Parenting tactics are slow to change. It’s not difficult to understand why. Many modern parents default to their parents’ antiquated approaches. That’s why discipline tactics like spanking persist despite clear evidence that they are (more than likely) bad for a kid’s mental health. Essentially, there’s a generational lag baked into child rearing that results in old parenting methods being used on modern kids.
That’s a problem, according to author Katherine Reynolds Lewis. As she observes in her new book The Good News About Bad Behavior, the tension between old ideas about parenting and the modern experience of childhood has led to chaos, confusion, and bad feelings between parents and kids. Where some see a glut of bad behavior due to a permissive culture or technological excess, Lewis sees kids struggling to meet expectations without being given the skills they need to avoid punishment — and, more pressingly, thrive.
Lewis spoke to Fatherly about the slow progress of parenting tactics and how she feels discipline should change to meet contemporary kids where they are.
What has changed about modern childhood? Is it their brains or the changing environment we’re expecting them to interact with?
I think it’s maybe a little of both. There are three big factors. Childhood play has really disappeared. Kids aren’t playing outdoors. They aren’t playing in lightly supervised groups. Also the growth of mass media, social media and technology is distracting our attention and causing anxiety and depression and changing the way we think about ourselves. The third factor is that kids are just unemployed. They don’t have household or after-school jobs. They don’t have productive roles in the communities. They’re always performing.
And that means that as their behavior shifts it puts them at odds with parents. Is the issue, from your perspective, that discipline tactics haven’t changed with kids?
A lot of us instinctively reach for are the carrot and the stick — the authoritarian way of parenting or the reward systems. And 50 years ago authoritarian parenting worked well because we had a more authoritarian world. Corporate culture had a clear chain of command. Family life had a clear chain of command.
Right. And the world is different now.
Since then we’ve had so much change that many of us really want democratic families. Even for parents who don’t want that, culture is still imbued with those values. Kids are going to pick up on that, even at a young age. It’s hard to fight that. So much of our society has changed to value equality and everyone having a voice. So of course kids want a voice too.
You are arguing for a more democratic form of parenting, then?
The more that we have discipline that brings in kid’s input the more likely it is they’re going to go along with it. People say, “Oh you’re just coddling them.” But I say, look if what you’re doing is working for you, great. But this is where we are.
The understanding of typical parenting styles was based on research by developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind in the mid-60s. She came up with the authoritarian versus authoritative and permissive styles. Are you suggesting we need a new style?
Yes, we do need a new style. Authoritative parenting, which is this combination of warm and connected but firm with limits, has been studied well, but I think the apprenticeship model of parenting takes authoritative parenting one step further.
What’s the apprenticeship model?
It’s when children help set the limits. When Baumrind was studying, there was an assumption that parents would always be in charge that was the basis of society. With the apprenticeship model, you’re kind, gentle, nurturing and connected. But you enforce the limits that your family agrees on. You bring the child into the negotiation in a formal way. So we have no screens during dinner, and if dad picks up his phone there are consequences.
So basically it’s more egalitarian, right? It does make sense that parents should give kids authority at home if we want to have authority in life.
The other part of this model is that kids need to learn self-control. They’re not learning the way they did in previous generations by playing with their friends and reacting to situations on the playground. We need to be more explicit in how we model conflict resolution and talk about emotion regulation. That means we have to be much more conscious of our own behavior because we’re teaching through modeling and talking out loud about our own feelings.
What about those parents who say that they were hit and yelled at and turned out just fine?
Harsh verbal or physical discipline worsens kid’s mental health. The evidence is so powerful that kids who are in those environments are more likely to have depression, anxiety, eating disorders and even schizophrenia. It’s not all due to the parents but the parents worsen those conditions and make recovery harder and relapse more likely. We’ve known this for a few decades that parents who are hostile, critical or overly involved are much more likely to relapse in mental illness.
So nobody who went through that actually turned out fine?
You know what? They were lucky. They had good genes. They weren’t vulnerable to depression, substance abuse or any of these serious problems. But their neighbor who was vulnerable ended up with a lifetime of struggle. So to say that you turned out okay is to say that you were lucky. It doesn’t mean that those methods worked.
What do you want parents to take away about disciplining their kid’s behavior?
I would like to see parents stop seeing their kids acting up as a problem and accept it as part of the messiness of childhood. That child has a skill they need to strengthen. Great. Work on that. It doesn’t mean you failed as a parent or that your child is going to wind up in a van down by the river. It’s normal. Take some of the heat out of that moment because we make it worse when get embarrassed or scared by that behavior. It takes a lot of courage to let kids struggle and mess up and learn these life skills, but that what they need. For our kids to learn self-control we need to stop controlling them.