Anthony Wolf On Why Teenagers And Parents Fight -- And How To Get Along Better

In the contest for best parenting book titles, Anthony Wolf would win hands down. Admit it, you have bought some just for those titles: Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall? or Mom, Jason's Breathing on Me! or It's Not Fair, Jeremy Spencer's Parents Let Him Stay Up All Night! (Wolf, a psychologist, is the reason the parenting shelves of bookstores are filled with exclamation points and quips, as the trend he started now includes such entries as Don't Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money , by Helen E. Johnson and Christine Schelhas-Miller about parenting college students, and Do I Get my Allowance Before or After I'm Grounded? by Vaessa van Patten, a teenager herself, whose website looks at parenting from the parentees point of view.

Wolf's latest, I'd Listen to My Parents If They Would Just Shut Up: What to Say and Not Say When Parenting Teens was released yesterday, and we have a excerpt for you, below, today.

It is a guide to steering those "You can’t make me" conversations in a better direction; but in addition to the how-to advice, it raises a fascinating meta-theory about why this generation seems to fight back so often. Much of what parents hear as obnoxious teen responses, he argues, is really the expected result of new and improved parenting. Our kids, he says, don't fear us as we did our parents, and all this talking back and bickering is what lack of fear sounds like.

This, he assures us, is a good thing. Oh would it make it easier to think so.

Take a read and decide for yourself.



As a child psychologist I often hear parents of teenagers express their frustrations over the way that their children talk to them. They are utterly bewildered by how argumentative their children can be compared to past generations of kids.

By way of example, here's a typical parent-child interaction in the 1950s:

"James, would you please take the trash out to the curb?"

"Sure thing, Mom."

And a typical parent-child interaction today:

"James, would you please take the trash out to the curb?"

"Mom, I'm really tired. I'll do it later."

"No, James—I want it done now."

"Why does everything have to be when you want it? I'm not your slave."

"Why do you always have to give me a hard time whenever I ask you to do something?"

"Why do you always have to give me a hard time?"

Invariably today's parents think, He is so disrespectful. He talks back to me all the time. What is his problem? What am I doing wrong?

Although the latter, less-than-pleasant variation of an age-old conversation has been going on for just about half a century, parents still don't get it -- there is one significant reason why teens today are not as immediately obedient and talk back to their parents in a way that was unthinkable just a few decades ago. Simply put, this generation is not afraid of their parents. And there is one important reason why this is true: we parents no longer use harsh punishment when raising our children. There are no more hard smacks across the face or use of a switch or belt. All of that is now considered child abuse.

This move away from harsh punishment was an excellent change for kids and adults, a real step forward for the whole human race. We -- at least most of us -- now believe that while harsh punishment may have produced behavior that was better for the moment, overall, as a regular part of child raising, it makes a child more, not less, likely to treat others harshly.

This changed attitude toward harsh punishment represents a whole new view of parenting and child development. Let me give an example.

Imagine that a mother is with her six-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son. The two children start bickering. The bickering escalates to the point where the boy hits his sister on the arm, causing her to cry. Their mother intervenes.

She smacks her son sharply on the arm.

"Don't hit your sister," says the boy's mother. "Do you understand? DON'T . . . HIT . . . YOUR . . . SISTER." And the boy's mother punctuates each word with a smack. There, that will teach him, she says to herself.

Not long ago, most people watching that scene would have probably agreed: "Yeah, that will teach him."

But today we recognize that yes, that will teach him all right -- it will teach him that if he wants to hit his sister, he had better not do it when his mother is watching. We also recognize that if this is his mother's typical parenting style, the boy will ultimately be more, not less, likely to become a hitter himself. Having been hit, the hitting becomes a part of him. For unlike in the past, we now believe that it is not only what you say to a child, but also how you treat him that shapes a child's behavior and who he becomes in the future.

This new way of looking at child development has caused the revolution in parenting that has now produced almost two generations of children who are not afraid of their parents. This really is a brand-new phenomenon in the history of parenting.

I strongly believe that that the children reared in this new school of thought have gone on to become kinder and gentler people as a result. Not everybody agrees, of course, as continual back talk can be difficult to deal with. But it is where we are in our parenting evolution to date, and where this book picks up in an effort to move our progress even further along.

As I said, today's kids do not fear their parents. And big surprise: when children are not afraid of their parents they talk back far more frequently and are not nearly as obedient to a degree that we never could have imagined just a couple of generations ago.

Well, duh! What did we think was going to happen? Children today do not behave at all like previous generations because the main leverage parents had over them in the past has been removed from the parenting arsenal. Yet despite this seemingly obvious point, today's parents still expect their kids to behave in a way that is only possible when using methods that were sensibly abandoned two generations ago. Essentially, the standard for proper child behavior never changed even though parenting practices did change. These days, when children don't behave the way they are expected to (which is inevitable when harsh punishment is removed from child rearing practices), parents feel that they have somehow failed.

I don't understand. I do my best. But it obviously isn't good enough...

Not only do today's parents have unrealistic expectations for their kids' behavior, but in their never-ending attempts to get their kids to live up to outmoded standards, they are also holding themselves to unrealistic standards...and inadvertently making matters worse, not better.

"Alexander, please try to remember not to track mud through the kitchen."

"You're always yelling at me about something."

"I don't always yell at you. I just don't want mud tracked into the kitchen."

"You're a neat freak. You don't know what it's like living in this house. Would you get off my case. Please."

"Alexander, don't talk to me that way."

"What way?"

"Listen to your words. Listen to your tone of voice. It is so disrespectful. A teenager shouldn't talk to his parents that way."

"I'm not talking to you in any way. You're the one who's disrespecting me."

"I'm not disrespecting you."

"Yeah, you are. You're always nagging at me about something -- like now, for instance."

Why would anyone want to continue interacting with someone who is exceedingly unpleasant? What is the most reasonable and logical response to that behavior? I believe the answer is that you would want to end that kind of interaction as fast as you can. Certainly, what you would not want to do is prolong the agony by continuing a fruitless discussion, as that would only fan the fire. Yet this is exactly what parents of today's teenagers repeatedly do -- this, and so many other things that cause themselves and their kids' great frustration. I see it all the time in my practice, which is why I'm now offering up hope and some practical tips to help you deal with the day-to-day challenges we all face when raising teens.

From I'D LISTEN TO MY PARENTS IF THEY'D JUST SHUT UP by Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D. Copyright © 2011 by Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D.. Reprinted by permission of Harper Paperbacks, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers