Syndicated columnist Betsy Hart recently spoke to HUMAN EVENTS about her new book, It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting Is Hurting Our Kids—and What to Do About It, published by Putnam. The following is a transcript of her interview.
What motivated you to do the book? Where did the idea come from?
Betsy Hart: The idea came from what I call the parenting culture and my experience with my own children as they were coming into the world. I have four, and my oldest is only 11. It’s a little gutsy, in a sense, to write a parenting book at this stage. But, as I say, I’m not an expert. What I was responding to was all the expert advice that was coming my way as a new parent, and then a parent of four. These experts were telling me what I had to do to make this perfect child, and over and over again it just didn’t make sense.
Why do I have to give my 2-year-old choices all day long? Why do I have to disguise “No”? Can’t I use “No” as a complete sentence? Why do I have to build their egos all day long? It just didn’t make sense to me. I had other wise parents in my life, who were successfully raising kids, and they would say, “Think about it this way. Maybe that doesn’t make so much sense.”
I began to write about these things in my newspaper column, and started getting a really great response to that. Eventually, that grew into the book. There were a couple events that actually did cause me to write it. One, in particular, was that I was on a debate show with Irwin Hyman, and we were debating the issue of spanking children. He was so extreme and so utterly opposed to the idea that parents might know how to lovingly discipline their children. He had such venom toward parents in general and that issue in particular.
At that point, I was thinking about writing this book and decided to do it. The whole point of it is not that I’m expert. It’s to encourage moms and dads to have the confidence to raise their kids as they see fit. I show research on things from self-esteem to spanking. I just say, let’s use common sense. What makes sense in your home? It might be different from my home—that’s great. You’re the mom and dad, and that has to mean something.
How did the “parenting culture” come about? Is it a fad? Who is to blame for it?
Hart: The parenting culture, in a sense, has been around for 100 years, if not earlier. Technically, the 20th Century was called the century of the child. I think it was really the century of the parenting expert. We used to have this understanding that children are born wonderful and loved, adorable and flawed, very selfish and very tyrannical if left to themselves, and that we, the adult generation, need to civilize them, be leaders for them and get them ready to take their place in society.
There were parenting fads even in the 19th Century. In America, we parent our children differently from Europe. We always have. We’re more individualistic here. But even so, those parenting fads had one thing in common: Parents really did know better than their kids. We are their leaders. We have a place of authority in their lives. Whatever the fad was, that was pretty much understood.
The 20th Century changed that. It was a sense that children are darling, little, wise and good people, and when they come into the world what they need is cheerleading and the right technique and the right nudge. What they don’t need is a parent’s handling; they need an expert’s handling. And that just became part of our thinking, particularly for the past few generations. You have all these experts contradicting themselves. Parents are now tyrannized not only by their children, but also by experts. We’ve come to idolize our kids in a way that’s not healthy for them or us.
You write about how the parents of today’s parents did things differently. Why did the current generation of parents, the Baby Boomers, change parenting?
Hart: Remember, a lot of their parents were listening to Dr. Benjamin Spock in the 1950s. Of course, he gets a bad wrap today. He is considered super permissive. At the time, he was considered, and by today’s standards would be, arguing for structure and boundaries. Then, in his later work, he got more permissive.
The last few generations have seen a greater reliance on experts and a much greater fear of parenting. That comes from the continuing trend the experts started, but also a greater egalitarianism. We’re afraid to say that anybody should have natural authority over anyone else. It’s scary. We’ll submit to the sign at the grocery store that says eight items or less, but if you want to bring that into the home and talk about authority and submission, wow, you’ve just opened a can of worms. That makes us nervous when it comes to kids.
People are less religious, so we tend to invest more in what will live on after us—our children. We’re having smaller families, so we can do more for each one. We continue to be bombarded with the notion that children are wise, little creatures. The more we believe that, the more likely we are to idolize them.
When you talk about the influence of experts, who would you single out?
Hart: Today, the über parenting expert is Dr. William Sears. You also have the people who wrote the books, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, What to Expect—the Toddler Years and What to Expect—the First Year. Those have been crazy runaway-hit books. Certainly, Penelope Leach, who has been around for quite awhile. She has these egalitarian ideas about children and their position in the family, which doesn’t make sense. That doesn’t mean they don’t have some good things to say. When I was researching my book and reading through their materials, I would find some interesting things.
I’m not encouraging parents to not listen to the experts. I’m encouraging them to look at what they say and be a confident parent and decide what makes sense for their family. I’m encouraging them to climb out of the parenting culture’s box.
What about parents who worry so much about upsetting their children’s feelings that they’ve reached the point where the children have the upper hand?
Hart: You do see parents who are really scared of upsetting their children. What I say is, let’s just say you make your child really angry, but you do something you think is right and your child is very upset at you. So what? What’s the worst thing that could happen? He’s going to angry at you. He’s not going to be your friend at that moment. He’s going to think you’re the meanest mom in the whole world. You know what, he’s going to get over it in three minutes. And then he’s going to learn that his whole world didn’t fall apart because you said, “No.” That’s going to set some boundaries that will make it easier to interact with your kids.
Now, do I fall into this trap all the time? Yes. I’ll say, “I just don’t feel like making my daughter angry right now.” That happens. We have to lighten up. We all mess up. The point is, we’re in this over the long term. The next time, I have to say, “No.” We’re all going to get mad, but we’re all going to survive. That’s perseverance. It’s a process.
Do you think it’s different for children who are relatively younger, like yours, compared to teenagers? Is there a point where you lose control? Or can parents always regain the upper hand?
Hart: I do think it depends on how you define control. What I worry about are parents who start out by giving their kids the universe. If they let their 2-year-old make choices, by the time that 2-year-old is 12, he’s used to making choices and getting to do what he wants all day. It seems to me it makes more sense to give the child limited freedom, and as he can handle more choices, give him more freedom. That way he’s more prepared when he hits the teen years. He’s made wise choices. He’s demonstrated to you he can make wise choices. He’s respectful of your authority. And maybe when you get into the teen years, and there are some disagreements about his taste in music or the way he dresses, you can say, there’s a place for different tastes.
There’s a difference from letting children find their own way and rebelling against parents. That’s the line we can’t cross as we’re getting them ready to go out into the world.