American parents have been listening to professional psycho-babblers tell them how to raise children since the late 1960s. I was in graduate school at the time, and my professors thought the babblers were geniuses, sent by some New Age divinity to correct all the egregious wrongs parents had done to children since time immemorial. Children were about to enter a Golden Age in which their opinions would not only be listened to but also taken into consideration, and from an early age. And they would be allowed to express their feelings freely! And parents and teachers were going to tell them how wonderful they were and how everything they did was wonderful and so children would do more and more wonderful things and the Age of Aquarius would dawn and peace and love would fill the universe!
Problem is, it didn’t turn out quite the way it was planned. Indeed, parents and teachers did all the “right” things. In fact, nearly everything they did was pretty much the opposite of the way previous generations of parents had done things. The result? Well, let’s just say the Age of Aquarius has yet to dawn. Child mental health in America, across the demographic spectrum, has declined markedly in the last fifty or so years. Compared with a kid from my generation, today’s child is five to ten times more likely to become clinically depressed before his or her sixteenth birthday. And parenting, as it is now termed, has become the single most stressful thing a woman will do in her adult life. Mind you, her great-grandmother probably raised a lot more kids and experienced very little stress. She was, however, able to stress her kids rather effectively.
When are parents—mothers, especially—going to get it? When are they going to wake up to the fact that the babblers have done nothing—and yes, I mean nothing—but damage? In my estimation, the Age of Aquarius will begin when American parents shut the babblers down and return parenting—to borrow from the vernacular of the 1960s—back to the people!
Because today’s parents have no experiential understanding of the way it was, I’ll highlight a few of the more salient features of pre-1960s childhood. But before I do, I’ll respond to those who claim that I “idealize” the 1950s. No, I do not. I simply maintain what is verifiable fact: American children were better off back then—as well off, in fact, as they’d ever been and certainly a whole lot happier than today’s kids.
The biggest difference was that mom and dad paid more attention to and talked more to one another than they paid attention to and talked to their kids. In fact, kids back then didn’t get a whole lot of attention from their parents. We were supposed to pay attention to them, not they to us. And so, by the time we went to school, we’d learned to give our undivided attention to adults, which is why we were taught successfully (our academic achievement was much higher than today’s kids) in overcrowded classrooms. By the time we were in our early elementary years, we were doing more for our moms, in the form of chores, than they were doing for us. Oh, and our moms weren’t “involved” with us. Oh, happy day! They expected us to figure out our own entertainment, do our own homework, settle our own squabbles, lie in the beds we made, and stew in our own juices. Need I point out that today’s mom is doing nearly all of that for her child, including the stewing?
We were allowed to express our opinions, but they didn’t count for much (and shouldn’t have). And no, we were definitely not allowed to express our feelings freely. Have you ever met someone who expresses his or her feelings freely, without regard for the sensibilities of others? That defines an obnoxious, narcissistic, sociopathic boor.
Finally, I am a proud member of the last generation of American kids who weren’t allowed to have high self-esteem. When a child back then had an outburst of high self-esteem, his parents told him he was acting too big for his britches, which is what high self-esteem is all about anyway—popping one’s britches.
And yet, we were happier. We may have missed the Aquarian train, but I hear it ran off the tracks sometime around 1975 anyway.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his web site at www.rosemond.com.