If you are a new parent, aspiring parent, or curious about the topic of parenting in today’s social media-centric age, I highly recommend Katherine Reynolds Lewis’ riveting read, The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever–And What to Do About It.
She discusses why children misbehave and lays out a new parenting approach to better alleviate stress in your household and prepare your children to be independent, responsible, and autonomous adults in the future. It’s all about moving away from the dated authoritarian reward-punishment model and pulling back from the constant praise and participation trophy for everything strategy from recent decades to a middle ground promoting self-regulation in your children.
There’s no other way to slice it. Children in America today are fucked up. Let’s talk about why.
The first part of Lewis’ book covers the problem of our misbehaving youth. In her introductory chapter, she lays out the data behind the issues facing our kids who live during a new era, one of selfies and self-centeredness and social media and self-image.
A National Institute of Mental Health study recently revealed that one in two children will develop a mood or behavioral disorder before the age of 18. “They truly have less self-control,” Lewis writes about American children these days. And on the topic of self-regulation, adults instituting time outs or rewarding good behavior actually hold children back by undermining their self-regulation. In order to succeed in life, both at school and in the workplace, children will need to learn how to regulate their actions and emotions.
Lewis proposes three crucial tenets to implement in raising your children: connection, communication, and capability. These three can give disruptive children control over themselves and alleviate a multitude of behavioral disorders. A number of surprises are uncovered in Lewis’ work, including, how family schedules have kept children back, how there is zero association between the time moms and dads spend with their school-age children and the child’s academic or behavioral performance, and how parents have achieved harmony in their households by treating it as a learning lab instead of an impossible shrine of perfection.
Critics of parents today claim that they have gone soft. They believe the solution to misbehaving children and permissive parents is strict and in charge parenting. But this command-and-control method never resonated with Lewis, who believes that antiquated strategy is ill-suited for today’s children. As a journalist, Lewis wondered why parenting seemed so much harder these days than at any other time in modern history. She, therefore, embarked on an important journey by reading the latest science on the subject and interviewing parents and educators about what works and what doesn’t. In the end, it took Lewis five years worth of research to get to the bottom of it.
We are witnessing an epidemic of misbehavior in our children.
Researchers on childhood development have documented a significant decline in children’s ability to self-regulate in the U.S. Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, looked at the alarming rise of depression, anxiety, and attention problems in the U.S. and the results troubled her. There has been a dramatic spike in depressive symptoms and distractibility over the past twenty years. One study she led revealed that three times as many teens had trouble sleeping or thinking clearly from 2012 to 2014 than they did from 1982 to 1984.
Twenge compiled additional evidence of a troubling shift in our culture resulting in more anxious, depressed, neurotic, and narcissistic generations of young Americans. One significant trend over the last few decades has been the pervasiveness of mass media, reality television, and celebrity culture, all of which result in an unhealthy focus on one’s external factors rather than looking inside oneself.
Social media has surely been a culprit behind rising mental illness among America’s youth. Last month, I wrote about how the rise of social media and constant internet browsing as a driving force behind the 25 percent rise in suicides in the U.S. over the last few decades. In it, I mentioned a recent Pew Research survey that found 45 percent of American teens are online “almost constantly,” double just a few years ago. Furthermore, an astonishing 95 percent of American teens have access to a smartphone.
Another telling experiment discovered when preteens participated in an outdoor education program without access to any screens for just five days scored a higher emotional intelligence score than those who had screen time. Furthermore, a host of studies have concluded that the more time people spend on Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat, the more likely they are to feel depressed. The dreaded F.O.M.O. (fear of missing out) syndrome purveys America’s preteens and teenagers today as they remain glued to their screens.
The phenomenon of social comparison, as psychologists refer to it, is the act of comparing ourselves to those around us. This obsession over how we portray ourselves to the world and how we stack up to others inevitably leads to a feeling of inferiority. Most people tend to only put out the most flattering and attractive pictures of themselves to the world. Those who see others’ happiest lives online think their lives are somehow inadequate, resulting in a debilitating sense of depression or loneliness since they think they are not living a happy or fulfilling life as others seem to be.
