Book Excerpt: It Takes a Parent

Betsy Hart, mother of four and nationally syndicated conservative columnist, sees how horribly behaved today's children and blames the culture of "pushover parenting." Parents are creating monsters by catering to their children's every whim and by allowing kids to make important decisions that really fall under parents' jurisdiction. Hart wonders how these "it's all about me" children will ever experience true joy, and worried about their hearts. She also tells you how to get your child back under control.

You can read an excerpt of It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting Our Kids--and What to Do About It below:

Kids Gone Wild

A 2003 Time magazine article asked the question "Does Kindergarten Need Cops?" Apparently, the answer is yes. Time reported that a first-grader in Fort Worth, Texas, was asked to put a toy away. Instead, she began to scream. "Told to calm down, she knocked over her desk and crawled under the teacher's desk, kicking it and dumping out the contents of the drawers. Then things really began to deteriorate. Still shrieking, the child stood up and began hurling books at her terrified classmates, who had to be ushered from the room to safety."

"Just a bad day at school?" Time asked rhetorically. "More like a bad season. The desk-dumping incident followed scores of other outrageous acts by some of the youngest Fort Worth students at schools across the district."

A little one shouting "Shut up, bitch" at a teacher, the biting of another teacher by a kindergartner—so hard it left marks—and a six-year-old who became completely hysterical, took off his clothes, and threw them at the school psychologist are among the highlights.

These are not deeply troubled kids from dysfunctional homes, either. These are normal, healthy kids, many from middle-class, two-parent families, who have not been found to be emotionally disturbed.

Michael Parker is the program director for psychological services at the Fort Worth Independent School District, which serves eighty thousand students. He told Time that he's clearly seeing an increase in aggressive behavior from very young children. "We're talking about serious talking back to teachers, profanity, even biting, kicking, and hitting adults, and we're seeing it in five-year-olds."

Houston, we have a problem.

The word "Columbine," the name of the Littleton, Colorado, high school where two boys from upper-middle-class families went on a shooting spree that resulted in thirteen fatalities and the boys' suicides, sends shivers down our collective spines. What happened to those kids? Well, all we really know is that something went terribly wrong a long time before they hit high school.

In 2004, the Partnership for Children, a local child-advocacy group in Fort Worth, released the results of a survey of local elementary schools, child-care centers, and pediatricians. The findings, according to Time: almost all of the thirty-nine schools responding reported that kindergartners today have more emotional and behavioral problems than were seen just five years ago. More than half of the day-care centers said incidents of rage and anger had increased over the previous three years.

And it isn't just something in the Texas water.

Dr. Ronald Stephens is the director of the National School Safety Center, based in Westlake, California. Although there is no official reporting mechanism for acts of violence committed by very young children, he told me that the anecdotal evidence is mounting—and showing that behavior problems are rising at a staggering rate. Stephens points to the dramatic increase in the number of alternative schools created for disruptive elementary students in just the past ten years. A decade ago, he says, such schools for the very early elementary grades were virtually unknown; today, at least one thousand of the fifteen thousand school districts in America have them. They are "commonplace and growing," he told me.

Stephens's organization conducts seminars and training for teachers across the country, and anecdotal evidence of kids out of control is common in their workshops. One petite teacher was attacked so viciously by a large six-and-a-half-year-old that she left her job for six months. Another woman, a first-grade teacher for twenty-five years, reported that she literally could not handle some of her current charges because their behavior was so extreme.

A study conducted by the National Association of School Resource Officers (primarily school law enforcement and safety personnel) and released in August 2003 found that more than two-thirds of school police officers believed that younger children were acting more and more aggressively. More than 70 percent of the officers reported an increase in aggressive behavior among elementary schoolchildren in the past five years. In June 2000, the journal Pediatrics released a study of pediatricians with twenty-one thousand patients collectively. The Associated Press summarized things this way: "The number of U.S. youngsters with emotional and behavioral problems has soared in the past two decades."

These increases cannot be dismissed as being due to changes in medical training and diagnosis, said Dr. Kelly Kelleher of the University of Pittsburgh and Children's Hospital, the study's lead author. In fact, according to the AP report, the highest problem-identification rates were by doctors who trained three decades ago and more. Instead, the findings suggest that most of the change was due to "an increase in problems and the kinds of patients they're seeing," Kelleher said. The largest changes were in attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which increased from 1.4 percent to 9.2 percent, and emotional problems such as anxiety and depression, which increased from negligible to 3.6 percent.

