Who’s the Boss?

With the title, “The collapse of parenting: Why it’s time for parents to grow up,” it is no surprise that this Maclean’s article is getting a lot of attention. In it, the author Cathy Gulli, often citing the works of psychologists Dr. Leonard Sax and Dr. Gordon Neufeld, argues that while guided by the best of intentions, many parenting styles are doing children no favors.

The article is worth reading but I will do my best to summarize it as follows:

(Common) Parenting beliefs and interests

Parents want…

  • the best for their children.
  • their children to feel listened to and respected.
  • their children to be independent and think freely.
  • to avoid conflict and be liked by their children.
  • their children to be assertive and able to stand up for themselves and others.

Parenting behaviour

Guided by the beliefs above, parents…

  • ask their children to make decisions over major and often seemingly minor things (to finish eating green beans) which become significant things (parent’s control, child’s nourishment).
  • negotiate with their children; e.g., “If you finish your green beans, you can have dessert.”

Response of children to parenting behaviour above

The result of this parenting behaviour is role confusion: children question whether the parent is going to make decisions and as a result take on this responsibility. Children begin to see themselves as the decision maker and take on the “alpha” role in the family hierarchy.

Consequence of role confusion

  • Children will make decisions on important matters such as food choices and thus, despite often having limited experience or information, have control over their nutrition and physical development.
  • Children control access to technology and may, due to lack of understanding and/or discipline, not prioritize sleep over screen-time.
  • Same age peers will become more important and influential to children than their parents and other adults.

The crux of the argument is that the world is becoming less hierarchical but hierarchy is still needed in families, and classrooms too, where the relationships involve people with vast differences in knowledge and experience.

 

I feel quite lucky as a teacher and now principal that prior to becoming a parent myself I have seen a tremendous amount of remarkable parenting. I have also seen that sometimes small moments – a child throwing his backpack at his parent as he runs to the playground whilst barely acknowledging them – are really big things but could quite easily be overlooked by the parent who has just been at work all day and wants nothing more than to see his son play on the swings rather than telling his son to take care of his own backpack. In that instance, who is in control?

And issues of hierarchy are not exclusive to parenting. An example in schools: Self-regulation has been a major focus of BICS and many schools for several years. Self-regulation differs from regulation in that the goal in self-regulation is for the student to take control. Parents regulate a child with a scraped knee with a kiss on the cheek or a hand on the shoulder. Self-regulation involves the student identifying their emotions and self-regulating so that their behaviour matches their environment and/or activity. Dependence is therefore a key element of regulation while independence is the key for self-regulation. This is a worthy goal: parents and the school have an interest in students becoming independent and self-regulation is about self-control, not control of others.

But how about when self-regulation includes taking a break from the classroom and learning activity? Most schools have self-regulation spaces in classrooms or rooms where the student can take a break from the busyness of a classroom. The spaces are great: they are usually quiet, with subtle lighting and comfortable furniture. As classrooms are potentially the most stimulating learning or working environment most people will ever be in, it makes sense that students might need a change of environment at times other than scheduled (and often stimulating) recess and lunch times.

However, like a child avoiding their greens with the result of malnourishment, too many breaks from the classroom may come at the cost of learning. One might argue that the dysregulated student who feels they need a break won’t be learning anyway, but what happens when student decisions take precedent over reasonable expectations from the teacher. If the student feels the expectations of the teacher take precedence over their decisions to need a break, might that student be more likely to rise to the occasion? Balancing authority and control with honouring student/child voice and independence is not easy but is important.

The key element in who should have most control of decision making is whether the decision is best informed by personal preference or life experience. For example, if it is a matter of a child wearing a red or blue sweater to school on Thursday, it is a matter of personal preference. If, however, the question is about wearing a sweater at all, the parent’s life experience, knowing that the child has soccer after school at 4:00 PM and that the temperature outside will drop when the sun goes down, trumps. Clarity and comfort as to who is in charge and why is essential for parents, educators and of course children/students. A child’s trust that the parent or educator has their best interest in mind when applying their life experiences to a decision is essential.

This balancing act is not easy and the article concludes with the idea that it is OK to make mistakes; in fact, it has to be OK as mistakes will be made. Ideally, awareness of who is making decisions and why will be helpful in the relationships so that students/children feel heard and so that adults can look out for the long-term interests of students.

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