Books Give Parents Two Chances to Save Kids
What's up with kids these days? A lot of young people are aggressive and lack compassion. Some are downright cocky, others sullen or aimless, and many aren't afraid of getting into trouble. Still others bully, and, at the extreme end of the spectrum, some even murder other kids. We're in trouble.
Two new books on parenting outline this dismal picture. The Epidemic: The Rot of American Culture, Absentee and Permissive Parenting, and the Resultant Plague of Joyless, Selfish Children (HarperCollins, $38.95), by Berkeley, California based child psychiatrist Robert Shaw with Stephanie Wood, and Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Matter (Knopf, $35), by Vancouver's Gordon Neufeld, a clinical psychologist, and local family doctor Gabor Maté, examine how our society has ended up with so many troubled youth. They also provide tips for parents to help kids grow and thrive in a media-saturated, materialistic modern world.
Both books point to common factors related to why families are under so much pressure--the financial need for both parents to work, a dearth of support services, the dissolution of communities, and a culture obsessed with material possessions--but they differ in their takes on what exactly is happening to make children so sullen and difficult.
Shaw and Wood argue that clinical diagnoses such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder are increasingly used as labels to explain why kids seem spoiled or unsocialized. They say our society is "toxic" to children, and that young people are alienated from everyone around them, including their peers.
Neufeld and Maté, on the other hand, say that although kids are detached in general, they're still attached to their friends. The authors dub this phenomenon "peer orientation". Kids have an innate need to orient themselves, to get their direction from someone. For the first time in history, they write, kids are turning for instruction not to their parents, teachers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or other responsible adults but to their own peers. Kids are being brought up by immature kids.
Sprinkled throughout case studies of Neufeld's patients and his and Maté's explanations of attachment theories are guideposts for parents to follow along the path of child-raising. The secret of a parent's power is in the dependence of the child, they state.
"To foster independence we must first invite dependence; to promote individuation we must provide a sense of belonging and unity; to help the child separate we must assume the responsibility for keeping the child close," Neufeld and Maté write. "Thus the story of maturation is one of a paradox: it is dependence and attachment that foster independence and genuine separation."
The authors provide more practical advice on how to foster family cohesion and reclaim kids who are straying, such as creating structures and restrictions to "safeguard the sacred". Among the rituals that facilitate parent-child relationships are family holidays, activities, celebrations, games, and sit-down meals. They also urge parents to "defuse" the competition. One way is to make friends with their children's peers' parents in an effort to bring the kids' worlds together. When peers can be included without the parents being displaced, children can have both.
Maté and Neufeld repeatedly stress that there are always things people can do, and that, by nature, children want to belong to their parents.
Hold on to Your Kids isn't the kind of book you can flip through; it takes concentration and time to absorb the authors' intellectual assessments. If Hold on to Your Kids is the Globe and Mail, Epidemic is the Province. Okay, maybe the Vancouver Sun. That is, the text of Epidemic is more straightforward and less academic than Hold on; the latter is denser, both content-wise and visually. The pages in Hold on aren't much to look at--there's nothing to break up the tight lines of smallish print--whereas Epidemic at least uses simple strategies like boldface type to set off topics such as the kinds of behaviour parents should watch out for in their kids.
What makes Epidemic so worthwhile is its direct approach. In each chapter, Shaw and Wood answer the question "How is my child doing?" with specificity and clarity. For instance, when explaining how to tell if a baby is "securely attached" during the first year of life, they offer a checklist with statements like "Your baby should be capable of occupying herself for brief periods of time" or "Your baby should enjoy social interaction so much that she attempts to initiate it on her own--for instance, peeking from behind a corner or a blanket." Covering the topic of unnecessary stress in kids' lives, Shaw and Wood point out signs and symptoms to watch for: children becoming unusually worried or suffering from nightmares; biting their nails; or complaining of stomach pain, headaches, or insomnia.
The authors home in on day-to-day concerns: the pros and cons of allowances, the questionable aspects of infants sleeping in their parents' bed, the makeup of a good child-care arrangement. And if you think TV and kids are a good mix, maybe the writers can convince you otherwise. Shaw and Wood say that media tell kids it's okay to use fighting to deal with conflict, fast food is the most delicious on the planet, and everyone is having sex with no consequences like disease or unwanted pregnancy. Media addiction has detrimental effects on kids' diet and health, and TV becomes a substitute for social interaction, they stress. The authors offer a "media management plan" (and no, it doesn't include purchasing a new vehicle with a built-in TV screen). It's hard to argue with their suggestions, on media dosage or anything else.
Both books lay out some startling scenarios, but they're not sensational. They're alarming, not alarmist. The authors present doable strategies to help parents help their kids. If their advice is taken to heart, there's hope there will be more warmth and security all round.