The group sessions are called “Love and Logic.” But at recent meetings in Olathe, a dozen parents and educators of young children have discussed behavior not so lovable.
Tantrums. Kids refusing to put down their phones or get off their games. Children laughing when told to behave.
“I’m still running into her mouthing back at me,” said one mother Thursday, at her fourth session. “I send her into her room and she keeps doing it.”
Said another: “This is terrible to say, but my kids know I’m serious when I use cuss words.”
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Are kids taking control? Is parenting in a state of collapse?
Not really and no, many experts argue. But at least one new book answers yes and yes. And it’s reopened an old debate on the degree to which parents should exert their authority.
In “The Collapse of Parenting,” author Leonard Sax blames influences of the last two or three decades — from social media and cellphones to video gaming, to inactivity, to parents abdicating their authority at home — for cleaving families and creating in today’s children a “culture of disrespect.”
No doubt he plucked a nerve.
Last month The Kansas City Star’s website featured an Associated Press interview of Sax, a child psychologist and family physician. It was the most-read online article so far this year, rivaling even what the Chiefs playoff stories generated.
The introduction to Sax’s book homes in on overly permissive households and the temptation to “treat (kids) like grown-ups.” He says parents need to regain control: “In many families, what kids think and what kids like and what kids want now matters as much, or more, than what their parents think and like and want.”
The results are far-flung: Obesity. Needless medication to correct problems at school. Children back-talking adults and developing a belief that nobody is the boss of them.
And The Star’s readers sounded off.
“He is spot on,” one woman wrote of Sax’s assessment. “The disrespect I see working in an elementary school is astounding.”
But another disagreed, expressing the other side of the parenting argument: “This is extremely simplistic, sound-bite parenting advice. Children’s responsibility is not to OBEY, it is to learn.”
Such disputes about how to correct children have swirled for generations, all the way back to ancient Greek philosophers. And sure enough, in the same month that “The Collapse of Parenting” hit shelves, so did a book by two local authors who hold a somewhat contrary view.
“It’s just not true that there’s a loss of parenting,” said Barbara Unell, co-author with Kansas City area psychologist Jerry Wyckoff of “Discipline with Love & Limits.”
Parents everywhere continue to raise healthy, happy children, she said, but the job today requires more people: “What we should be talking about is an expansion of parenting, where more and more people — parents, teachers, coaches, day care workers, neighbors, physicians — need to be on the same team.”
Kids being kids, they are naturally inclined to be fidgety and demanding, run in the aisles and even scream if they’re denied candy in supermarkets, Unell said in an interview.
The problem only worsens, she said, when some parents lay down the law, scold, yell or spank kids into submission. Those children may be learning how to bully when they’re bigger.
“The goal is to build up children and teach,” she said. “Is the child learning to problem-solve and cope when they’re not getting their way?”
Sax isn’t advocating harsh parenting — his book does not applaud corporal punishment — but he is at ease telling parents to “command” when asking doesn’t work. He also suggests ways that parents can have fun with their children while at the same time establishing who is in charge.
Still, the “Love and Logic” gathering last week at Rolling Ridge Elementary School learned not to expect they can be in charge at all times.
Avoid power struggles, program facilitators said. Give away some control in times you don’t really need it. Offer calm, reasonable choices rather that engage in a tug of war.
“If you just dig in to a power struggle,” said school counselor Suzie Turner, “then you’re going down to their level.”
As a father of two, it’s not that Jason Porta of Lenexa is some nostalgic, in-my-day guy graying at the temples.
“I’m only 29,” he said. “In that amount of time,” and he snapped his fingers, “look how it’s changed.”
As he speaks, his 3-year-old daughter is taking pictures on Mom’s smartphone. His 5-year-old son is prone to repeat “Can I play the game? Can I play the game?” if it’s been a while since absorbing himself in his electronic Disney Infinity.
When the boy gets upset about not playing enough, Porta and his wife will stash the video console in a cupboard.
Experts say it’s smart for parents like the Portas to unplug their kids and get out of the house. It helps them socialize, release tension and learn life.
For their part, Jason and Megan Porta spent an hour last week, as they do every Wednesday, watching daughter Lexi tumble through a gymnastics class with a dozen other toddlers.
“I hope our kids live life the way I did,” said Jason Porta as the talk at his table turned to the challenges of modern-day parenting. “For me it was, ‘Let’s go out and shoot hoops. Let’s take a walk. Get out and be with friends.’ ”
But the Portas and other parents at Shawnee’s Mill Creek Activity Center worry it may not be that way for their kids. And they wonder, in a digital age, how much they can actually control.
