INTERVIEW

‘We’re setting a pattern that will haunt us. If we can't say no to a 2-year-old, we haven’t got a prayer with a 16-year-old.’

February 12 2007
INTERVIEW

‘We’re setting a pattern that will haunt us. If we can't say no to a 2-year-old, we haven’t got a prayer with a 16-year-old.’

February 12 2007

‘We’re setting a pattern that will haunt us. If we can't say no to a 2-year-old, we haven’t got a prayer with a 16-year-old.’

DAVID WALSH, AUTHOR OF ‘NO: WHY KIDS—OF ALL AGES—NEED TO HEAR IT AND WAYS PARENTS CAN SAY IT’ TALKS TO KATE FILLION

INTERVIEW

Q YOU write that your mother had no trouble saying no to you as a child. Why do you think parents today need parenting books to learn seetningly simple skills?

A: The extended family used to be a source of a lot of parenting information in generations past, and a lot of people don’t have that connection or ready access to extended family anymore. The other thing is that there has been a growth of the field of child psychology, developmental psychology, and because there’s now that scientific basis, there’s probably a bit more interest in professional expertise. However, I think a lot of the modern scientific evidence reinforces what people have known intuitively for generations.

Q: Why do modern parents have such difficulty saying no to their kids?

A: The culture really glamorizes more, fast, easy and fun. More and more parents almost have an allergic reaction to kids being unhappy, we feel it’s our responsibility to make sure they’re having fun. The culture is just not as supportive of saying no as it was in the past. But when kids don’t hear no, they are deprived of the gift of self-discipline. One of the key success factors in life is the ability for us to manage our own drives and desires so that they can serve us, rather than control us. Self-discipline is twice as strong a predictor of school success as intelligence, and without it, I think our kids are ill-prepared for

many things in life. We are experiencing an epidemic of what I call discipline deficit disorder, the symptoms of which are impatience, the need for instant gratification, constant consumerism, always wanting more, inability to put others’ needs on a par with my own.

Q: Doesn’t society eventually correct the parents’ mistake by ensuring the kid winds up friendless and unable to compete at school or work?

A: A child without self-discipline will pay a price, but society pays a price as well. What’s happening in our schools is part of the price. We keep holding teachers more and more accountable for content, whereas in the real world, teachers have to devote more and more energy to kids’ behaviour.

Q: You write that we’re also in danger of becoming less competitive globally because of our parenting practices.

A: Absolutely. There are other countries where the kids are more disciplined, where the kids are willing to work hard. Oprah Winfrey opened a school in South Africa a few weeks ago, and when she was asked why she funded it there rather than in the United States, she said, “Because when I ask kids in the U.S. what they want, they say cellphones and iPods. When I ask kids in Africa what they want, they say, ‘An education.’ ” In the U.S., we see more and more of our advanced degrees being awarded to foreign students. We see an increasing percentage of kids coming out of high school unprepared for college science and math courses. I’ve talked to uni-

versity professors and there’s no question they’ve been dumbing down their courses. Now, that’s not everyone. I think there’s a group of kids whose parents do say no and instill self-discipline, and who are under tremendous pressure to perform. The problem is that the gap between those kids and the general population of kids is getting wider.

Q: Most parents understand intuitively that giving their kids everything they ask for will turn them into spoiled brats. Why do so many people do it anyway?

A: It’s the easy way out. It’s not only our kids who get the message of more, easy, fast, fun. Parents do, too. Oftentimes saying yes is the path of least resistance, and we console ourselves by saying, “It’s no big deal.”

Q: So part of it is simply laziness?

A: Yes. I think parenting is a difficult job. To do it well takes a lot of energy and a lot of time. And it’s also true the culture places a lot of emphasis on the drive for pleasure, and that I get rewarded for saying yes. My kids say, “Oh, Dad we love you, you’re the greatest!” When I say no, I get a supermarket tantrum. The other issue is that in a very, very busy culture, many parents harbour guilt that they’re not spending more time with their kids. And what they do to compensate for their guilt is to buy them things, overspend on them and coddle them. We often say yes when we should say no because in the couple of hours we have with a kid, we want him to be pleasant and we want him to like us.

Q: I was struck readingyour book that usu-

ally what parents wind up giving in on is something that will occupy the child, like another hour of TV, or buying a GameCube. Is that part of the motivation, to avoid having to interact?

AI think so. I was talking to a father last week who is admitting, at least to me, that he’s addicted to his BlackBerry. I think it’s epidemic among adults: I want to get to those last 10 messages, and something to keep my kids occupied allows me to do it. The investment in good parenting is a very high investment. It takes a lot of time, attention and energy. And the payoff, of course, comes down the road, but we’re a very short-term society. When we say yes, it brings peace to that last hour before bedtime, but we are setting a pattern that will come back to haunt us. If we can’t say no to a two-year-old, we haven’t got a prayer with a 16-year-old.

