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Author offers a way beyond anxious parents, entitled kids


William Doherty is putting the word out that today’s childhood has begun to reflect too closely the marketplace embedded in our cultural subconscious rather than the sacred time it should be for budding adults to unfold and blossom within the secure boundaries of family life.

His new book, Take Back Your Kids: Confident Parenting in Turbulent Times, is based on years of experience as a family therapist and research as a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. Doherty, married father of two adult children, postulates that the pervasive consumer mentality of our culture has permeated our parenting ethos and even our children’s perspective on their own childhood rights and responsibilities. He calls the prevailing family dynamic “a recipe for insecure parents and entitled kids.”

Children today tend to behave like “consumers of parental services” such as meal preparation, chauffeuring and laundry; meanwhile, parents play right into the role of “brokers of community services” -- opportunities for fun and enrichment. Some parents “outsource” this job to others such as schools or nannies, others are just too worn out from working too many hours a week, single parenting or trying to stretch a too-meager paycheck to be the effective parents they’d like to be. Sadly, it’s often easier to take the path of least resistance, even if it means you lose your sense of direction along the way.

Parents, Doherty says, are afraid to deny their kids anything -- a spot on the elite traveling soccer team, a high school spring break trip to Cancún, a birthday party at the roller rink for 20 of their closest friends -- even if it is against their values or disruptive to family time, or worse yet, if they know they’ll get flak from their kids, their kids’ coaches or other parents. They don’t want to be perceived as authoritarian, or worse yet, uncool, and they may be afraid to limit their kid’s possibilities for future success in a competitive world. And even if they fear being too permissive, it sometimes seems to be the lesser of two evils.

In Take Back Your Kids and his previous work, The Intentional Family, Doherty reinforces the idea that today’s family must demonstrate countercultural resolve to protect childhood and family life from the toxicity of consumerism, a theme also raised by such authors as Mary Pipher (The Shelter of Each Other), Penelope Leach (Children First) and Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer (Families Valued). Parents must realize it is their role to set limits and behavior expectations, make unpopular decisions at times, and prioritize positive family rituals in order to raise children who see themselves as members of communities from the intimacy of family to the wide world of civic involvement rather than little suns around whom the parental planet orbits unceasingly.

Doherty assails what he calls the “myth of therapeutic parenting.” While Doherty is clear that parents should understand child development and practice good communication skills, he is saying that the “I’m OK, you’re OK” slant on parenting advice is unrealistic and even deleterious.

For example, if your child hits you -- as almost every child will -- the proper response is not a wimpy, “Mommy doesn’t like it when you hit her,” but better, an unequivocal, “You may not hit me or anyone else!” Children must know what is expected of them -- what kind of language and behavior will not be tolerated, and parents must intervene firmly and with conviction when the boundaries are breached.

But kids will always test the resolve of parental authority. One of my children tried out this deliberate response recently when asked to do a chore he didn’t want to do: “I’m in-de-pen-dent.” My 7-year-old-going-on-14 asserts with all the conviction of a ’70s antiwar protester: “Children should be equal,” meaning, I guess, that she wants more veto power when it comes to family decisions. And there is the perennial refrain heard, I’ve no doubt, from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore.: “You’re not the boss of me.”

I think Doherty might say that actually parents are the boss. Like a good boss does for employees, you are responsible for supervising, training and coaching your children on the rights and responsibilities of life in your family: for setting the standards and expectations for behavior and participation, how to be a team player, effective communication, common courtesy and respect for others. And you need support to do this -- from your partner, your neighborhood, your faith community, your extended family and friends, preferably all of the above.

“What I am advocating,” he says, “is consistent with the best research: Children need both love and limits, they need confident rather than insecure parents and they do best when contributing to the common good rather than just focusing on themselves.”

Doherty offers entertaining and eye-opening anecdotes, excellent advice based on his years of practice as a family therapist, researcher and community member, and includes sections addressed specifically to single parents, stepfamilies and fathers.

Ultimately, he says, parents have to earn their kids’ respect or nothing they do or say will really work. And, he cautions, it’s easy to blame the media, the consumer culture, or even what he calls the “dirty little secret” of parental peer pressure. He reminds us that we are all willing participants and that working on our own inner resources may be the most helpful thing we can do for ourselves -- and our kids.

“Although I’ve been emphasizing how parents must take back authority with their children, it’s ultimately the children who give us permission to exercise our authority, based on our sense that we love them, care for them and treat them fairly,” he states.

And, as his book reminds us, we are certainly not alone in our efforts to do so.

Kris Berggen writes from Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000