Could those adorable tykes out on the tumbling floor grow into sedentary teens hooked on technology, texting past midnight from their rooms, wandering to all manner of creepiness online and dissing their classmates through social media?
“Yes, I worry,” said Leslie Kelly of Olathe. She joined the Portas’ table and disclosed that she, too, has a 3-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son.
“My daughter could sit and look at a screen all day,” especially the family iPad, Kelly said. “She likes to talk to Siri.”
Getting cozy with Siri, the voice for Apple mobile devices, is an altogether new thing for the toddler set. Suppose this becomes a destructive habit and a girl’s inquiring mind takes her to online places she shouldn’t be and to people she shouldn’t know?
Several local psychologists say computer use is a wise thing to monitor. Yet some argue that too much parental anxiety and too many well-intended restrictions can foster anxiety, long-term resentment and anger in a child.
“If you talk to 20 different therapists on this, you’d probably get 20 different opinions,” said Independence family therapist Michael Moore. “But when you hear that parents just need to take control of their kids? It’s ridiculous.”
Household structure is essential, “but you can’t put out a blanket statement and set firm limits in all situations,” he said. “What a child needs more than anything else is to know they’re loved unconditionally.”
As for discipline, Moore and other area therapists cite a wide spectrum of household practices, with rigid parental control at one end and no control at all, or “chaos,” at the other. At each end, research shows outcomes tend to be poor.
“Healthy families are in the center,” said Dennis Meier of Synergy Services, a nonprofit assisting families in crisis.
Research makes clear that children’s behavior is greatly influenced by what they absorb through media. Even though it’s intended for adults, uncivil political discourse on TV — name-calling in a presidential debate, for example — can grab the attention of a child in the room.
“There’s a lot more opportunities today to see disrespectful behavior modeled for children,” said Rochelle Harris, a psychologist in the Developmental and Behavioral Sciences Clinic at Children’s Mercy Hospital.
Whether parents are conscious of it or not, their disrespectful behavior will most certainly be absorbed, Harris said. Being rude to a supermarket clerk in front of your child might signal to the kid it’s OK to act nasty next time you’re there.
“Kids pick up the most remarkable things about parents,” she said. “They’re these little sponges.”
They’re getting more “character” and anti-bullying lessons in school. Yet schools in recent decades may have contributed to children and teens becoming more irritable and disrespectful, said Meagan Patterson, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Kansas School of Education.
“As a general rule, we’re seeing less recess than kids had 30 years ago,” she said.
Academic requirements have stiffened. Pupils at all grade levels are spending more time taking tests.
“What kids are being asked to do these days — things has changed,” said Patterson. “If you’re asked to sit still all day and do another test … there’s not much chance to develop social interaction skills.”
So are we truly seeing “the collapse of parenting,” as Sax’s book says?
“That title is inflammatory,” said writer Unell. “It does a disservice to families of all shapes and sizes trying real hard to raise caring and responsible people.”
Sax responds in an email to The Star: “A more accurate title for my book might have been ‘Changes in American Parenting Over the Past Thirty Years and How These Changes Have Undermined Parental Authority with a Resultant Increase in Pediatric Psychiatric Diagnosis, Diminished Physical Fitness, and Increased Fragility; Followed by Suggested Strategies to Improving the Odds for Children and Adolescents.’
“However, that title would not have met the requirement for succinctness.”
Local authors Unell and Wyckoff earlier collaborated on “Discipline Without Shouting or Spanking,” first published in the 1980s and updated in 2002. It’s been translated into 17 languages.
Since then, parenting has gotten more complicated, they acknowledge. That’s largely because household incomes have flattened, both parents hold down careers and single parents often must work multiple jobs.
And yes, the Internet and gaming too often steal valuable family time and can cause blow-ups.
However, Unell and Wyckoff don’t think the nature of youngsters has changed much. Nor has, to the authors’ dismay, the impulse of parents to exercise physical authority: 78 percent of U.S. fathers and two-thirds of mothers think it’s OK to discipline children by spanking them, their latest book says.
At Rolling Ridge Elementary, single dad Dan Schroeder shared with the “Love and Logic” group his own method of resolving conflicts with three sons, ages 7 to 9.
“They can’t ever agree on whether I serve corn, beans or broccoli,” he said. “So we do these rock-paper-scissors tournaments.
“I’ve not won once.”
But at least they’re eating vegetables.