WORLD

A desperate sense of optimism

January 9 2006
WORLD

A desperate sense of optimism

January 9 2006

INTERVIEW

'We're aí! pushover parents. Sometimes I have to hold my book up to my own kids and yell: "Does this thing mean anything to you people?" ' BETSY HART TALKS TO LINDA FRUM

Modem parents are pushovers. So says Betsy Hart, a syndicated columnist from Chicago and first-time author of the new book It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting our Kids. The mother of four young children, Hart lays bare an unpleasant truth about today’s parenting culture: parents are wimps. We put our children on a pedestal, fret about the injurious effects of discipline, indulge each emotional whim, honour every impulse, and then are confused when we discover our children lack moral character.

Q you, from Betsy, I home am the office, I have talking phone and to to the in warn door you my is closed, but at any moment, one of my three children might come bounding in here demanding attention. leant say I’ve done the greatest job getting them to respect my boundaries.

Linda, I understand. I had to threaten my own children. Sometimes I have to hold my book up to them and yell: “Does this thing mean anything to you people?”

So we are both pushover parents?

I think we all are to some extent.

What exactly is the “culture of pushover parenting” that you write about in your book?

I think it comes down to being told by the “experts” that children come into this world full of inherent virtue and goodness. They just need a little tweaking here and there. They need a parent’s cheerleading. Not so much a parent’s guidance. And once you believe that— that children have all this inherent wisdomthen the stage is set for being intimidated by them. Versus thinking that children have flawed little hearts just like the rest of us. They can be selfish and tyrannical and “all about me.” And it’s our job as parents to civilize them. That means not letting them intimidate usât least not all of the time.

I suppose part of the problem is that many parents aren’t even aware they are pushover parents.

I think that’s right. As you know from reading my book, I’m more than happy to talk about my foibles. But I hope I am aware of them. So that the times I am pushed over, and my kids talk me into something, it is the exception and not the rule.

I love your phrase “no shouldn’t be a no-no. ” Why is it so hard for parents today to say no to their kids?

Because we’re so afraid of adversity for our children. We so desperately want to spare them any disappointment, any frustration, any upset. Well, that doesn’t do them any good. Because then they grow up and they literally have never been told “no.” They have never learned to restrain their passions. And they become adults who can’t restrain their passions. We need to learn to use “no” as a complete sentence. Let our children experience not being able to have or do something. Let them get angry with us. They’ll survive and three minutes later they’ll forget about it and move on. But you know, I fall into this trap myself, especially with my little one. I’ll say “no.” And she’ll say, “What about tomorrow?” And I’ll say, “Okay, maybe tomorrow.” Instead of: “No. It is never happening.”

That’s probably because it takes a lot of strength to say no to children. You have to gird yourself for battle.

Alt practice. talking takes about just And a little I’m dropping bit not of no’s like atom bombs. But when it’s appropriate, let children experience whatever frustration is at hand. When we do that, we see that they survive it, and we survive it too. Sometimes we’re surprised and say “Oh, that wasn’t that bad.”

You write that the “ultimate dumb thing” a parent can do is ask four children: “Where do you guys want to go for dinner?” or “What movie do you guys want to see?”

Right. Because then they start screaming and fighting and everybody is miserable. But I’ve done it too. I’ve done it all.

We “idealize and idolize” our children. How did we get here?

There are a couple of different answers to this. For one, it’s the secularization of our culture. People just don’t have the religious tenets that they used to-to believe that children and mankind have these selfish tendencies. And the secularization is exacerbated by the rise of the parenting experts over the past 100 years or so.

And our culture of competition and overachievemen tisa part of this as well? People use

their children as surrogates for their competitive impulses?

tive impulses?

Yes, but I think that also goes back to the secularization. There is no longer any thought of things eternal. It’s all here and now. It’s all in our kids. They are the only thing that is going to live on after us. So we’ve got to really put everything into those children.

And this is why you write that you want your children to go to heaven rather than to Harvard?

A Yes, because first of all there is no indication they are going to the latter. But I do really try to maintain that longerterm view. And that helps a lot when, in the short term, things aren’t always going so well. You write that parents need to accept that most kids are ordinary. Very few of us have given birth to gifted, exceptional children, and that’s okay.

Yes, and I think parents really have to ask themselves: “Is that okay with me?” And I fear more and more parents are saying: “No!” I think that’s a real tragedy. You have to see your children the way they are, or you are going to make everybody miserable, including yourself. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I was raised in the Midwest, but I am just more comfortable with “average.” It’s more important what’s going on in their hearts, not just in their pocketbooks, or on the gymnastics floor. It seems to me if we can get to that understanding, we can really enjoy them, and enjoy life, and they might even be happier.

