The Collapse of Parenting

How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups

Over the past 30 years, a major shift has occurred in American culture: the transfer of authority from parents to children. Activities with same-age peers now commonly displace family activities. Children today often choose what’s for supper; they choose which social media they will engage; they often choose their bedtime and sometimes even their school. In the book, I show how these factors and related influences have led to children and teenagers being less resilient, less physically fit, and more likely to become anxious or depressed – and far more fragile – compared with kids from the same demographic 30 years ago.

Some aspects of this collapse of parenting are just as problematic in England and Australia as they are here. In every country I have visited, I have found parents who are unsure about their role. They ask: “Should I be my child’s most trusted confidante? My child’s best friend? But if I am my son’s best friend, how can I tell him that he is not allowed to play violent video games?”

But some challenges are uniquely, or primarily, American. They are:

  • The culture of disrespect / the culture of “Live for Now”: Throughout the United States, it has become cool for children and teens to disrespect parents and adults generally. Every generation challenges the authority of the elders, but in American culture today this disrespect has become pervasive and destructive. It is now common, even fashionable, for affluent children to say “shut up” to their parents. Similar behavior is modeled on television and Internet programs targeting children and teens, even on the Disney Channel. In the United States, the culture of disrespect mingles with the culture of “Live for Now” (the slogan of the recent Pepsi/Beyoncé campaign). If it feels good, do it. Whatever floats your boat. When one sees the Pepsi “Live For Now” billboard in Scotland or in New Zealand, it’s easy to recognize the message of “live for now” as an American import which anyone can freely accept or reject. But here in the United States, the culture of “live for now” has become our native culture. It is the default culture which American kids encounter if we set them loose to navigate without adult direction. Without authoritative guidance, it is the culture which they will adopt as their own.
  • Medication: In the United States, it has become common to medicate children with powerful psychiatric drugs as a first resort rather than a last resort. As I explain in chapter 4, that’s a big reason why American kids are now factors-of-ten more likely to be on medication compared with kids outside North America. We are experimenting on children in a way which has no precedent, with medications whose long-term risks are largely unknown. In chapter 4, I show how the collapse of parenting has led many American parents to use medication as a first resort in ways which are unthinkable outside of North America.
  • Overscheduling: We Americans like to boast about how busy we are. And we are telling the truth: we are all crazy busy. But only in America do parents routinely boast and brag about how busy and overscheduled they are. That’s not healthy. In chapter 10, I show how overscheduling makes it harder for parents to do their job.

What happened? Why did it happen? And what do you need to know, if you are raising a girl or boy in the United States today? Those are the questions I answer in this book.

In the book I tie all these issues together: the declining physical fitness of American kids; the explosion in the prescribing of psychiatric medications for children and teenagers in this country; the rapid decline in academic achievement of American students relative to students in other countries; and the growing fragility of American youth.


Part One: Problems

Chapter 1: Parents Adrift

Chapter 2: The Culture of Disrespect

Chapter 3: Why are so many American kids on medication?

Chapter 4: Why are so many American kids overweight?

Chapter 5: American kids used to be among the world’s best students. Not anymore. How come?

Chapter 6: Why are so many American kids so fragile?

Part Two: Solutions

Chapter 7: What Matters?

Chapter 8: Misconceptions

Chapter 9: The First Thing – Teach Humility

Chapter 10: The Second Thing – Enjoy

Chapter 11: The Third Thing – The Meaning of Life

What qualifies me to write this book?

I am a family physician, board-certified in family medicine, currently in practice in suburban Philadelphia. I also have a PhD in psychology. I earned my undergraduate degree in biology at MIT. I earned both my MD and my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. After doing a three-year residency in family medicine, I practiced for 19 years in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC. I then relocated to Chester County Pennsylvania. My primary sources for this book are the more than 90,000 office visits I have conducted in my role as a practicing physician between 1989 and today. I have seen children, teenagers, and their parents, from a wide variety of backgrounds and circumstances. I have seen, from the intimate yet objective perspective of the family physician, the profound changes in American life over the past three decades. I have witnessed first-hand the collapse of American parenting.

In 2001, I began visiting schools and communities, first just across the United States, and then in Australia, Canada, England, Germany, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Scotland, Spain, and Switzerland: meeting with teachers and parents, talking with students, listening to professors. From July 2008 through June 2013 I took an extended leave from medical practice in order to devote myself full-time to these visits. I have now visited more than 380 venues across North America and around the world, encountering students, teachers, and/or parents face-to-face. Listening to children and their parents outside of North America has convinced me that we in the United States and Canada now face challenges – of our own making – which are significantly different from the challenges facing parents in Scotland or Switzerland or New Zealand. We American parents are no longer doing a very good job of parenting, despite our large and growing expenditures of time and treasure on the task. I now understand where we have gone wrong, and how to fix it. My prescription is based primarily on what I have seen in the office, but also draws on what I have learned from my conversations with parents, teachers, and kids both within the United States and outside of the United States.

  • The book is scheduled for release by Basic Books on December 29, 2015.

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