In 2003 alone, more than two million prescriptions were written for antidepressants for children, according to the Washington Post. Of course, the "older generation" has been complaining about "kids gone wild" since the beginning of time. From Socrates to the Puritans—to my own parents, who opposed my girlhood devotion to singer Rod Stewart—we've had laments about how the out-of-control younger generation is always, it seems, worse than ever. But these complaints have traditionally been about the generation coming of age—teenagers and very young adults, not about five- and six-year-olds.

And what about older children and teens? Sadly, we're no longer shocked to hear of such things as an eight-year-old child in the heart of the Midwest—Indianapolis, Indiana—pointing a gun at a classmate because the other child teased him about his ears. Twelve-year-olds in affluent Virginia suburbs outside Washington, D.C., were regularly holding sex parties where oral sex was de rigueur, according to the Washington Post. But was anyone really surprised?

Teen suicide rates are now the third leading cause of death among fifteen- to twenty-four-year-olds and the fifth leading cause of death among ten- to fourteen-year-olds, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In the fifteen to twenty-four age range, suicide rates have tripled for males since 1950, and doubled for females.

There have been widespread rumors about declines in youth violence. But according to a 2001 report from the Surgeon General of the United States, these rumors are not accurate. The report states, "This report has looked beyond arrest and other criminal justice records to several national surveys in which high-school-age youths report in confidence on their violent behavior. These self-reports reveal that the propensity for and actual involvement of youths in serious violence have not declined with arrest rates. Rather, they have remained at the peak rates of 1993."

The report goes on to note that arrest rates for teens committing violent crimes has begun to climb again.

The Far Side of the Spectrum?

Of course, most of what I'm describing is really the extreme, right? Well, yes. After all, thankfully, most six-year-old kids don't beat up their teachers. So these studies and anecdotes describe an increase in problems on the far side of the ledger. But before we collectively breathe easier, we have to admit the scary part: the entire child behavior spectrum has shifted in the wrong direction.

This comment came from a grandmother in Florida who wrote to me in response to a column I'd written on out-of-control kids:

Today I am very much involved in taking care of the children in the church nursery, and there is a little three-year-old girl who will scream and throw tantrums and throw everything in sight if she is not catered to constantly. The parents of this little girl do cater to her every whim, and they want everyone else to do the same. This little three-year-old is definitely in charge...

Such behavior is so common that it's become "the new normal." Every one of us could tell a story like that grandmother's.

I recently took one of my daughters to her gymnastics class. While waiting for the class to start, several children were chasing one another around a small enclosure, and it seemed certain someone was going to get hurt. One mom told her three-year-old, Eric, to walk, not run. Eric continued to race around and around. His mother told him no fewer than five times to stop running. Finally, he slammed into my little Madeleine (who was none the worse for wear, really). Eric's mom said, "Eric, you've had enough. I want you to sit down now!" Eric's response? He looked directly at his mom, got up, and started racing around again. And her response? She and another mom looked at each other, shrugged, and giggled.

Whatever the extenuating circumstances might have been—the mother didn't want a scene or Eric was wound up—one thing is clear: Eric is used to disobeying his mother with impunity. And she is used to it, too.

The New Normal

In a 2004 article on, health reporter Dulce Zamora wrote: "When Junior and his mother walk into the doctor's waiting room, there are two seats available: a big chair for grown-ups and a stool for kids. Junior takes the adult seat and starts to throw a tantrum after Mom asks him to move. With resignation, she squats on the little seat." Who sits where isn't the issue. The issue is how much power kids wield over their parents. Such scenes are becoming epidemic. If we were doing a reality television show we might call it Kids Gone Wild! What's really amazing is not that children attempt such power grabs. Of course they do. It's human nature to want power, and the nature of the hearts children are born with has not changed since Adam and Eve. How they're being raised has changed. The parents are too often afraid to address the behavior, and even more so the hearts, of their children.

That's why this book is more about parents than kids.

