The final 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.
A generation ago, most kids were raised not only by two parents, but also by a grandmother and aunts and other people. Today many people are parenting kids virtually alone. Could that affect what you’re describing?
Of course. Whenever we’re in a difficult moment with our kids, the more people around us-even just in our heads-the better. It used to be that many adults in public could stand in for a child’s parents. A grandmother could say, “You boys, you stop cussing like that.” Other adults backed her up. I think of my father: He respected Msgr. Daley and Mr. Finnegan, the Democratic ward leader. So I respected them. They were people my family could turn to if we were in trouble. They commanded authority.
The breakdown of the broader community means that all parents-whether in two-parent or single-parent families-don’t feel support. When there are parents buying kegs for teenagers and hosting coed sleepovers for 11- and 12-year-olds and renting hotel rooms for the prom, what kind of world are we living in? And these parents are not outliers, they’re the leaders.
If you are a single parent, you don’t have somebody right there to be the bad guy with you. And kids wear you down. I certainly understand that.
What about respect? A lot of parents gripe that the lack of respect from kids is becoming commonplace.
A mother of a 4-year-old told me a story. She was dropping off her daughter at preschool. Her daughter normally hangs up her own coat. This one day she took off her coat, handed it to her mother, and said, “Here, hang it up.” The mother said, “Excuse me, hang it up yourself.”
The preschool teacher said, “You’re the first parent who’s handled it that way.” Why? Parents don’t want to have any unnecessary upsets, so they’ll just let it go.
Now obviously the daughter hadn’t learned that behavior at home. But kids are little anthropologists. They go into other people’s homes and watch carefully. Her daughter had obviously observed that kind of parent-child interaction somewhere else.
Another mother told me her son came home from junior high and she asked him, “Did you have that test today?” He said, “Are you deaf?! I told you it’s tomorrow!” She told her friends, “Well, you know, it’s a challenging age, they’re dealing with all these hormones, and they have to blow off steam.” Of course, there is some instinct that says this isn’t right. But parents rationalize it.
How should parents handle disrespectful kids?
When my son was 13,1 was on the phone with a friend one day and he wanted to use it, which I didn’t realize. When I hung up, he said, “Who was that?” in an imperious, parental tone of voice.
At that moment I saw a lot of roads opening up. He was offering me a contract: “When I’m frustrated with you, I can treat you like a peer.” And I could have signed that contract by saying, “Well, that was Mac, and I didn’t know you wanted the phone,” which is what I might have said to my wife if she were in a bad mood.
Or I could have overreacted and said, “None of your business who I was on the phone with! And you’re on the phone too much anyway! You’re grounded from the phone!” He would have smiled at that, because he had caused me to lose it.
Instead I just said, “You don’t get to ask me that question, particularly in that tone of voice.” He walked out of the room. I didn’t follow him. I didn’t ask for an apology. And he never talked to me that way again.
Today the culture has shifted. Disrespect has become normative, and parents are disempowered. When people see this as a cultural problem, they can see it’s something we all have to challenge.
So how do you challenge the pull of consumer culture?
The key is creating a public conversation that takes something that seems natural and inevitable and makes a problem out of it. That’s what a group of parents I worked with in the late 1990s in Minnesota did. We coined the phrase “overscheduled kids.” They were concerned about their kids being overinvolved in scheduled activities. The New York Times did a big article and then they were on Oprah. Now everyone accepts that overscheduling is a problem.
How do you start change like that?
There are a few rules. First, no villains. There’s no conspiracy, no people sitting in a room saying, “How do we destroy our children by exhausting them or turning them into little consumers?”
Second, it’s important to avoid prescriptions. When I was on the Today show talking about overscheduled kids, Katie Couric tried to get me to agree that families should have two days a week with no activities. But I don’t think you can make those hard-and-fast rules. Families and kids are different.
And last, don’t blame parents. The culture is something that we’ve created together. I don’t want to tell parents, “You’re doing one more thing wrong!” With overscheduled kids, for example, we said that this is a cultural problem and it’s fed by good instincts. There are great opportunities for kids now, and we live in a society where we push things too far. So we’ve created a monster together. And having the conversation about it frees up individual parents to make what they think are the best choices for kids.
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