Imagine this scenario: You’re in a restaurant and there is a young family at the table next to you. You overhear the father coaxing his young daughter “Honey, please do me a favour?  Please try just one bite of your peas?”. What is your first thought? Perhaps you see this as a sophisticated and kind parenting technique. The father is gently coaxing his child to co-operate, without threatening her autonomy or creating a scene. Bravo!

Well, to Dr. Leonard Sax, this kind of behaviour requires a different response. Sax, a family physician from Pennsylvania, has done much research and written extensively about children’s development. In an article by Maclean’s, he found himself in this exact situation and he couldn’t help thinking how it epitomized one thing: the collapse of parenting. Sax says that this collapse is partly to blame for the rise in child obesity, over-medication, anxiety, and general disrespect toward society and themselves.

This might seem like a really harsh conclusion to draw from such an insignificant event, however, it’s actually a perfect example of how parents are slowly relinquishing their control through deference to their children. This is not to say that today’s parents are evil, or intentionally hurting their children. In fact, moms and dads have the best intentions, and their efforts to follow through are impressive. Parent’s are trying to build their kids up, by giving them a voice; and they want to please them by avoiding conflict.

When parents start to give their control up, food choice are often the first things to go.

So why the restaurant example? Because the dinner table is where it all starts. “[When parents start to give their control up, food choice are often the first things to go.]” writes Sax in his book: ‘The collapse of parenting: How we hurt our kids when we treat them like grown-ups”. The hard and fast rule that you grew up with: No dessert until you finish your broccoli — has morphed into: Eat three bites of broccoli? Then you can have dessert. Sax describes how the command has become a question ending with a bribe. Nowadays, dinner has become a democracy. Parents poll their children on what they are willing to eat. A healthy dinner of chicken and potatoes or chicken fingers and fries? It’s obvious what the kids are going to choose.

Parent’s in North America are starting to ask their children, instead of telling them. It’s a natural response, as they are trying to avoid resistance. Gordon Neufeld, a Vancouver psychologist, says that for trivial choices like what colour pants to wear, this approach is fine. The problem arises when parents are consulting their children on choices that symbolize nurturance: like food. This triggers a response in the child where they begin to feel like they need to take care of themselves, and then they begin to take the lead.

In the restaurant example, if the daughter does eat one bite of pease like her dad asked, she will feel like she has done him a favour. She will then expect a favour in return. This example of what happens over a meal is just one manifestation of the collapse of parenting. It highlights how parents have become uncomfortable with their role as ‘alpha’ or ‘the boss’. Essentially, they’re uncomfortable with being the ‘grown-up’.

This discomfort comes from a place of love, rather than a place of laziness. Many parents are trying to raise their kids differently than they were raised. They don’t want to yell, they don’t want to spank. Parenting is shifting away from the days when you called your dad ‘sir’. This change isn’t easy, and parents are trying to become emotional coaches without any training. They want their kids to feel heard and respected and they want their kids to be able to express their emotions. However, Andrea Nair, a psychotherapist and parenting educator in London, Ont. says that “Kids have permission to have tantrums now because [they’re] learning how to manage feelings,” says Nair. “Someone said to me, ‘Are we seeing more tantrums now than we used to?’ And I wonder.”

In households that want to empower their kids, the kids are overpowering the parents. “You need a strong alpha presentation to inspire a child to trust you and depend upon you,” Says Neufeld. If the parent doesn’t hold enough natural power, they will be hard-pressed to set boundaries for their kids. The consequences can reach far into your child’s life: starting with their eating habits. Just like the dad in the restaurant, many parents are struggling to get their kids to eat healthy food. It doesn’t help that junk food is often used as a reward. The message that kids are getting is that healthy food is for losers, and dessert is for winners. This is contributing to the massive weight gain in today’s North American youth.

Kids are not born knowing right from wrong.

Sax discussed some studies which showed that children left to discover right from wrong on their own had negative outcomes in the future. “That child in their late 20s is much more likely to be anxious, depressed, less likely to be gainfully employed, less likely to be healthy, more likely to be addicted to drugs or alcohol. We now know this,” says Sax. “Parents who are authoritative have better outcomes, and it’s a larger effect than the effect of race, ethnicity, household income or IQ.”

Kids need a well-balanced lifestyle. The rolling stones song ‘You can’t always get what you want’ has the perfect line, which my dad sang to me many times growing up: “No, you can’t always get what you want, But if you try sometime you find, You get what you need.” This was usually followed by a denial of whatever request I had just made of him. Parent’s don’t be afraid to say “No” if what your child wants is not what they need.

  • Give your kids good and healthy food. Limit their snacks.
  • Spend time exploring outside.
  • Involve your kids in household chores.
  • Create a consistent sleep routine.

Teach your kids responsibility, and don’t try to protect them from small failures. Those failures help equip them with the skills they need to succeed in life. Help them learn delayed gratification, and give them opportunities for ‘boredom’. This ‘boredom’ time will help open their mind and let their creativity blossom.

In summary: Parents need to realize that their kids are not their friends and they are not grown-ups. Parenting can be terribly difficult and lonely place. Neufeld encourages parents to establish a network of caregivers and authority figures who will not undermine the parent’s authority, but back them up when they need help. “When parents realize that they are their children’s best bet, it challenges them to their own maturity,” says Neufeld. This realization helps parents realize they do know what’s best for their kids — and they need to stick up for it. They can have confidence that sticking to their guns is actually an act of love. Then they can be the grown-ups their kids need.