We could say, Okay, so children today are more badly behaved, more snarly, and more rude. So what? We'll deal with it, we'll ignore it, and we'll get through that phase. After all, most of these kids are not going to grow up to be aberrant, charging into high schools with guns. Living with these kids may be at best unpleasant, at worst miserable—no matter how much we love them—but most will grow up to be some sort of responsible adults. Right?

Well, who knows? But the issue isn't ultimately the behavior, anyway. The behavior reflects what is going on in the child's heart. And it is this heart we must try to reach—and rescue.

On May 22, 2003, the Wall Street Journal ran this story on its front page: "Need Help with a Cranky Kid? Frazzled Parents Call a Coach."

When Amy Griswold's daughter, Ellen, turned three, she began throwing temper tantrums and answering her mother with smart-alecky rejoinders like: "Don't you talk to me that way!"

What else could the Dallas mom do? She called a coach, of course. Writer Barbara Carton went on to explain:

After months of working with a coach in person, by phone and online, Ms. Griswold is a satisfied customer. To curb Ellen's frequent tantrums when leaving the house, the coach suggested offering dress-up items, such as a tiara, which the preschooler would get to wear after they successfully departed the house. "It eliminated the meltdowns," says Ms. Griswold, who spent about $150 on the coach. "It was worth every penny."

And Mrs. Griswold paid a lot of pennies. That advice cost about $100 an hour.

Think about what this little girl has learned: if she's typically nasty enough, she'll get a prize when she doesn't make others and herself miserable. Here's what her mom has learned: to pay off her daughter to buy peace. But what about when the girl demands a car in exchange for not throwing a tantrum? What happens when she comes across someone, someday, who won't buy her off?

Parent coaches are a growing business. According to the WSJ article, the Parent-Coaching Institute of Bellevue, Washington, for instance, opened its doors in 2000; as of summer 2003, it had graduated six coaches and was training twenty-two more.

What About the Heart?

Sure, these kids might grow up to be okay. They might become responsible adults. But what will their hearts, their characters, look like? The little girl in Dallas might grow up to be a normal adult who has a good job, marries, and has children of her own. But what's going on in that "it's all about me" heart of hers? If her parents continue to pay her off to keep her happy, if she grows up learning that her whims will generally be catered to, what will be going on in her heart when she's a "responsible" adult, if she's a responsible adult? What kind of marriage will she have? What values will she pass on to her own kids? Will she be able to give, or only to take? I wonder if she will be able to truly find joy.

These aren't questions that evolve simply because a little girl is given a tiara for not throwing a fit. Every parent blows it sometimes—or, in my case, a lot of times. But Ellen is being raised to think the world is all about her. The tiaras are just a symptom of a much larger problem—one with potentially devastating consequences.

Dr. Robert Shaw is a practicing child psychiatrist in Berkeley, California. In his bold 2003 book The Epidemic: The Rot of American Culture, Absentee and Permissive Parenting, and the Resultant Plague of Joyless, Selfish Children, he writes this:

Far too many children today are sullen, unfriendly, distant, preoccupied and even unpleasant. They whine, nag, throw tantrums, and demand constant attention from their parents....Many kids, even very young ones, treat their parents with contempt, rolling their eyes and speaking rudely....The behavior of these discontented, joyless children is so common these days that many people no longer consider it abnormal. We rationalize it, normalize it, and call it a "phase" or a "stage" at each point along the way.

Joyless children. The new normal. Something is wrong with this picture.

More Paid-Off Kids—More Depression?

In his powerful book The Progress Paradox, science writer Gregg Easterbrook looks at the fact that in the West, and particularly in the United States, we have ease of life, physical health, leisure time, political freedom, and life spans unimaginable in previous generations. And yet, not only have rates of happiness not gone up in fifty years, rates of depression have skyrocketed, rising ten times since 1950. Surely, some of this is due to better reporting and the decreasing stigma attached to depression. But, like most experts, Easterbrook believes that there has been, in fact, a significant increase in depression in the past fifty years.

People who suffer from depression need help, not condemnation. But is the rise in depression symptomatic of larger problems that plague our culture? Yes, says Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and past president of the American Psychological Association. Seligman, who himself largely pioneered the academic study of happiness, says there are four main reasons for the rise in depressionrates in the United States. The first is that "rampant individualism causes us to think that our setbacks are of vast importance and thus something to become depressed about."

