Straight Talk Advice

Dec 22, 2004

A Holiday Letter to Parents

Dear Readers: Parenting is probably the only job that is guaranteed to be legendary. When your children have grown and when they gather with siblings or talk from the heart with friends, it will be always be about you, about their childhood, what it all meant and how it all fits together. As a parent and as someone who works with teenagers, I would like to write a letter today to other parents. I would like to take you on a journey with hopes of shedding light on why parenting has become so overwhelming and what you can do about it.

As parents, we are surely the most challenged group of individuals to ever take on the job. And here’s why: we Baby Boomers born in the 50’s and 60’s, raised under the influence of Dr. Spock, marked the most leniently-raised batch of children known to western culture up until that time. Compared to earlier generations, we were raised without strong boundaries and without traditional priorities.

Nationally, we enjoyed prosperous times: television in our living rooms, radios in our bedrooms, dishwashers and electric clothes dryers became common. As the long-standing patterns broke down, we also had more divorce than had been known previously, mothers began joining the work force. As children during this time, we had a freedom from authority that earlier generations of children hadn’t known. We talked without being spoken to, we came whether we were called or not, we questioned those in charge, we invented our own brand of music, we even decided what we would wear. In 1971, the federal law requiring girls to wear dresses and skirts to school was struck down by a teenager who instigated the lawsuit. Teens and young adults rallied against the war in Vietnam and the draft. We demanded something more than white bread on the grocery shelves. Many used drugs and turned to eastern religions. We grew our hair long if we were male and cut it short if we were female. We ushered in “free love” as the first generation with the pill and legalized abortion.

Childhood is supposed to be a time of following structure and patterns laid by a wiser, stronger, older generation. But our generation turned that all on its head. Even the most mild among us didn’t follow their parents’ path. That path didn’t even seem to exist anymore.

Now, we are parents ourselves. And where is our resume? A prerequisite of a strong leader is one who has first learned to follow. As a generation, we certainly missed that step! Yet we are expected to lead. And that is why it is so difficult for most of us to set clear boundaries for our children, to even know what those boundaries should be.

Let’s keep going in this journey and look at today. The amount of stimulation, the sheer volume of choices, the absolute warp speed of life today is mind-boggling, as you know. Now, imagine being a kid right now, born into this from day one. By our choices, not only is there a television in every living room, but often in every bedroom as well, with hundreds of channels, a violent or sexualized act showing every millisecond, many of them “real” and on the news. By our choices, a computer gaming industry has emerged bigger and more seductive than Hollywood luring especially boys to sit for hours in front of a screen immersed in violence, gore, and unearthly adventures. By our priorities, about sixty percent of mothers work now, often starting when children are infants. By our priorities, gone is the family dinner, swept away in schedules too hectic for home-cooked food. Gone is the simple joy of walking. Cars are used almost exclusively now, even to get a block or two down the road. And what has been, since time began, a time of teen angst, the time of first love and first kisses is now complicated by a conundrum of new arrangements that go by the term gay/lesbian/bi/transgender.

Can you imagine? And we thought it was complicated for us!

I am going to share with you something that gives me great hope.

There was a study that began with infants born in 1955 and ended when they were 40 years old, in 1995. It set out to find the parameters that made for a “successful” person—success being defined as “the capability of forming lasting personal relationships.” Amongst all the family dysfunction that turned up: divorce, alcoholism, violence, etc., the researchers could only find one “difference that made the difference” in determining what led to success. It was “demonstrative love and affection”. Despite dysfunction, the individuals who received this as children from at least one parent, grew to be “successful” adults.

The key word here is “demonstrative”. Forget the small stuff, the shoes on the floor, the messy bedroom, the new family room furniture you want—forget this 90% of the time. Instead focus your family attention on demonstrations of love. Your child needs to hear you say, “I love you”. Your child needs to feel your touch, the warmth and love that come through a hug or a back scratch or the simple stroking of a hand.

And your child needs to “see” your love, see that you will stand your ground for them when they are going astray. No child wants a life of drugs, alcohol, violence, or premature sex. But many teens find themselves there precisely because they are looking for that missing “something”—that demonstrative love and affection.

A demonstration of love is saying ‘no’ even when it’s not popular. A demonstration of love is having a plan as to how you will educate and enforce the values and lifestyle you know in your heart are best.

That’s our job as parents.

It’s not going to be easy, because we didn’t exactly get the right training—and for this we need to forgive ourselves—but this New Year, I hope you will choose to spend 90% of your parental energy making that plan, deciding on the standards of behavior that you are willing to stand for, figuring out a system of education and enforcement by which to make it work. I hope you will promote a slower, less media-filled, more human rhythm in your lives, starting with something as simple as having dinner together each night.

And most importantly, and easiest to do, I hope you will find a way to touch your child each and every day and say “I love you”.


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