Review by Ros McMullen

14 Feb 2016, 19:00

The Collapse of Parenting – how we hurt our kids when we treat them as grown-ups

“By age 10, an American child is more likely to look to peers than to parents for guidance about what really matters in life. But children are not competent to guide other children. That’s what grown-ups are for.”

It was once I got to these sentences that I jumped up and said “Yes – that’s what’s been bothering me about this book!” Up until then I thought it was just the underlying “middle-class-ness” of it that was making me a bit uneasy, but no, it is the assumption that all grown-ups or parents are capable of giving guidance to children.

In many ways this book is like binge eating for a headteacher as just about every paragraph chimes with things I’ve said for years. The third chapter, which speaks of the “medicalisation of misbehaviour” elicited some deep-throated chuckles from me and will too, I suspect, from most educationalists. The basic tenet of Dr Sax is that the socialisation of children into the culture that will bring them long term happiness and fulfilment is being passed to their peers and mainstream culture is making them fragile. There is a lot of common sense and it is an easy read, but some of the stories and examples – both positive and negative – make me want to smack him around the head with his book and take him on an exposure trip into some of the family homes I have known professionally.

The book is in two sections: problems and solutions. I find myself in agreement with Dr Sax’s analysis of problems and I’m definitely in his camp when it comes to the solutions, but I wish he just didn’t seem so judgmental and so absolute in his proposed solutions. I am all for teaching children self-control, humility and conscientiousness; I am all for parents making time and enjoying the time spent with children, and I am fully behind challenging the view that we should allow children to make their own decisions. I am not convinced, however, that Dr Sax has any insights to offer about what we do about the parents who themselves have no self-control, humility, or conscientiousness.

One could read this book and believe that such parents did not exist and that children were being failed by parents who were simply courting popularity with their offspring and were frightened to step away from mainstream culture.

In many ways this book reminds me of the National Childbirth Trust classes (to be frank, I never attended them as I’d heard enough about them from my friends). From what I can gather, the NCT classes are for the middle class new parents (who pay) to have their ideas reinforced by others, and an awful lot of angst is subsequently caused if they have to resort to drugs and surgery during childbirth, or, God forbid, have to resort to bottle feeding!

As a middle class mum, I had pangs of anxiety when reading Dr Sax’s views on allowing teenagers near video gaming: “I know this is right; gosh I am weak” and so on. I discussed it with Finn, 16: “Yeah mum, but that supposes that we’re all idiots and I’m not.” Well quite. Dr Sax’s book will not be read by those who probably need to and will be over-read by those for whom it will just cause angst. As I said, a bit like NCT classes.

Overall it is difficult to disagree with much of this book. I particularly liked his views on overscheduling our children: “The non-stop grind of school and activities and homework begins early in the morning and continues late into the night. That’s not healthy. Find a different perspective. Boast about how you and your child spent an afternoon lying on the grass, looking up at the sky, finding shape in the clouds.”

Now there is a challenge to a middle class parent that I can identify with.

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  1. Almost certainly, any book on bringing up children focusses on the misplaced premise that ‘it’, our lives, are defined by the children. We/our lives are not.
    Parenting involves including children in the narrative of our mutual lives, and that does include extended family members as well as employees/others.
    And children do get used to the principle that they are not little emperors. And they have done so for generations.