Seligman blames the self-esteem craze, too. The emphasis on self-esteem has made millions of people think there's something wrong with them if they don't feel good about themselves at any given moment, versus a more balanced rational approach: "I don't feel good about myself right now, but I will later." The two other causes of depression, according to Seligman, are the "teaching of victimology and helplessness" and runaway consumerism. (From The Progress Paradox.)

Memo to parents: Wake up!

Meanwhile, maybe, just maybe, even some parenting experts may be starting to think we have a problem. In the article "Are You a Parent or a Pushover?" in the January 2004 issue of Parents magazine, Kellye Carter Crocker reported on a Parents survey in which most mothers expressed "deep concern over today's discipline methods." Eighty-eight percent of these mothers said parents "let children get away with too much," although only 40 percent thought that problem applied to their own kids. The math seems a little implausible, but the point is an important one.

Magazine surveys may be notoriously inaccurate, but this one reveals some level of angst over how kids are being raised. As Crocker writes, parents may be "sensing what mounting evidence is starting to reveal: Some of the discipline strategies that have been in vogue in recent years just aren't working. Elaborate systems that give kids multiple chances, prolonged discussions about the 'feelings' behind bad behavior, negotiations about consequences and so on are often ineffective."

Yet, such strategies are still the mainstay of the parenting culture.

That's why this book is more about parents than children. Out-of-control kids very often come from parents who are not in control. They may be wonderful, giving, generous people who are devoted to their children. But too many of them are like the mom and her parenting coach, who think it's a great idea to pay off a preschooler just for not throwing a huge fit.

The following is a recent advice column from, the website of Parents magazine. Forget the answers; it's the questions from these typically loving, educated, middle-class moms and dads that tell us how kids are being raised today.

Q: When I ask my four-and-a-half-year-old to do something like set the table or clean up his toys, he insists he's busy or just says "no"! What should I do?

Q: Our three-year-old loves to boss us around. If I say, "Let's wear white socks," she says, "Blue!" If I say, "Let's brush our teeth," she says, "No! Pajamas first!" We want her to feel like she has a say, but this is getting ridiculous!

Q: Bedtime has become an exhausting ordeal. My son always needs one more thing—another story, a glass of water, a different blanket. How can I get him to stay in bed?

Q: I can never have an uninterrupted phone conversation! Every time the phone rings, my daughter makes a fuss or clings to me like glue.

Q: My three-year-old has started to cry whenever she can't get her way. Should I just ignore her?

You get the picture—and it's not a pretty one. These are caring parents, but they are not portraits of parental courage, which is exactly what their kids need them to be if the children are going to have their hearts shaped for the good.

As perfectly spoiled Veruca so aptly puts it in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (which I've watched at least eighty-seven times with my kids, so I know the dialogue by heart), "But I want it now, Daddy!" And every time, Daddy complies with "Veruca dear's" commands because he doesn't want to cause her any distress.

This is a father who is poisoning his child's heart.

The "heart" issue is fundamental to everything I discuss in this book.

I once heard a Christian speaker give a fine talk on effective discipline. She had some good ideas, and she boasted that her children were so well-behaved that they were the delight of the church nursery. Her children, their proper behavior, and her effective discipline were a source of great pride to her. But I do not remember her talking about their hearts.

What was her purpose in addressing their behavior? What was her purpose in effective discipline? No doubt, expecting good behavior is a good and necessary thing in training our children. But, if our focus is primarily manipulating our children's behavior effectively, it's possible we'll only succeed in teaching them that behaving a certain way is nothing more than the ticket to whatever it is they wanted in the first place, even if it's just the goodwill of Mom and Dad. If we end up just helping them to learn to manipulate their world to reach their own selfish ends—instead of helping to train their hearts to delight in goodness because it is delightful—well then, it's even possible that we've helped shaped those hearts for the worse.

Tedd Tripp discusses this at length in Shepherding a Child's Heart. He talks about parents who eagerly try each new discipline method as it rolls out from the parenting culture's pipeline. He considers how such methods might achieve the right outward behavior, for a time, but not fundamentally change the selfish tendencies of the child's heart.

