NYT: Parents Today Learning What Parents Have Always Known

I blame the Counterculture of the 60s.  I was part of it, so I know a little about what I’m saying.

Seriously, back then there was an attitude that everything that had gone before was flawed, that only the counterculture could see society’s problems and that “we” could and should remake society, institutions, etc. 

Now, there were plenty of people in the counterculture who were highly skeptical of all that.  I know that too because I was one of them.  After all, however well-meaning they were, the counterculture consisted overwhelmingly of the most privileged people in society.  They were mostly young, educated and white and from relatively affluent backgrounds.  They came of age during the most prosperous era in the history of the country.

And they wanted us to believe that they were a revolutionary force.  Ha.

However little the counterculture did to convince others, it did a fair amount to convince itself.  So among its members the notion of carte blanche prevailed.  We were all blank slates on which we could write anything we wished and the institutions and traditions of society and culture were considered poor teachers.

Was urban culture onerous?  Go back to the land.  Schools too regimented?  Let kids learn in their own ways.  Families too restrictive?  Communes were the answer.  Sexual mores?  Ignore them.

You get the picture.  It was a marvellously exciting point of view with only one drawback; it was dead wrong.

Needless to say, little of the counterculture withstood even minor experimentation, much less the test of time.  Slowly, grudgingly, folks came to understand that, for the most part, culture is an organic thing that evolves the way it does for reasons that are far deeper, broader and more resistant to change than anything senior philosophy majors are likely to grasp, much less alter in any serious way. 

Still, the old instincts don’t die easily.  The counterculture’s urge to remake society didn’t overlook the family or parenting practices.  The great thing about experimentation with parenting is that – unlike, say, capitalism – you can do it yourself.  Governments and large corporations may not be impressed with the enthusiasms of young adults, but young adults are.  And in the area of family and parenting, they were pretty free to do what they wished. 

So radical ideas and practices took root and thrived, at least for a time.  I would argue that the notion that fathers are unnecessary to children’s wellbeing came in part from the counterculture’s urge to make anew.  I’d say the same thing about out-of-wedlock childbearing, non-marriage and divorce as well as certain childrearing practices that would have appalled generations of parents past.

Ideas like never saying ‘no’ to a child, never punishing a child or that the only thing important to childrearing is the establishment and maintenance of self-esteem were among those.  Many observers of current parenting practices see parents desperately seeking the approval of their children and are at once shocked and amused.

As one writer describes it,

“My generation got itself in a muddle about parenting,’ she wrote by e-mail. “We thought that obedience was the enemy of love. We didn”t want the kids to be afraid of us, but after a while we found ourselves wondering: do we have to do what they say the whole time?’

Read that again.  The parents wondered if they had to obey the children “the whole time.”  I promise you, no other generation of parents in all of history would have wondered that.  Ever.

This article is about the road back to good sense and practicality from those “remake the world” parenting practices (New York Times, 1/23/11).  And friends and neighbors, that road begins in the strangest of places.  To someone like me it’s funny in a tear-your-hair-out sort of way.

The article is about all the amazing things parents and parenting experts are learning about how to be a parent from… wait for it… The Dog Whisperer.

Yes, it seems that people have been watching the very popular and very successful dog trainer, Cesar “The Dog Whisperer” Millan.  But what they begin watching for dog-training techniques quickly shows its appeal in the parenting realm as well.  And not a few parents and experts have figured out that what works with dogs works with kids too.

Much of what Millan does with dogs is simple common sense.  Dogs are social creatures and their societies have hierarchies.  As long as everyone in the pack understands his/her place, things run smoothly, but when someone forgets or decides to move up in the world, the fur flies.

So Millan knows the most basic of things – that he’s the alpha dog in the pack.  As long as the dogs he’s training understand that, they’re perfectly content and look to him for guidance.  Once he’s established that relationship, the dogs learn very readily and there’s peace in the land.  Simple.

And it is that simple lesson that parents and parenting experts are absorbing from Millan even though he’s just talking about dogs.  “You’re the boss; you set the rules; you give positive and sometimes negative reinforcement.”  Love means teaching the kids things they don’t know, what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s good judgment and what’s not.  Children need parental guidance.  They suffer when they don’t get it.

In short, in many situations, people benefit from hierarchy just like dogs do.  Society requires it; hierarchy helps people know how to behave in various situations.  Millan, himself a father puts it simply:

As a native of Mexico, he said, he adheres to a more traditional, hierarchical child-rearing philosophy, which he considers effective in both the pack and the family. There, “for thousands of years, the elder has always been the pack leader, it”s never the child,’ Mr. Millan said. “In America, kids have too many options when they only need one: ‘Just do it, because.” ‘

Of course, parents for milennia could have told the parents of the past 40 years all of that.  They would have been astonished that those parents didn’t already know those simple, obvious, parental basics.  And they’d have fallen down laughing that it took a dog trainer to explain it to them.

But then, they’d never have reckoned on the counterculture generation for whom the past was never prelude but a long, tedious book to be burned.

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