The Parent Trap

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Article Marriage and Family

You've heard of the "overscheduled child," no doubt. Family therpist William Doherty is one of the people you can thank for putting a name to that thoroughly modern problem and bringing it into the public lexicon. Watch out, because Doherty has now taken aim at consumer values creeping into family life as well as marriage.

Doherty, professor in the department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota and author of Take Back Your Kids (Sorin Books) and Take Back Your Marriage (Guilford Press), doesn't shrink from a fight. For years he has challenged his fellow therapists to abandon their stance of neutrality when faced with a marriage in trouble. "When people have made a lifelong, public commitment to each other, the therapist's job is to see if it's possible for them to live out that commitment, while knowing that it's not always possible or even desirable," he says.

Doherty and his wife, Leah, have two grown children and a year-old grandson.

The editors interview William Doherty

You've written that we need to "take back" our children. Take them back from what?

From the consumer culture, and I don't just mean material goods. I mean the individualistic "me first" culture. I think that's what's raising our kids. We parents are all part of the culture, and unless we examine it and critique it, we just raise our kids accordingly.

Do you think it's harder being a parent today?

Every generation faces its own challenges. Our children don't die as young because we've conquered some of the deadly diseases of early childhood. There are still families dealing with material deprivation, but not as high a proportion in this country as in others. We know more about child development. So in many ways it's the best of times to raise children.

I think the distinctive challenge of this era is that parents are anxious, lacking in confidence. They feel they can never do enough and feel tremendous pressure. One set of parents is struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table, and another whole group has so many privileges in life but is also running scared.

What's an example?

I just met on Sunday with a group of mother activists in St. Paul, Minnesota and we're starting a birthday party initiative. A lot of parents now, particularly mothers, feel pressured to put on a production for their child's birthday. It starts at age 1, when the party is clearly not for the kid.

My daughter knows a young working-class couple who spent $700 on their child's first birthday. They rented the American Legion hall and catered a lunch for 30 people. And, of course, the kid had a meltdown.

The problem is that we define what a good parent is by what we buy for kids and what experiences we create for them. So even parents who aren't materialistic in terms of spoiling kids with too many things often spoil them with too many experiences.

Earlier in my career I would have analyzed the psychological dynamics of this couple, but not anymore. There are a lot of people like them.

If you're spending $700 on the first birthday, where will that lead when they are 8 or 9?

One woman decided to join this birthday-party group after her 9-year-old came home and announced that her 10-year-old party would be at the horse barns and age 11 would be at the amusement park.

When I did a radio interview on this subject, a dad called in to say that he had just spent $2,000 on his 16-year-old son's birthday, and the kids didn't appreciate it at all. He bought basketball tickets for them, but they just ran around the arena. And then he rented them hotel rooms-that's what you do now when they get older: You rent hotel rooms. So yes, it goes up and up. And ultimately it's not satisfying-it's like too much candy. But kids will pressure their parents, and even parents who don't get pressure from kids will feel it from other parents.

Where else do you see this consumeristic influence on parents?

Youth sports is another place where this plays out. Here's a classic Minnesota example. The local hockey association sent a letter to the parents of every 6-yearold boy saying, "We've noticed your son is not yet in hockey." Listen to the language: It's as if he hasn't been vaccinated. It continued, "We just thought you should know that if you don't get him into hockey now, you can basically kiss away his chances for the high school varsity team."

So you have this little kid, you don't know what his potential is, but why would you deprive him of that possibility? So you get him into hockey, and early on it's mild, but five years later you realize you've handed away your family life. You're in traveling leagues, say, or you have games every Sunday. In fact, I'm working with a group in Minnesota that is organizing a boycott of Sunday youth sports.

Why Sunday?

Not only is it the traditional day of rest and family, but Sunday sports means that kids are doing activities seven days a week. There is no day of rest for the community. High school varsity teams and colleges have survived for a hundred years without Sundays. And hardly any parents like Sunday sports. But they do it anyway.

My mother would have laughed me out of the house if I said, "I'm having my birthday party at the amusement park." Why are parents so willing to surrender their authority to all these other people, including their kids?

That's a great question, because it's selective surrender. These days we don't surrender to teachers, to clergy, to physicians, to the traditional authority figures. We view them as working for us. But the people who select our kids for teams and can supply these great once-in-a-lifetime experiences, we do surrender to them.

Parents who will ream a teacher out for giving too much homework or for giving their kid a "B" will not question the coach who says, "All the three-day weekends this year are going to be spent at tournaments."