One method, for instance, is to put a piece of paper in a jar each time a child does something she's asked to do and take one out each time she disobeys. After a specified period, if there are a certain number of slips in the jar, the child gets a prize. As Tripp points out, this is an easy trick to figure out. She learns to watch the scales of right and wrong behavior, and makes very sure that "right" is always tipped just a bit more in her direction. The child has learned how to manipulate her world.

If she's at all bright, she'll quickly figure out that if she saves up enough "good" chits, why, she can indulge in some bad behavior and still come out "ahead." She hasn't learned to disdain disobedience at all; she's just learned how the game works. She hasn't come to see that obeying her parents is a blessing to her and to them—she hasn't learned to love being a blessing.

In another example from Tripp's book, two siblings fight over a toy one has taken from the other. Yes, there's a matter of justice that needs to be addressed, but the wronged child is still putting his "right" to the toy above his relationship with his sibling. What will these children learn if their parents address only the behavior, and not the heart issue behind it?

Throughout It Takes a Parent, I'll look at ways that, I hope, are effective in reaching the hearts of our children. In chapter 12, "To Spank or Not to Spank," I'll consider discipline methods and how some may be more effective than others at reaching the heart of a child. But before I even get to those things, I'll need to convince you that we need to be on a rescue mission for our children's hearts.

A Rescue Mission

Our children are born into a world that is bent on capturing their hearts and minds, and most certainly not for their good. Yes, I think the world is full of good things, and I don't think we have to shut the culture out as much as we have to help our kids think rightly about it. But there is no question that the world seeks to win our children over to its way of thinking and behaving, and the world does not love our children.

We do.

More important, we need to see that children must be rescued from themselves. This truth is not something with which the parenting culture is comfortable.

A principal of a parochial school in an affluent suburb of Chicago wrote to tell me what he sees on a daily basis, and it doesn't look like parents on a rescue mission for the hearts of their children:

• When children receive detention for being tardy, parents often ask to serve in their place, even if it was solely the child's dawdling that made him late.

• Parents of a four-year-old conference-called the child at school about his behavior.

• A four-year-old was allowed to choose the school he would attend.

• Another four-year-old stole an earring from a department store. The mother and child returned the earring, and then the mother took the child to a toy store to buy a treat because the child had done the right thing in returning the stolen earring.

• A mother decided not to send her child to a school that served only white milk, because her child would drink only chocolate milk.

Here again is why this book is more about parents than kids.

Full disclosure: as I write this book, I find that I'm one of those parents being called to account on my rescue mission. When I lived in Virginia, my ten-year-old niece visited me with her dad, my brother. Later, she told him how amazed she was to watch Aunt Betsy completely caving in to little Madeleine, giving her something she demanded, just to get Madeleine to stop whining. Apparently, this incident demolished my niece's view of me as running a tight ship. And this has possibly happened, um, more than once, because I didn't even remember the particular incident.

I'm not worried that someday Madeleine is going to be a juvenile delinquent because I gave in to her on that occasion (and apparently quite a few others). But it's also true for all of us that being more aware of how we interact with our kids, determining what's the norm in our home and what's the exception, is the first step in helping our kids. I hardly think all behavior problems are the result of out-of-control or ineffective parents. Sometimes there are underlying medical or emotional problems, which I'll discuss later. Some of these are becoming more common, and some are becoming better identified. A small percentage of children, although healthy, are so extraordinarily strong willed that, despite the parents' best efforts, the child remains consistently angry and defiant. Parents of these kids sometimes just want to give up. I hope this book will encourage them to try to stay engaged.

Nor am I suggesting that the parenting culture thinks such behaviors as those I've described in this chapter are a good thing. Certainly many bright lights of the parenting culture would bemoan the very same behaviors and attitudes that I've chronicled. They might even speak to the need for parents to intervene. But what the parenting culture generally pays lip service to on the one hand, and how it actually encourages us to raise our children on the other, are, sadly, often two very different things.

So, What's Going On?

Is it perhaps that our culture is more stressed than in previous times? Sure, these things can have an impact. But living during the Depression or World War II would have been far more stressful than living in the "rush-rush" 2000s. In those periods in our history, many Americans experienced severe deprivation and uncertainty; but there is not the evidence of widespread child behavior problems like those we see today.

