More than 10 years ago, I wrote about an "epidemic" of parents so afraid to discipline their kids that they turned their offspring into unhappy monsters whom no one likes to be with, not even the parents.
I called this parental disorder "discipline phobia." Easy to see the results of discipline phobia in a crowded store or restaurants where parents let their noisy kids run wild, in homes where kids rule the roost, in classrooms where kids think they are entitled to good grades but don't want to work for them.
Why on earth are so many contemporary parents afraid to discipline? Some parents may not be comfortable in their parenting role, lack confidence in their parenting skills, or find it so difficult to discipline their children that they simply don't bother. Some parents lack parenting skills. Some parents are too busy.
But, sadly, a major reason is parents want their children to be happy. Parents believe they are supposed to be family-happiness managers. But there are five things no parent can make any child do (eat, fall asleep, poop, be happy, or grow up the way you dream they will). Nobody can make another person happy, as happiness comes from within. Parents can nurture and love and facilitate happiness but, I repeat, cannot make a child feel happy.
There is a lot of buzz about how American parents differ from Chinese parents, French parents, and even parents from a tribe in the Peruvian Amazon. Last month Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker magazine discussed some of these differences, as well as some of the reasons for the differences. Carolina Izquierdo and Elinor Ochs, two UCLA anthropologists, contrasted film data from 32 middle-class families in Los Angeles with field observations among the Matsigenka Indians in Peru. A Matsigenka girl, age 6, asked to go along on a river trip to gather leaves. Without being asked, she swept the sleeping mats, helped stack the leaves for transport, and fished for, cleaned, boiled and served crustaceans to others on the trip.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Los Angeles kids did nothing without being asked, sometimes begged, to do. One child was asked five times to shower but did not. His father finally picked him up and deposited him in the bathroom but, still unwashed, he went out to play a video game.
Another boy could not get his sneakers on because they were tied. What did he do? Handed the sneaker to his father and told his father to untie it.
Why do the Matsigenka children assume adult responsibilities at an early age and the Los Angeles kids need to be told what to do - and still don't do it? Why do American parents worry about their children who do not listen or obey?
If we take a hard look at ourselves and our families, we can agree there is a problem. Two-thirds of parents in America think their children are spoiled, according to a Time/CNN poll. American kids not only are given too much stuff, but they have been given too much authority in that the parents are the ones striving for approval, a reversal of the situation when I grew up seeking my parents' approval.
"Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success" by psychologist Madeline Levine notes that parents overestimate the influence they have on their children and dare not make a mistake lest they jeopardize their child's future. Former Tucsonan Judith Rich Harris in 1998 pointed out how much parents overestimated their importance in her landmark book, "The Nurture Assumption."
"Bringing up Bébé," a recent book by Pamela Druckerman, an American who moved to Paris, tells us that French parents believe in ignoring children for a bit so the child learns to self-soothe, deal with frustration and understand the meaning of "no."
Hara Estroff Marano, in "A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting," blames concerns about the child getting into college, especially today when economic opportunities are decreasing. So parents help their children with homework and hire SAT tutors. Marano quotes an educator who uses the term "snowplow parents" to describe those of us who want to sweep all obstacles from the child's path.
And there are more obstacles in many a child's path today than those put there by a high school teacher who gave a poor grade or a challenging college entrance exam. A book cited by Kolbert that I can't wait to read is "Life at Home in the Twenty-first Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors" by anthropologists Jeanne Arnold, Anthony Graesch and Elinor Ochs. According to Kolbert, the book lets us look at and reflect upon "the crap-strewn core of American culture." We all know from observation but have not grasped the implications of what happens when a new child enters the family. Household inventory rises by a whopping 30 percent. (I don't have an exact percentage, but I can report it is much greater when you have twins.)
This column has dealt with negatives about American parenting. But nearly every parent I have met in a lifetime of caring for children and dealing with parents wants to do a good job and wants the best for each child. Most parents do a pretty good job. And most kids are resilient and grow up OK.
However, there is no question that many American parents give their children "Too Much Stuff and Not Enough Responsibility" the title of a talk I have been giving to parents for several years.
Now that we know the problems, next week's column will deal my ideas and suggestions for fixing what needs fixing.