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"Collapse of Parenting" or Collapse of Care? It's open season on parents--mostly moms--yet again

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With the release of Leonard Sax's "The Collapse of Parenting" we have yet another book highlighting the failures of American parents. And, like others that have come before, this one has been met with glowing reviews. Today's parents are too permissive, says Sax. More interested in befriending than leading children, parents create unhealthy family dynamics. As a physician, Sax is witness to these dynamics, and he asserts--while citing supporting studies--that they are harming our children.

I am a parent educator. I am also a teacher, a friend and a mom. As such, I have seen all levels of skill, manner of intent, and types of behavior from parents. Certainly, I have witnessed what looks like parental abdication of leadership to a toddler, young child or teen. So, yes, parents can be too tired, too overwhelmed, too anxious, too uninformed, or, perhaps, too unaware to carry their role into every context in which they may be observed.

My response, however, is not to log each of these examples so that I can share them in print as a broad criticism of the whole of American parents who are struggling day-in and day-out to offer the best of themselves in both fun and trying moments. I would not do this for many reasons, but, first and foremost, I would not do it because criticism without care is counterproductive, whether it is directed at children, at learners, or at parents.

When Sax shares examples of his doctor office interactions with parents and kids, where does he express care for the parents? And, further, where does he shoulder his responsibility as a physician-leader to model an alternative path for the "offending" parents? To prevent myself from falling into the same criticism-without-care trap, I will instead offer, as a model, some ways in which he (and anyone) as a physician or co-adult leader could have carried this responsibility into these interactions.

One anecdote that Sax uses as an exemplar of his thesis is an office visit that devolved into a physical power struggle to gather a throat swab. The problem was the mother who asked the 6-year-old child if it was okay to have the doctor look in his mouth. In this instance, the doctor, as responsible adult in a leadership position, could have coached both parent and child by simply reframing the mother's words: "Mom forgot to tell you that when we try to find out why throats hurt the doctor needs to see in there. You look worried. You don't have to worry. Doctors are helper friends when people don't feel well." Then the doctor could lead into a developmentally appropriate distractor question like, "What flavor is the best ice cream for a sore throat?"

Children may be small but they can have huge fears in new settings with people they don't know very well. Lowering patient anxiety is part of providing good patient care, whatever the age of the patient. Unfortunately, the physical power struggle that resulted may leave both parent and child fearful of the next doctor visit, as well as create related issues when approaching dental care.

In another example, Sax describes a 10-year-old boy at an office visit who is playing on the phone while he, the doctor, is talking with the mother about the boy's stomachache. Sax describes a boy who is disengaged, rude and speaks inappropriately to his mother. About this situation, I would first ask some clarifying questions to better understand context. Such as,
  1. Did the physician greet both people in the room or only the other adult? Physicians are pushed for time. For the sake of efficiency, one might prioritize the adult in the room, inadvertently signaling to the boy that ignoring others in the room is okay.
  2. Did the doctor request information directly from the patient? If, in fact, he did, but the mother attempted to speak for the boy, I would encourage the physician to reassure her that he will want any additional clarification she can offer, but that part of growing up is learning how to talk with the doctor.

During the appointment, the boy is reported to say, "Shut up, Mom, you don't know what you're talking about." At this moment, the doctor can model, coach and support both parent and child by bringing his responsibility as co-adult leader into the setting: "You know what? You're right, no one, not even Mom, can fully know what your body feels. I do need to hear how you feel. And, in this office we expect boys to be polite to their parents so let's try that again." Then just wait. As the calm, authoritative, leader physician that you are, and as a man speaking to a younger man, you have great power to reset the words and tones directed at a woman and mother.

Remember that sometimes, even as the skilled and trained professionals that we are, we can be taken by surprise, hurried, overwhelmed and, perhaps, unaware--which means we may not always be at our best when we're being observed. So while I trust the author's positive intent in trying to help parents become more aware, I hope he is equally aware that parents need as much support that we in professional leadership roles can offer.

I'm increasingly aware that we have become such a fault-finding culture that we give ourselves permission to spend a great deal of time pointing out the minutia of failures in the best of performances, products and efforts. And, as the examples above indicate, we do it without acknowledging our responsibility as leaders in our professions to model an alternative.

Parents are given far too much criticism-without-care. As you choose your authors, teachers, coaches and physicians. I hope that you are finding those who are able to offer high-quality content, coaching and care. Ultimately your children will get their best care through you. And you will be at your best when you know yourself to be supported in the incredible work you do every day.

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