Almost twenty-five years ago, a social psychologist named Elizabeth Cagan reviewed a bushel of contemporary parenting books and concluded that they mostly reflected a “blanket acceptance of parental prerogative,” with little “serious consideration of a child’s needs, feelings, or development. ”The dominant assumption, she added, seemed to be that the parents’ desires “are automatically legitimate,” and thus the only question open for discussion was how, exactly, kids could be made to do whatever they’re told.
Sadly, not much has changed since then. More than a hundred parenting books are published every year, along with countless articles in parenting magazines, and most of them are filled with advice about how to get children to comply with our expectations, how to make them behave, how to train them as though they were pets. Many such guides also offer a pep talk about the need to stand up to kids and assert our power—in some cases explicitly writing off any misgivings we may have about doing so.
This slant is reflected even in the titles of recently published books: Don’t Be Afraid to Discipline; Parents in Charge; Parent in Control; Taking Charge; Back in Control; Disciplining Your Preschooler—and Feeling Good About It; ’Cause I’m the Mommy, That’s Why; Laying Down the Law; Guilt-Free Parenting; “The Answer Is No”; and on and on. Some of these books defensively stand up for old-fashioned values and methods (“Your rear end is going to be mighty sore when your father gets home”), while others make the case for newfangled techniques (“Good job! You peed in the potty, honey! Now you can have your sticker!”). But in neither case do they press us to be sure that what we’re asking of children is reasonable—or in their best interests. It’s also true, as you may have noticed, that many of these books offer suggestions that turn out to be, shall we say, not terribly helpful, even though they’re sometimes followed by comically unrealistic parent-child dialogues intended to show how well they work.
But while it can be frustrating to read about techniques that prove to be ineffective, it’s much more dangerous when books never even bother to ask, “What do we mean by effective?” When we fail to examine our objectives, we’re left by default with practices that are intended solely to get kids to do what they’re told. That means we’re focusing only on what’s most convenient for us, not on what they need. Another thing about parenting guides: Most of them offer advice based solely on what the author happens to think, with carefully chosen anecdotes to support his or her point of view. There’s rarely any mention of what research has to say about the ideas in question.
Indeed, it’s possible to make your way clear across the child-care shelf of your local bookstore, one title at a time, without even realizing that there’s been a considerable amount of scientific investigation of various approaches to parenting. Some readers, I realize, are skeptical of claims that “studies show ”such-and-such to be true, and understandably so. For one thing, people who toss that phrase around often don’t tell you what studies they’re talking about, let alone how they were conducted or just how significant their findings were. And then there’s that pesky question again: If a researcher claims to have proven that doing x with your kids is more effective than doing y, we’d immediately want to ask, “What exactly do you mean by effective? Are you suggesting that children will be better off, psychologically speaking, as a result of x? Will they become more concerned about the impact of their actions on other people? Or is x just more likely to produce mindless obedience?”
Some experts, like some parents, seem to be interested only in that last question. They define a successful strategy as anything that gets kids to follow directions. The focus, in other words, is limited to how children behave, regardless of how they feel about complying with a given request, or, for that matter, how they come to regard the person who succeeded in getting them to do so. This is a pretty dubious way of measuring the value of parenting interventions. The evidence suggests that even disciplinary techniques that seem to “work”often turn out to be much less successful when judged by more meaningful criteria. The child’s commitment to a given behaviour is often shallow and the behavior is therefore short-lived.
But that’s not the end of the story. The problem isn’t just that we miss a lot by evaluating our strategies in terms of whether they get kids to obey; it’s that obedience itself isn’t always desirable. There is such a thing as being too well behaved. One study, for example, followed toddlers in Washington, D.C., until they were five years old and found that “frequent compliance [was] sometimes associated with maladjustment.”
Conversely, “a certain level of resistance to parental authority can be a “positive sign.”Another pair of psychologists, writing in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, described a disturbing phenomenon they called “compulsive compliance,” in which children’s fear of their parents leads them to do whatever they’re told—immediately and unthinkingly. Many therapists, too, have commented on the emotional consequences of an excessive need to please and obey adults. They point out that amazingly well-behaved children do what their parents want them to do, and become what their parents want them to become, but often at the price of losing a sense of themselves.
We might say that discipline doesn’t always help kids to become self-disciplined. But even that second objective isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not necessarily better to get children to internalize our wishes and values so they’ll do what we want even when we’re not around. Trying to foster internalization—or self-discipline—may amount to an attempt to direct children’s behavior by remote control. It’s just a more powerful version of obedience. There’s a big difference, after all, between a child who does something because he or she believes it’s the right thing to do and one who does it out of a sense of compulsion. Ensuring that children internalize our values isn’t the same thing as helping them to develop their own. And it’s diametrically opposed to the goal of having kids become independent thinkers.
Most of us do indeed want our children to think for themselves, to be assertive and morally courageous . . . when they’re with their friends. We hope they’ll stand up to bullies and resist peer pressure, particularly when sex and drugs are involved. But if it’s important to us that kids not be “victims of others’ ideas,” we have to educate them “to think for themselves about all ideas, including those of adults.” Or, to put it the other way around, if we place a premium on obedience at home, we may end up producing kids who go along with what they’re told to do by people outside the home, too.
Author Barbara Coloroso remarks that she’s often heard parents of teenagers complain, “He was such a good kid, so well behaved, so well mannered, so well dressed. Now look at him!” To this, she replies: From the time he was young, he dressed the way you told him to dress; he acted the way you told him to act; he said the things you told him to say. He’s been listening to somebody else tell him what to do. . . . He hasn’t changed. He is still listening to somebody. Just not you; it’s his peers.
The more we ponder our long-term goals for our kids, the more complicated things become. Any goal might prove to be objectionable if we consider it in isolation: Few qualities are so important that we’d be willing to sacrifice everything else to achieve them. Maybe it’s wiser to help children strike a balance between opposing pairs of qualities, so that they grow up to be self-reliant but also caring, or confident yet still willing to acknowledge their limitations.
Likewise, some parents may insist that what matters most to them is helping their children to set and meet their own goals. If that makes sense to us, then we have to be prepared for the possibility that they’ll make choices and embrace values that aren’t the same as ours. Our thinking about long-term goals may lead us in any number of directions, but the point I want to emphasize is that however we think about those goals, we ought to think about them a lot. They ought to be our touchstone, if only to keep us from being sucked into the quicksand of daily life with its constant temptation to do whatever it takes to get compliance.
As parents of children, we are well acquainted with the frustrations and challenges that come with the job. There are times when our best strategies fall flat, when our patience runs out, when we just want my kids to do what we tell them. It’s hard to keep the big picture in mind when one child is shrieking in a restaurant. For that matter, it’s sometimes hard to remember the kind of people we want to be when we’re in the middle of a hectic day, or when we feel the pull of less noble impulses. It’s hard, but it’s still worthwhile.
Some people rationalize what they’re doing by dismissing the more meaningful goals— such as trying to be, or to raise one’s child to be, a good person— as “idealistic.” But that just means having ideals, without which we’re not worth a hell of a lot. It doesn’t necessarily mean “impractical.” Indeed, there are pragmatic as well as moral reasons to focus on long-term goals rather than on immediate compliance, to consider what our children need rather than just what we’re demanding, and to see the whole child rather than just the behaviour.
This is subversive stuff— literally. It subverts the conventional advice we receive about raising kids, and it challenges a shortsighted quest to get them to jump through our hoops. For some of us, it may call into question much of what we’ve been doing— and perhaps even what was done to us when we were young.
The issue is not merely discipline but, more broadly, the ways we act with our children, as well as how we think about them and feel about them. It requires us to reconsider basic assumptions about parent-child relationships and think of practical alternatives to the tactics we’re sometimes tempted to use to make our kids behave, or to push them to succeed to help our kids to grow up as good people— good, that is, in the fullest sense of that word.