel good, rather than do things that are for their own good.
At the elementary school my son and daughter attended, there was a hallway through which the children had to walk en route to the cafeteria. It was dubbed “the quiet hallway”—meaning children were taught that they had to be quiet as they walked past the administrative offices where people were busy working.
When my daughter first told me about it, I was thrilled: here was one school where adults weren’t afraid to be authority figures! Children were learning to be considerate of others, and learning to follow rules. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long. When a new principal took over a couple of years later, “the quiet hallway” was quiet no more. Children, it was announced, should be allowed to act like children.
When I was a child, my father was organist and choirmaster at our church. In those halcyon days, the children’s choir boasted over 50 boys and girls, who were expected to attend rehearsal at least one day during the week, and another one before the early service on Sunday morning. It was made absolutely clear that this wasn’t about us; it was about singing to the glory of God.
My father was—and is—a kind, gentle man. But for the privilege of singing in the choir, we had to work hard and follow his rules. One day a young singer was found to be doing the unthinkable for a chorister: chewing gum. It was a rule we all knew well. My father calmly walked over to the boy, asked for the gum, and promptly tucked it snugly into the pocket of the boy’s wool sweater. The mother didn’t call to admonish my father for the consequence imposed on her child for his misbehavior. More likely, it was the boy who was admonished when the gum was discovered. In today’s cultural climate, my father would probably be accused of causing pain and suffering to the poor little gum-chewer.
Which brings up another characteristic of baby boomer parenting. We seem determined to pave the way for our kids, clearing away obstacles such as pesky teachers and demanding coaches who cause them any tidbit of unhappiness. The National Association of Sports Officials now offers assault insurance to referees and umpires involved in youth leagues due to the number of physical assaults on them—by parents.
Dan Kindlon is a psychologist and author of Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. He recounts meeting with the parents of a 16-year-old boy, enrolled at a prestigious prep school, who was accused of plagiarism and suspended from school for three days. The punishment was going to result in a serious drop in the boy’s grades, because of the “F” he’d receive on the plagiarized paper, and because of a quiz he’d miss (and be unable to make up) in another class. And that was all the parents cared about. “This could hurt him on his college applications,” the mother lamented.
The parents made excuses for their son, and remarked that other kids probably did the same. They expressed no concern about his character, or why he cheated, or what they could do to help with the larger issues involved. They couldn’t even acknowledge that there were larger issues involved.
Kindlon, who had worked with the boy and knew of other troublesome behavior on his part, believed that the boy was actually crying out for help. Kindlon’s take on the situation was this: “He wants his parents to take a more active role in helping him make the right decisions, because he doesn’t yet have the maturity to make them on his own. He wants them to set firmer rules, to monitor his behavior more closely, to become more involved in his life.”
Dr. Kevin Leman addresses these issues in his book, Have a New Kid by Friday. He believes that many modern parents feel responsible for making sure their children are happy—at almost any cost. As a result, according to Leman, we’re raising a generation of children who “expect anything and everything good to come their way, with no work on their part, just because they exist. In their eyes, the world owes them—and owes them big time.”
Like the student Dr. Kindlon described, kids not only need limits—they want them. Ultimately we fail our children when we fail to be in charge of them or make any demands of them. Looking out for our children’s emotional well-being is more complicated than trying to hand them happiness on a platter. Often it means having to step into the uncomfortable role of authority figure.
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