Kids spend more time looking at screens today than they ever have before. Children as young as four months old start watching television. By age five, many kids are spending four and a half hours each day looking at a screen. Children spend much less time running around at recess today and far more time in a structured and sedentary lifestyle. Students in school sit behind desks and are much less physically active as recently as twenty years ago. And when kids are bored, they don’t go meet up at the local playground and run around with their friends or neighbors. They pick up their iPad or watch TV.
Science has connected the rise between elevated amounts of screen time and growing attention problems like ADHD. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, led a team that looked at more than 1,200 children’s habits and found that for every weekly hour of TV children watched before age three, they were 10 percent more likely to develop an attention problem by age seven. In contrast, when parents read or sing to their children, each hour spent doing something other than looking at a screen reduced the odds of a child developing attention problems by 30 percent. Astonishingly, parents are either ignorant or uncaring of these glaring statistics as children aged eight to 18 spend an average of seven and a half hours a day using electronics, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study.
Nearly one-third of adolescents receive an anxiety diagnosis these days. The next most common are behavioral disorders (19 percent) and substance abuse (11 percent). “All these conditions boil down to self-regulation: being able to manage your own impulses, moods, thoughts, and behavior,” Lewis writes. More diagnoses due to better screening methods are not to blame for these problems today. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the teen suicide rate rose 28 percent in the last decade while the tween suicide rate rose 52 percent during that same time period. So tragic. So unnecessary. Something different must be done to reverse this.
In addition to the technological reason for misbehaving and over anxious children is the inordinate amount of pressure kids feel to achieve academically. Over time, parents stopped viewing their children as indispensable contributors to the household, farm, or family business. Children are now and have been for some time seen as budding talents to be cultivated. Their worth is not seen in the work they do or the impact they have on the household. Instead, kids now view their worth as based solely on their achievement in school, and later, at their jobs.
Children do not work anymore or take on summer jobs and help out less and less around the house. Kids lead unemployed lives revolving around homework, sports, music, and other extracurricular activities while parents shoulder more of the load around the house. But children need to learn these vital tasks to excel later in life when they’re without mommy and daddy. They need to do the laundry, cook, take care of cars, repair their bikes, mow the lawn, and clean because they will have to do that all by themselves someday. Humans thrive when they become autonomous, competent, and connected to other people. They succeed when they feel they are fulfilling a vital role and being relied upon. However, children are kept on a jam-packed schedule and given few opportunities to develop life skills or contribute to the running of the household.
Children are also playing less, and their development is suffering. Through play, children learn how to make decisions, solve problems, and control their emotions. Yet, parents constantly hover over their children and do not allow them the freedom to interact with their peers and learn essential social skills. As Peter Gray, author and professor emeritus at Boston College puts it, “We in our modern society have destroyed the culture of childhood. Children are more or less constantly directed, supervised, and protected by adults. They’re not learning how to plan their own activities. They’re not learning to negotiate with their playmates about rules, because there’s always an adult there to do it for them.” Gray further points out that children who have more autonomy and more unsupervised playtime develop better learning skills, more creativity, and a greater sense of responsibility for their own actions.
Sadly, the focus has shifted from play and recess to academics and testing. From 1981 to 2003, the amount of time children spent playing fell by one-third and children as young as three years old are enrolled in after-school tutoring programs. This rigid education-focused structure endured by America’s children leads to burnout. “When children shuttle from playdate to soccer practice to home without much say in the daily schedule, they miss out on unstructured, kid-directed play,” Lewis writes. By allowing kids the freedom to follow their drive to play, parents can actually protect them against developing a crippling anxiety or behavioral disorder. The impulse to shield children from early injuries and scares, rather than exposing them to these experiences, actually contributes to their fears, anxieties, and phobias later in life.
Children are too constantly supervised. One report discovered that the area where children are allowed to roam unsupervised has shrunk by 90 percent since the 1970s. Lewis does not propose a return to the 1960s when kids were gone for hours on end without parents checking in on them, but she believes it is important to recognize the impact of these societal changes on our children. There is no going back. The world has transformed rapidly in recent decades. Children do not respond to discipline like they used to, but we can’t just give up on millions of kids who misbehave due to anxiety or depression or some other disorder. “We must tackle the defining challenge of our era: teaching our children how to self-regulate,” Lewis concludes.
Read her book. It’s full of essential information for parents struggling to raise their kids. And it contains many tips on how to be a better parent and how to teach your children to become respectable adults.
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