Indeed, you suggest we are living in an age of joyless children. Responding to our children’s every whim actually makes them quite unhappy.

Right. They don’t learn to appreciate. They don’t learn to be grateful. And they don’t learn to curb their passions. So they become a slave to their passions. That’s going to make anybody miserable.

What are some of the typical indulgences that you see going on?

You have the material indulgences. If Suzy down the street got one level of American Girl doll, then we have to get the next level up. And if the child kicks and screams and says: “I’ve just got to have this or I’m going to die,” well, we don’t want them to be disappointed. But I also think it’s bigger than just material indulgences. It’s things like, “I want to go to the mall RIGHT NOW.” “I want to express my passions and scream because Suzy irritated me, and don’t you dare tell me not to express my passions.” It’s a host of things. “I want to be the centre of the family universe and have everyone focus on me right this very moment and indulge me for hours if not days because I’m disappointed because I didn’t get this spot in the school play.” I used to tell my kids: “I’m

sorry you’re upset but you don’t have the right to make other people miserable. We’ve mourned that you didn’t get invited to the birthday party, and we’re done. We’re going to move on now.”

When there’s more than one child we bend over backwards to make things equal.

I think we always want to say: “Oh, but you’ll get invited to the next birthday party.” Or “some wonderful thing is going to happen to you too.” But we can’t always match what one child is getting with another child—nor should we. We should help our children find joy in somebody else’s good fortune.

What is a family cup?

This idea came from friends of mine. Throughout their lives when something wonderful happens in their extended family—a job promotion, a baby, a new house—that family member receives the family cup to celebrate. The goal is always to get rid of the cup quickly—so you are always looking to make somebody else the focus. My family is too young for a family cup right now, but when I’m out with one of my children I might go out of my way to buy a little something for another child. If I’m out with Victoria and we see an inexpensive ship model, I might say to her, “Look, Tory. You know how Peter loves ship models? Wouldn’t he love that? Let’s surprise him.” It’s good to get them used to that. To take joy in giving something to someone else.

The self-esteem movement has been a partner of pushover parenting. Some might suggest you are cruelly defeating Victoria’s self-esteem by appearing to care more about Peter.

Well, you’re not going to do anything crazy, like on Christmas morning have a big pile of presents for one child and coal for another. We’re not being ridiculous here. But the whole self-esteem movement is all about building up little egos, which tend to be built up quite nicely on their own. I want my kids to take esteem from the idea not that they are great or perfect right now, but that they can choose to do better tomorrow.

We have been taught, by parenting experts such as Penelope Leach, never to criticize the childonly the behaviour. Right—criticize the behaviour—as if it just showed up in the cereal box that morning or was delivered by FedEx. It didn’t come from the child’s heart. It’s odd, because when our children do a great thing, and act unselfishly, we’re all over that. “Oh, Tommy’s such a good kid.” But the minute they hurt another child, or act selfishly, oh boy, that can’t be coming from the heart. And yes, sometimes they are tired. Sometimes they are overstressed. But sometime, those things do come from the heart and if we are not willing to face up to that, we are not doing our children any favours.

We see them not as they are. And we don’t help them struggle with the weaknesses of their hearts.

You make no pretense about being a perfect parent. You have a tremendous awareness of how hard it is to do it right all the time.

Oh yeah! Someone asked me why I didn’t pretend to be a perfect parent—and I said the truth was bound to come out. You know, we all fail and we all blow it. And when you dojust pick up and move on. It’s about perseverance over the long term, not getting it right at the moment.

A big part of y our message is to trust yourself as a parent. Don’t panic that you’re not doing it according to “expert wisdom. ”

'It's our job to civilize them. That means not letting them intimidate us—at least not all of the time.'

Yes, or according to the latest headlines

and parenting magazines. If your parenting doesn’t look like somebody else’s—that’s okay. I also think one of the things we deprive ourselves of is the ability to go to other parents and admit that it’s hard, that we’re not perfect, and to get insights from other wise people. I think we’ve been so intimidated that we have to parent perfectly and we have to read all the expert stuff. There used to be a time when, if your child was acting badly, you could go to your friends, your family, or your pastor, and say, “I’m really struggling with this one. Give me some insights here.” We are so afraid to do that now. We deny ourselves real opportunities as parents because we let perfect be the enemy of the good.