It is Robert Shaw‘s “The Epidemic: The Rot of American Culture, Absentee and Permissive Parenting, and the Resultant Plague of Joyless, Selfish Children.“ Yikes. That‘s some title. It‘s even enough to stop you in your tracks and make you think twice about whipping out every credit card in your wallet to make sure your children have every single thing their little hearts desire this holiday season, whether they need them or not.
And that‘s the point. Shaw is a Berkley, California-based psychiatrist who has worked with troubled children - both affluent and poverty-stricken - for several decades. His premise, for which he builds a strong case, is that there is a world of suffering and joylessness all around us, with parents and children as equal participants.
You can‘t go into a store without seeing a parent threaten a child or a child throwing a tantrum as a means of acquiring something. Sometimes it‘s hard to tell who is who, though there‘s really little excuse for that. In the first chapter, “Stricken Children, Stricken Families,“ Shaw‘s take-no-prisoners attitude is apparent from the opening paragraphs:
“We are in crisis. Large numbers of children, even including those who could be considered privileged, are no longer developing the empathy, moral commitment, and ability to love necessary to maintain our society at the level that has always been our dream. The emotional, psychological, and moral well-being of the current generation of children has reached a frighteningly low point, and it‘s going to require a powerful shift in thinking to save them. A few short years ago we were in serious denial that there was such a problem, but recent catastrophic events in our society are forcing us to face the inevitable: our culture no longer offers what children need to truly thrive. Look around you. While happy families were once the norm, more and more often we see parents and children today rushing frenetically from one task to another -- children whining, bickering, tantruming, pouting, parents nagging, complaining, and trying to ignore their unruly, surly offspring. Can you go to any store, restaurant, or library without seeing these joyless children screaming, throwing food, or pulling packages and books off shelves? Are you comfortable seeing such scenarios -- or tempted to look the other way?
For some strange reason, our way of dealing with this has been not to look, not to notice, not to care. But we can no longer turn a blind eye: there is a mountain of evidence now telling us what‘s truly good -- and really bad -- for kids, and in this book I want to help you find the strength to do what has to be done so that you can raise happy, productive, and pleasurable children. I want to help you take a close hard look at your lifestyle, your values, your goals, and what your precious children could become. I want to help you create the kind of family environment necessary for their future -- and nothing less than the future of civilization.
Our awareness that something bad was happening in our society became clearer on April 20, 1999, when, with serpentine coldness, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold slaughtered twelve fellow students and a teacher and injured twenty-three others in the once quiet halls of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Then came the horror of September 11, 2001: there isn‘t a person alive then who will forget the day religious radicals hijacked four passenger-filled planes and crashed them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing thousands of innocent people and leaving a grieving nation of widows, orphans, relatives, friends, citizens... When you hold a baby in your arms and see her sweet face looking up at you, you hope and expect that she will naturally grow up to be a well-developed, compassionate person. However, it doesn‘t happen naturally -- children can be trained to a variety of outcomes, including these two tragic situations I just described... if we as parents don‘t “train“ our children in constructive, safe, and expressive ways of operating in our society, their natural drive to connect with someone or some idea may well lead them toward some of the most destructive behavioral manifestations. They‘ll be “trained“ all right, but perhaps by wayward peers, gangs, the media, or radical religious cults.“
Shaw is a straight talker who believes that for the past three decades, American parents have increasingly lost touch with their children, leading to major tragedies like those at Columbine High School, but more commonly to incidents in daily life that have driven parents and children apart. We‘re an affluent nation, but through our own doing, we‘re raising children who are disaffected, alienated, amoral, emotionally stunted, and even violent. The problem is so prevalent that the author sees it as nothing less than an epidemic, hence, the title.
Take heart, though. “These children are not an aberration. They are the natural outcome of the way we have been raising them,“ says Shaw. In his book, he tackles issues such as the myths and realities of bonding and attachment, how to recognize when non-parental care is working and when it isn‘t, milestones in your child‘s moral and ethical development, the difference between self-centeredness and self-esteem, the amazing and often subversive role the media plays in raising our children, and more. Most importantly, he discusses strategies for recognizing when your child is too close to the edge of being out of control and what can be done to bring them back.
There are a number of ideas here that are not new, but somehow, Shaw presents them in a way that makes us feel as if we havent heard them in awhile. We are supposed to be parents, not pals, and there is no substitute for the role that our time, attention and energy play in our child‘s life. It is our duty to raise responsible, self-reliant, giving, citizens, and we just might have a better shot at that by going into the backyard and tossing a ball around than we do by driving them to the countless activities we schedule for them.
Shaw says that this is more of a “what is necessary“ than a “how to“ book, and there‘s little gray area in his thinking. He sees parents as the ones who don‘t shift gears as our infants begin to grow and evolve, and when we don‘t, we wind up with babies who grow out of diapers but never grow up. This is not a book for the faint of heart when it comes to parenting, but maybe that‘s just what the doctor ordered.