The good old days. A time when parents talked and Junior listened. When children were untroubled and unmedicated. When Lassie rescued Timmy from the well.
John Rosemond evokes these days often in his columns, and his newest book, "Parent-Babble: How Parents Can Recover From Fifty Years of Bad Expert Parenting," is built entirely around the very appealing but overly nostalgic and naive idea that nearly all the country's problems would be solved if today's parents would just parent the way their own parents did.
Of course, those parents didn't actually "parent," because no one used the word as a verb back then, which is just one more way that the world as we know it has gone to hell, Rosemond tells us.
He also finds many others.
Time was, he says, when parents took advice from respected elders in their communities, advice that was "common sense as opposed to intellectual." Then along came an army of psychologists and other mental health experts, from whom parents started taking their marching orders, instead. (Yes, Rosemond is trained as a psychologist himself, but he disavows his entire field, essentially calling them charlatans and snake oil salesmen.)
The result? Here's how he says he explained it to an old friend from grade school:
I asked him whether he knew of anyone who committed suicide during the four years we were there together. No, he did not, and neither did I. Did he know of anyone who had to be removed from school and placed in a treatment center for alcohol abuse, drug abuse, or incapacitating emotional problems? No, he did not, and neither did I. Any girls who starved themselves to the point of severe emaciation? Nope. Me neither. Anyone who mutilated themselves with razor blades or sharp knives, stuck pins through their eyelids and tongues, or went around dressed in black complaining about how awful life was? No, none of that. How about anyone who physically threatened a teacher or called a teacher a vile name in front of the class. Again, no and no.
Which leads us to the first problem with Rosemond's argument -- and that of too many others who believe that parents who act like Ward Cleaver are all today's children need. Either his memory is flawed, his classmates were a particularly lucky lot, or he wasn't paying attention. If youth were so perfect back then, who the heck was devouring "Catcher In the Rye"? Or, by the by, if parents were so capable and kids so compliant, why does he describe how he was "grounded for the entire summer between high school graduation and going off to college" because he'd "been arrested for disturbing the public peace"? And if children were so untroubled, then why does he remember spending "my first through twelfth grades in a state of almost perpetual test anxiety, grade anxiety, flunking anxiety, parent anxiety, teacher anxiety and principal anxiety..." What he describes as being strengthened by fear, I see as a little boy who could have used a hug.
I was in grade school during the 1960s, too, and I lost a classmate to suicide. I knew students who, in retrospect, abused alcohol and had incapacitating emotional problems, though he is right, they were not "removed from school and placed in a treatment center" because parents were still looking the other way then and good programs did not yet exist. No, I don't have personal memories of anorexia or cutting among my friends, at least not until college, but I certainly remember classrooms being disrupted by students who were then taken off and paddled -- which didn't work, because they came back and did it again. I'm betting one or two of them are among the wave of adults who are diagnosed with ADHD each year -- and who wonder how life could have been different for them had they gotten that news years ago.
But John Rosemond does not believe ADHD exists. "It is not a valid diagnosis," he says, describing it as the snake oil that the psychologists he doesn't trust are selling to the modern parents he doesn't respect. Which leads us to the second flaw in his argument -- his view of today's parents.
Here is how he describes us:
Today's typical child operates under some sort of bizarre parent protection program. If a teacher reprimands him at school, he goes home and complains to his parents, who call the school and reprimand the teacher ... to ask that (the) child be moved to a different classroom overseen by a more understanding and sensitive teacher.
Or, there is this:
If [a child's] parents are dissatisfied with a grade he makes on a test or in a class, the teacher is pressured to change the grade. If she won't then the parents put pressure on the principal to put pressure on the teacher, and the grade is ultimately changed (because most of today's principals have pervasive undifferentiated parent-phobia). Instead of flunking grades, today's kids are put on what are called "individualized educational plans," where they enjoy the lifelong benefits of lower expectations.
Poppycock, as our grandparents probably never actually said. Yes, there are parents like this nowadays (and teachers too, who Rosemond doesn't seem to think much of either). I have met them -- and I write about them -- but they are outliers. Even Rosemond concedes that, then spends 220 pages fighting them as though they were the norm. Just as his unilaterally rosy past never existed, neither does his monolithically dysfunctional present. Like so many things, the reality -- and the solutions -- can be found in the middle. Suggesting otherwise is a way to sell books, perhaps, but not a way to solve problems.
I agree there are problems. Of course I see that. Our children are overscheduled and over-coddled. They are simultaneously asked to grow up too quickly -- sexualized early, exposed to violence in media and infantilized with hovering parents and dependence that extends into their 30s). But Rosemond has it backward. The reason the world has changed for kids is not because we don't parent like our grandparents did. To the contrary, the reason we don't parent like our grandparents did is because the world has changed.
Nearly everything about childhood today is completely unlike the one in which we were raised. Our children can communicate instantly and constantly. They live with the knowledge that terror no longer requires a government, and has actually reached our shores. Jobs are no longer lifetime guarantees. Families are no longer mom, dad, 2.5 children and a dog. Kids who are different are more likely to be met where they are, rather than pressed to be something they are not. Life is faster and more cacophonous, with more possibilities but also more land mines. Things that used to be hard are easy, and things that used to be easy are hard.
We cannot wish the social changes away. We shouldn't want to, because so many of them -- gender equality comes to mind -- are hard-won victories. But while we have probably overshot in our response to this new, unsettling world, and while it is certainly time to rethink and ratchet back our parenting, nostalgia for the good old days will just set us turning in circles.
What, pray tell, did our grandparents do when the kids needed the computer for school work but seemed worryingly addicted to the machine? How did they juggle their two extreme jobs and long commutes (necessary to afford a home in a school district that is well funded) with their kids' overwhelming after-school schedules (necessary to get them into college). What did they teach the young 'uns about AIDs? When did they think was the right age for the kids to have their own cellphones?
Rosemond is hardly the only one looking back with nostalgia of late. Increasingly often I hear parents say "When I was their age," as though re-creating their own childhoods were either possible or the answer. But when "we were their age" is irrelevant. Today's children do everything sooner, faster and more intensely than we did, and no amount of longing for yesterday is going to change the reasons that is true. Parents are not so much the reasons for change -- peers, technology, social trends, world events are far more powerful forces -- as we are the ones children rely on to guide them through it.
To do that, we don't need a map back to the past, but rather one that will show us where we've strayed a bit from the best path going forward, and help recalibrate. One that will help us navigate the future. Or better yet, the present.
I like to think that's what Ward Cleaver would have done.