It's also true that American culture has coarsened terribly, and I'm the first to bemoan it. Particularly for middle-schoolers and high-schoolers, the popular culture can be downright ugly, with depictions of violence and sex everywhere. Even children's cartoons and television shows are filled with kids disdaining one another and their parents. Rugrats and The Fairly Odd Parents are just a couple of examples that come to mind.

Finding a G rated move with no sexual innuendo or cynicism is increasingly difficult. In PG, it's impossible. Such things were rife, for instance, in the wildly popular (and yes, quite clever and entertaining) movie Shrek, and graphic in the "kids'" movie Scooby-Doo.

But, as parents, our job is to control what our kids see, not to blame what they see for a lack of our own hands-on attention. As our children grow older and by choice or necessity we no longer control what they watch or hear, our job is to help them think rightly about the culture, what they absorb, and what they should want to absorb. The authors of the Pediatrics study I referred to earlier partially blamed increases in divorce, single-parent households, and dependence on public assistance for behavior problems. But even these problems go back to the parents and how one or both of them are—or are not—interacting with their children. It's also clear, by the way, that there are many wonderful parents (single and sometimes married) who are doing everything they can to make up for the neglect of the other parent.

That has to have a huge impact for the good.

It Takes a Parent—and a Village—to Raise a Child

In one sense, I believe it does take a village to raise a child. For instance, my divorce is not just my business. It's a pebble in a stream and has a huge effect on others in the community, including on how children down my own street may come to view the permanence, or impermanence, of marriage. When both parents in the home around the corner work so many hours that their unhappy child goes to another family's home for companionship, his problems become that family's problems, too. We are not islands, and the way we adults lead our lives affects the children all around us. We have a responsibility to the little ones in our lives, not just the ones in our own family, to do the right thing. That's why there really isn't such a thing as "privacy" after all.

I would love to magically fix all the negative aspects of our culture—but I can't. I would love to eradicate pornography from the web, get rid of gratuitous violence in the media and popular music, and restore images of virtue and strong family lives in film and television.

But I can't do all those things. I can't change the externals in the neighborhood or in the popular culture, at least not to my satisfaction. I couldn't even wave a magic wand to put my family back together, although I would have loved to. The thing I can do as a parent is to try to think and act rightly when it comes to parenting my own kids—to persevere in what I'm called to do—and trust that that will have an impact.

That's why this book is more about parents than kids.

There's good news, too. I often hear via e mail and letters from great kids, teenagers in particular, who remind me that many terrific kids out there are as appalled at some of the behavior of their peers as I am. I'm not saying there is such a thing as the "perfect teenager" and what, exactly, would that be anyway? But I am talking about kids who openly love and honor their parents, who even think their parents are pretty cool. Kids who are intent on doing the right things in their lives and not giving in to the culture around them. Kids who give of themselves to others, who make a difference, who are examples to their friends. I am proud to say I know many such young people.

These young people have something in common: parents (or sometimes another loving adult in their lives) who are challenging the culture when it comes to raising their children. These parents are doing an awesome job. Such parents and other caring adults don't get the media play troubled parents or parents of troubled kids do, but they are noble. Their stories, whether I know them personally or learn of them through readers of my column, are an incredible encouragement to me and should be an incredible encouragement to all of us. They are making a difference in their children's lives and in their community's life.

I hope this book will encourage them, too.

These parents are persevering—and that's what the next chapter is about. Perseverance in reaching and shaping and rescuing the hearts of our children. Our duty is to persevere as parents, no matter what discouraging stories we hear, no matter what is going on around us, to persevere with a great hope that if we "train up a child in the way he should go...when he is old he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6).

Parenting Check

You probably breathed a sigh of relief knowing that your child would never kick a teacher. But what about the child at gymnastics class ignoring his mother's instructions? Did you see yourself there? What about the questions parents wrote to the parenting magazine? Are questions like those too often your questions, too?

Some of this happens in all of our homes—mine, too. The questions are: Are we aware of the power struggles our children attempt and are we actively engaged in responding appropriately? Or are their struggles, and our capitulation to them, so common that it's become the new normal?

What about the heart issue? Is this the first time you've thought that it might be possible to get the right behavior but not be rightly training or encouraging the heart of your child?