The parent trap, part two

The second installment of an interview with Dr. William Doherty, from the editors of U.S. Catholic magazine. Doherty, a family therapist and professor in the department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota, is the author of Take Back Your Kids (Sorin Books) and Take Back Your Marriage (Guilford Press), among many others.

Can you name the consumer values that are creeping into family life?

You can start with social comparison. I may not want to be better than you, or have more, but I sure don’t want to have less. A lot of parents say this to me, “I don’t want my kids to have less than the other kids.”

Media has a lot to do with this, too. Prior to the television generation, most of us grew up in little social enclaves. My parents, who were working-class Philadelphia Irish Catholics, didn’t know what the suburban kids were wearing or doing. It’s been demonstrated around the world that as TV comes in, aspirations go way up, along with things like eating disorders.

Second, the consumer culture takes a wish or a want and turns it into a need. Look at cell phones: They went (from a luxury to a necessity and now people have the idea that “no responsible parent should be without one.” This is an idea I question, by the way. I think parents today will often let their teens get into very risky situations because they figure the teen has a cell phone and will call if they get into trouble.

Third, the culture stresses the need for continuing innovation, that more is better. This means that we are never satisfied. The author of The Overspent American (Harper) showed that no matter what income level you’re at, you always think you need more money to meet your basic needs. We’re never satisfied. Obviously we’re talking about a core religious theme, that these material things will satisfy our thirst only temporarily.

So what does all this do to kids as they grow up?

There’s not a lot of research that has followed kids over long periods of time to see how they turn out. All we have are anecdotes. A lot of people are saying that kids become entitled. They feel that things should be handed to them, that teachers and other adults are there to serve their needs. There was an article in The New York Times recently about how college students today are e-mailing their professors and saying, “I missed class, would you send me the handouts?”

So what’s the opposite of parenting with consumer culture values?

The opposite of consumer parenting is raising our kids as citizens and members of families and communities. They have rights, but they also have responsibilities. It’s very difficult for this generation of parents to think of children having responsibilities to the family and to the common good. Even if they get the kids involved in volunteer stuff, it’s for the kids’ development, not because it’s something they ought to do for the community.

What are some of the challenges for parents trying to fight the consumer culture?

Parents often don’t feel they have a vocabulary to say why they’re doing what they’re doing. My parents, in an earlier era, might have just said dismissively, “You don’t need to be doing all that traveling soccer!” The conversation would have been over in 15 seconds.

But today’s psychologically minded parents feel they have to have a soulful conversation. This is not bad. I certainly explained things to my kids more than my parents did with me. But the flip side is that it’s so hard for parents to say no, especially if the thing in question is not harmful to the child. How do you say no on the basis of values?

Can you give an example?

Recently I read that something like 28 percent of preschoolers and two thirds of teenagers have a TV in their bedroom. So how do you say no to a TV in your child’s bedroom? If you can’t base it on values, they’ll challenge you in such a way that many parents just give up. Or if you cop out and say, “It’s too expensive,” every American kid can find a way to get a TV. Uncle George is buying a new one and can give away his old one, or kids save up money from birthdays and Christmas.

So what can parents say instead?

“I don’t think this will be good for you. I don’t trust TV as a medium. Not everything on there is good for you. And it’s not good for the family for you to be off on your own so much in your room, watching TV alone. We have a family TV.” That’s the message we gave our teenagers when they asked for a TV: “There’s a TV in the family room, not in your room.”

Notice that the vocabulary I used there was what you might call a “citizen vocabulary.” I talked about the good of the family. Most parents couldn’t dream of saying those things because we’re so child-centered. If we see the child as a customer or a consumer, our job as parent becomes to make that child happy. My own view is that if what makes the child happy is putting the whole family on tilt, it’s also not good for the kid.

I never thought my job as a parent was to make my kids happy. It was to love them and help them to be good young people and grow up and contribute to the world. Happiness was just a by-product of all that.

So is explaining things to your kids better than just saying, “Because I’m the parent and I said so”?

This generation doesn’t feel they can say that. It’s too authoritarian. My parents’ generation, who would have said it without batting an eye, were unencumbered by theories of child development. That led to a confident authority. It also had disadvantages such as corporal punishment and other things.

Now this next generation comes along and says, “We want to be sensitive to our children’s unique feelings and needs and developmental priorities.” And that’s good. But we have a hard time using our authority when it’s needed.   …to be continued next week

At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home, has won the 2010 and 2011 General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association. Here’s a sample issue.

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