One parent will speak up, maybe. Nobody else will support him or her, but then out in the parking lot the others will say, "Do you believe Coach said that?" We're sheep in the peer pressure of parenting. Parents are so worried about peer pressure on their kids, but it's the peer pressure among parents that's a problem.

So what's driving these behaviors among parents?

In almost all cases it's good values about doing better for our kids. But we raise our kids in tribes, and the norms of the tribe really affect us. The norms of our consumer culture are: More is better. Bigger is better. Super-size it. So Super-size parenting, too-why not? Super-size birthday parties. Super-size athletic events for kids, national sports championships for 10-year-olds. And if it's for my child, I can feel less guilty than if it's just for me.

Can you name the consumer values that are creeping into family life?

You can start with social comparison. I may not want to be better than you, or have more, but I sure don't want to have less. A lot of parents say this to me, "I don't want my kids to have less than the other kids."

Media has a lot to do with this, too. Prior to the television generation, most of us grew up in little social enclaves. My parents, who were working-class Philadelphia Irish Catholics, didn't know what the suburban kids were wearing or doing. It's been demonstrated around the world that as TV comes in, aspirations go way up, along with things like eating disorders.

Second, the consumer culture takes a wish or a want and turns it into a need. Look at cell phones: They went (from a luxury to a necessity and now people have the idea that "no responsible parent should be without one." This is an idea I question, by the way. I think parents today will often let their teens get into very risky situations because they figure the teen has a cell phone and will call if they get into trouble.

Third, the culture stresses the need for continuing innovation, that more is better. This means that we are never satisfied. The author of The Overspent American (Harper) showed that no matter what income level you're at, you always think you need more money to meet your basic needs. We're never satisfied. Obviously we're talking about a core religious theme, that these material things will satisfy our thirst only temporarily.

So what does all this do to kids as they grow up?

There's not a lot of research that has followed kids over long periods of time to see how they turn out. All we have are anecdotes. A lot of people are saying that kids become entitled. They feel that things should be handed to them, that teachers and other adults are there to serve their needs. There was an article in The New York Times recently about how college students today are e-mailing their professors and saying, "I missed class, would you send me the handouts?"

So what's the opposite of parenting with consumer culture values?

The opposite of consumer parenting is raising our kids as citizens and members of families and communities. They have rights, but they also have responsibilities. It's very difficult for this generation of parents to think of children having responsibilities to the family and to the common good. Even if they get the kids involved in volunteer stuff, it's for the kids' development, not because it's something they ought to do for the community.

What are some of the challenges for parents trying to fight the consumer culture?

Parents often don't feel they have a vocabulary to say why they're doing what they're doing. My parents, in an earlier era, might have just said dismissively, "You don't need to be doing all that traveling soccer!" The conversation would have been over in 15 seconds.

But today's psychologically minded parents feel they have to have a soulful conversation. This is not bad. I certainly explained things to my kids more than my parents did with me. But the flip side is that it's so hard for parents to say no, especially if the thing in question is not harmful to the child. How do you say no on the basis of values?

Can you give an example?

Recently I read that something like 28 percent of preschoolers and two thirds of teenagers have a TV in their bedroom. So how do you say no to a TV in your child's bedroom? If you can't base it on values, they'll challenge you in such a way that many parents just give up. Or if you cop out and say, "It's too expensive," every American kid can find a way to get a TV. Uncle George is buying a new one and can give away his old one, or kids save up money from birthdays and Christmas.

So what can parents say instead?

"I don't think this will be good for you. I don't trust TV as a medium. Not everything on there is good for you. And it's not good for the family for you to be off on your own so much in your room, watching TV alone. We have a family TV." That's the message we gave our teenagers when they asked for a TV: "There's a TV in the family room, not in your room."

Notice that the vocabulary I used there was what you might call a "citizen vocabulary." I talked about the good of the family. Most parents couldn't dream of saying those things because we're so child-centered. If we see the child as a customer or a consumer, our job as parent becomes to make that child happy. My own view is that if what makes the child happy is putting the whole family on tilt, it's also not good for the kid.

I never thought my job as a parent was to make my kids happy. It was to love them and help them to be good young people and grow up and contribute to the world. Happiness was just a by-product of all that.

So is explaining things to your kids better than just saying, "Because I'm the parent and I said so"?

