TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age

How do we raise children of character in an indulgent age? According to Dan Kindlon, we do it with TLC – Time, Limits and Care. While most of us do a good job on “C” – caring for our children and their needs, we may not do as well on the “T” and the “L”. As a result of changes and trends in our society we are spending less time with our children and falling short in establishing and enforcing limits and boundaries. With humor and stories about his own struggles as a parent, Dan Kindlon discussed these trends and the factors that influence whether our children will face problems as teenagers.

Dan began by sharing why he focuses on teens. Preventing problems for teenagers is important because, unlike younger ages, this is the point when behavioral problems, poor judgment and risky situations (e.g. drug use, sex, depression and anxiety) can have an enormous impact on the rest of their lives. While there is no magic protective formula, he has applied public health models to identify five key factors which can reduce risks for teen.
Before he shared these factors, Dan set the stage by sharing five recent social trends that have increased the risks our children face as teenagers.
1. We live in a more permissive society. Most of us admit we are less strict than our parents. But, even when we try to enforce rules and discipline, parents of our children’s friends may undermine our efforts (e.g. letting children watch R rated movies, not providing supervision at parties). We also may believe that enforcing limits will mean our children won’t like us. This is a myth. Children need limits and boundaries, and parents who provide and enforce them have better relationships with their children.
2. We spend less time with our children. Studies show that parents today spend half the amount of time with their children that they did in 1981. This is due to 2 reasons: since 1981 the amount of homework children have has doubled and they spend twice as much time playing organized sports. Dan asked, “If you don’t spend time with your child, how do you parent them?” He urged parents to feel entitled to set boundaries and limits on sports and school work in order to spend time together as families.
3. Our children face greater pressure to do well in school. Not only do children have more homework, they are facing more pressure to do well in school and get into the best universities. This pressure has changed the nature of school – replacing time for play with more work. Children are being driven to succeed, without knowing why. This trend has been in response to a national sense of urgency to compete with other countries like Japan. But instead of benefiting our children, it has decreased the amount of time families spend together, increased the incidence of cheating and decreased our children’s sleep. The average teen stays up to 11pm or later to complete school work, and gets up early for school – resulting in an amount of sleep well shy of the recommended 9½ hours for teenagers. Chronic sleep deprivation lowers immunity and increases rates of ADD, depression and moodiness. If your child isn’t getting enough sleep, you need to step in and help solve the problem.

4. We are more materialistic. Today, people feel that they need to be rich to be happy. A UCLA study that tracks what students want from their education shows a remarkable change. In the 1970’s, the top answer was “to develop meaningful personal life.” Today it is “to become well-off financially.” Although our standard of living has improved since the 1950s (the average home size today is double that of the 1950s, while families are smaller), the average person is not happier, and rates of depression and suicide have increased. Parents need to help their children learn about what they need to be happy rather than focusing solely on wealth.
5. We are more overprotective. There is no data to support parents’ fears of increased danger to our children, but we are still scared. We watch them all the time and try to protect them from every hurt – both physical and psychological. Through our actions we communicate our fears to our children, who become afraid to have the experiences they need to grow and mature. But children need these experiences to learn. They need to learn how to delay gratification, how to live with disappointment, and that sometimes life is unfair.
Dan then turned to the top five risk/protective factors that can influence whether children will have more or fewer problems as teens. They are:
1. Divorce. Children with divorced parents are more likely to have problems than children without divorced parents. However, this risk is reduced if parents can deal with, and remove, the anger from their relationship.
2. Family Dinners. Eating dinner together reduces your child’s risk. Teens with families that sit down together for dinner do better in school, have lower rates of depression, drug use, and under-achievement, as well as less permissive attitudes about sex. Family dinners – including fathers – provide an opportunity for teaching family values and life lessons. Conversations with older family members build children’s vocabularies and allow them to talk through difficult situations. Dinners together reinforce the value of being part of a group.
NB Fathers are key. A 30 year longitudinal study showed that lifetime earnings were higher among children whose attended PTA meetings!
3. Clean up your room! Children whose parents require that they keep their rooms clean face fewer issues as teens. These parents enforce limits and boundaries, which children and teens desperately need. Studies show that leniency leads to increased rates of underachievement, eating disorders, drug use and sex. Dan acknowledged that enforcing simple limits, like cleaning up their rooms, can be difficult for parents. But he cautioned that if it is easier and faster for parents to do it themselves, then that is the last thing they should do! He urged, “If you remember one thing from today’s presentation, remember this: Never pick up your child’s towel again!”
4. Telephone control. Dan’s survey showed that teens with telephones in their bedroom were at higher risk than those without. This factor is a bit outdated with the widespread use of cell phones, but Dan emphasized that the point was whether parents allowed their children unrestricted and unsupervised access to their peers.
5. Community Service. Children who were regularly involved in community service were at lower risk as teens. Parents today are raising a generation of children who are focused on themselves, because parents are focused so much on THEM – their education, their safety, their success in sports, and their extracurricular activities. Community service helps children develop self esteem and see greater purpose and value to their lives. Even if children don’t have time to volunteer, donating a percentage of their allowance or savings help
Dan’s final points: It is your job to be a parent, and that may mean your child isn’t happy with you all the time. That is fine.
• Stop yourself from fixing your child’s problems. Sometimes your child will be sad; sometimes they will have hurt feelings; let them be. These are “character building experiences
• Don’t be inspired to try to change everything at once. Start small. Pick one behavior to change and focus on and stick with it. Pick something easy; then do it! s.

Dan Kindlon, Phd

too much of a good thing

About the Author

Dan Kindlon is a clinical and research psychologist specializing in behavioral problems of children and adolescents. He teaches child psychology at Harvard University, where he has been a faculty member since 1985. In over 20 years of clinical practice – consisting of psychotherapy, neuropsychological evaluation and school consultation – Dr. Kindlon has focused on the diagnosis and treatment of emotional problems, learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders.
He is the author of numerous scientific journal articles and three books including the 1999 NY Times bestselling Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys (co-authored with Michael Thompson).
Currently Dr. Kindlon lectures widely to groups of parents, educators and mental health professionals. He has made numerous national media appearances including The Today Show, 20/20, CNN, and National Public Radio. He lives outside Boston with his wife and two children.

Comments are closed.