The collapse of parenting


School holidays are a wonderful time to adopt a different routine and for discretionary reading that goes beyond emails and online activities. I have found the latest offering from Leonard Sax MD PhD, titled, The Collapse of Parenting, to be especially insightful and well researched. While Sax is an American and speaks to the issues facing families in the US, his research base has been international and thus his findings and recommendations are relevant in our context given the similarities in our cultures. The salient points for our context include: 

  • For well adjusted, resilient children and young adults to emerge, the relationship of primary importance must be the one with parents. This necessitates parents adopting an authoritative style of parenting where boundaries are clear, respect is evident and family time is paramount. Parents have to come first, Sax argues, otherwise kids become fragile as their primary source of acceptance, connection and valuing comes from peers. Peers do not offer unconditional love, relationships are typically fragile and one wrong word can see the end of a 'bestie' relationship. In peer relations everything is conditional and contingent.  


The illustration given by Sax is the student who is constantly checking text messages in the fear that if she doesn't respond promptly to her peers this may be misinterpreted as an indication of a lack of enthusiasm, endorsement and friendship. When the peer relationship is the one that matters most to a child or young adult, there is great propensity of harm.  
For the parent-child relationship to be pre-eminent, the parent has to invest time. While Sax recognises that we are all time-poor he commends the following activities as means of ensuring quality time together as a family: 

  • Turn off all technology while sharing an evening meal on as many nights of the week is achievable
  • Create a balance between organised and scheduled activities and those that the family shares together 
  • Take family holidays together without a friend tagging along 

Take an authoritative stance in supporting your child to remain in the ideal weight range by: 

  • Monitoring and limiting what they eat
  • Monitoring and stipulating the amount of physical activity – this includes limiting screen time 
  • Monitoring and determining the amount of sleep achieved.


While Sax is quick to identify the ills pervasive in our society, he is equally ready to share his researched insights to ways in which we can support and grow our children into being fulfilled, happy and contributing individuals. He recommends the following solutions: 

  • Teach humility where humility means being as interested in other people as you are in yourself. The opposite of humility is an inflated self-esteem that again is fragile and sees the slightest road block as insurmountable and resentment building. Whereas humility leads to gratitude, appreciation and contentment. 
  • Enjoy the time you spend with your child. When with our children, devote ourselves completely to the children and activity. Sometimes being outdoors makes this task easier as one is less likely to check emails and multitask. 
  • Help your child understand the meaning of life. This is beyond getting a good HSC mark or entry to the 'right university'. It is about helping your child collect a range of experiences, both positive and negative, that enable them to manage the inevitable ups and downs that life will present whether or not we are present. It is about helping prepare our children for a life of meaningful work, a loving context and a passion to embrace. 

Leonard Sax is a practising physician, psychologist and also author of Girls on the Edge – a text I recommend to all staff new to teaching in a girls' school context. We have a copy of both these books in the Parent Section of the Palmer Library. I hope you find these a useful adjunct and support to your current parenting practices. 

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