This generation doesn't feel they can say that. It's too authoritarian. My parents' generation, who would have said it without batting an eye, were unencumbered by theories of child development. That led to a confident authority. It also had disadvantages such as corporal punishment and other things.

Now this next generation comes along and says, "We want to be sensitive to our children's unique feelings and needs and developmental priorities." And that's good. But we have a hard time using our authority when it's needed.

A generation ago, most kids were raised not only by two parents, but also by a grandmother and aunts and other people. Today many people are parenting kids virtually alone. Could that affect what you're describing?

Of course. Whenever we're in a difficult moment with our kids, the more people around us-even just in our heads-the better. It used to be that many adults in public could stand in for a child's parents. A grandmother could say, "You boys, you stop cussing like that." Other adults backed her up. I think of my father: He respected Msgr. Daley and Mr. Finnegan, the Democratic ward leader. So I respected them. They were people my family could turn to if we were in trouble. They commanded authority.

The breakdown of the broader community means that all parents-whether in two-parent or single-parent families-don't feel support. When there are parents buying kegs for teenagers and hosting coed sleepovers for 11- and 12-year-olds and renting hotel rooms for the prom, what kind of world are we living in? And these parents are not outliers, they're the leaders.

If you are a single parent, you don't have somebody right there to be the bad guy with you. And kids wear you down. I certainly understand that.

What about respect? A lot of parents gripe that the lack of respect from kids is becoming commonplace.

A mother of a 4-year-old told me a story. She was dropping off her daughter at preschool. Her daughter normally hangs up her own coat. This one day she took off her coat, handed it to her mother, and said, "Here, hang it up." The mother said, "Excuse me, hang it up yourself."

The preschool teacher said, "You're the first parent who's handled it that way." Why? Parents don't want to have any unnecessary upsets, so they'll just let it go.

Now obviously the daughter hadn't learned that behavior at home. But kids are little anthropologists. They go into other people's homes and watch carefully. Her daughter had obviously observed that kind of parent-child interaction somewhere else.

Another mother told me her son came home from junior high and she asked him, "Did you have that test today?" He said, "Are you deaf?! I told you it's tomorrow!" She told her friends, "Well, you know, it's a challenging age, they're dealing with all these hormones, and they have to blow off steam." Of course, there is some instinct that says this isn't right. But parents rationalize it.

How should parents handle disrespectful kids?

When my son was 13,1 was on the phone with a friend one day and he wanted to use it, which I didn't realize. When I hung up, he said, "Who was that?" in an imperious, parental tone of voice.

At that moment I saw a lot of roads opening up. He was offering me a contract: "When I'm frustrated with you, I can treat you like a peer." And I could have signed that contract by saying, "Well, that was Mac, and I didn't know you wanted the phone," which is what I might have said to my wife if she were in a bad mood

Or I could have overreacted and said, "None of your business who I was on the phone with! And you're on the phone too much anyway! You're grounded from the phone!" He would have smiled at that, because he had caused me to lose it.

Instead I just said, "You don't get to ask me that question, particularly in that tone of voice." He walked out of the room. I didn't follow him. I didn't ask for an apology. And he never talked to me that way again.

Today the culture has shifted. Disrespect has become normative, and parents are disempowered. When people see this as a cultural problem, they can see it's something we all have to challenge.

So how do you challenge the pull of consumer culture?

The key is creating a public conversation that takes something that seems natural and inevitable and makes a problem out of it. That's what a group of parents I worked with in the late 1990s in Minnesota did. We coined the phrase "overscheduled kids." They were concerned about their kids being overinvolved in scheduled activities. The New York Times did a big article and then they were on Oprah. Now everyone accepts that overscheduling is a problem.

How do you start change like that?

There are a few rules. First, no villains. There's no conspiracy, no people sitting in a room saying, "How do we destroy our children by exhausting them or turning them into little consumers?"

Second, it's important to avoid prescriptions. When I was on the Today show talking about overscheduled kids, Katie Couric tried to get me to agree that families should have two days a week with no activities. But I don't think you can make those hard-and-fast rules. Families and kids are different.

And last, don't blame parents. The culture is something that we've created together. I don't want to tell parents, "You're doing one more thing wrong!" With overscheduled kids, for example, we said that this is a cultural problem and it's fed by good instincts. There are great opportunities for kids now, and we live in a society where we push things too far. So we've created a monster together. And having the conversation about it frees up individual parents to make what they think are the best choices for kids.

This article was featured in the June 2006 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 71, No. 6, pages. 12-18).