A Lost Art: Instilling Respect
By Patricia Dalton
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
There's been a fundamental change in family life, and it has played out over the years in my office. Teachers, pediatricians and therapists like me are seeing children of all ages who are not afraid of their parents. Not one bit. Not of their power, not of their position, not of their ability to apply standards and enforce consequences.
I am not advocating authoritarian or abusive parental behavior, which can do untold damage. No, I am talking about a feeling that was common to us baby boomers when we were kids. One of my friends described it this way: "All my mother had to do was shoot me a look." I knew exactly what she was talking about. It was a look that stopped us in our tracks -- or got us moving. And not when we felt like it.
In my office, I have seen small children call their parents names and tell them how stupid they are; I have heard adolescents use strings of expletives toward them; and I remember one 6-year-old whose parents told me he refused to obey, debated them and kicked his father right there in the office. When I asked the father how he reacts at home, he told me that he runs to another room!
It came to me like a lightning bolt: Not only are the kids unafraid of their parents, parents are afraid of their kids!
Today's generation of children is the most closely observed, monitored, cherished and scheduled in our history. They are also the most praised. Families are smaller, and there are fewer children upon whom parents can beam their attention.
Over-parented and under-disciplined children can also have trouble later as young adults with the process of separating from home and creating an independent life. Kids who were constantly praised often become thin-skinned adults who have trouble taking negative feedback on their job or in their personal lives.
Kids who were told, "You can do anything," may have extremely high expectations that can be hard to attain in our multifaceted modern lives. After all, there is a difference between appreciation, which is from the heart, and flattery, which is from the mouth.
Starting in the mid-1990s, a team led by psychologist Carol Dweck did a series of experiments on fifth-graders over a 10-year period. One study compared two randomized groups of children in a classroom setting. In one group, researchers attributed children's achievement to their effort and in the other to their intelligence. Those praised for their hard work, it turned out, were more likely to attempt difficult tasks and performed better than those praised for intelligence. Children who were told that innate intelligence is the key were less likely to expend effort and take risks, perhaps because they were trying to maintain an image that they felt was not under their control.
Patricia Dalton is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Washington.