Q: When did this problem of saying no to kids really begin?

A: I think it’s been building, little by little. One issue is the sheer fact that families are smaller, we have fewer kids than we did in generations past, which gives us the opportunity to invest more money in our kids. We also have an investment in wanting them to be happy. But we can go down the wrong track if we don’t understand that frustration and disappointment are part of growing up, and kids need to learn how to deal with them. They won’t be able to do that if they don’t have practice. A third factor that’s contributed to our current difficulty saying no to kids is the way we’ve distorted the definition of selfesteem. Self-esteem is not the same thing as feeling good. Self-esteem is a realistic selfappraisal, an appreciation of my strengths and knowledge of my weaknesses. We have a myth that frustration and disappointment damage self-esteem. That’s why a lot of us get overprotective, and try to shield our kids from bad feelings, because we’re afraid they will hurt their self-esteem.

Q: A lot of what you’re advocating—much less TV, more family meals, more chores for kids, restricting what we give them so they learn they can’t get everything they wantsounds very reminiscent of cultural norms in the 1950s.

A: I’m not advocating a disengaged, breadwinner father or a submissive mother who has no career aspirations. I’m not a Luddite advocating that we take a hammer to computers and get rid of all media. But we do have to figure out how to adapt and change while maintaining the things that are important.

Q: Isn’t some of this connected to wanting the best for our kids?

A: Yes. But we as parents need to be able

to say no to some outside activities. For instance, sports activities are generally good for kids, but when they get out of balance, it actually has a detrimental effect, with parents running from one place to another, trying to get their kids into every activity. We have to be able to say that we can’t do everything, we have to say no to ourselves.

Q: You’re the founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family, and for a long time you’ve been advocating less screen time for kids. Do you ever feel like you’re crying in the wilderness?

A: I don’t feel that way anymore. I think people are really seeing the impact of television. A lot of times we focus on the obvious concerns—violence, sex—but we need to expand and deepen the discussion, because whoever tells the stories defines the culture. That’s been the case for thousands of years. What is new is that now the dominant storytellers are on the screens: movie screens, TV, video games. They promote a culture of more, easy, fast and fun, and that is one of the big reasons we have this epidemic of discipline deficit disorder. A lot of people say, “Well, a violent video game isn’t going to make a kid violent,” and the point I always make is, that’s right, but that’s not what the impact is. The impact of a constant diet of violent images is that it promotes a culture of disrespect. And parents do get that.

Q: How much screen time does the average American kid have per week?

A: Forty-four hours. The important measure is not solely TV but all screen time, including computers, video games, Game Boys and so on.

Q: Are they all equally bad?

A: The media are not good or bad—they’re powerful. There are two key variables to consider: the amount, which is an issue—even if it’s all educational TV or wonderful video games and award-winning websites, 44 hours a week is too much. That has an impact on kids’ health, their fitness. And second, if kids are spending so much time in front of a screen, it’s what they’re not doing that we need to pay attention to as well. We learn how to get along with other people, to resolve differences, to resolve conflict, by practice, by trial-and-error experiences in the real world. Well, you can’t do that sitting in front of a screen. I think moderation is the key. Too many kids are on a gluttony diet.

Q: How does that 44 hours of screen time compare to how much time the average adult is spending?

A: That’s more than the average adult. But I think a lot of the new technology, the whole CrackBerry phenomenon, is having an impact on family life, and I think it’s all going to accelerate. I was in Seoul in Septem-

ber, and discovered that they’re about two years ahead of North America in terms of technology, and they are struggling with a lot of the unintended negative side effects, what they call Internet addiction. They already have 40 government-sponsored treatment programs in South Korea. And that’s coming to a neighbourhood near us. I think the reason BlackBerries are so addictive is because of the basic psychological principle of stimulus-response: for everything I do, I get a response.

Q: You’re a psychologist. Is there a case of parental inability to say no that really stands out in your mind?

A: A family I worked with not too long ago. Two professional parents, three kids, and everybody had their own toys and entertainment

centres. The parents very seldom said no. By the time I saw them, the kids were in the preteen and teenage years, and the family was in absolute bedlam. It came to a head when one of the kids seriously injured another, seriously enough that he had to go to the hospital and wound up with broken bones, in an after-school battle over a video game disc. That was the wake-up call. I helped them understand that they weren’t doing their kids £

any favours by giving them everything they ki asked for. They made some real progress. I ¿ wish I could say they took the TVs out of the \f

kids’ rooms, but I don’t think they did. M (/>