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Kate Gale Headshot

The Word More Parents Need to Say

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We've all the experience of being in public and watching a child acting out unchecked. You see kids screaming in public places for whatever it is they want, their ego demanding that it be served now. Many of these kids are used to being given whatever they want. You want to skip school and stay home? OK. It isn't worth the fight. You want to play video games instead of doing your homework? All right. You want to eat pizza and hot dogs instead of whatever the rest of the family is eating? Be my guest.

Other parents tell you to choose your battles. And choosing your battles isn't a bad strategy for family life in general. When your spouse needs to stay up until 3 a.m. watching "Star Trek" after a stressful week, the best thing to do is usually to back off, to let him be. After all, he's an adult too. But your kids are not adults. They should not be running the show; they should not be telling you what to do. Choosing your battles should mean letting the kids have choices about things kids should get to choose like whether to play basketball or baseball, whether to paint their room green or yellow, whether to audition for the school play. But more and more, kids are running things; they're deciding what's going to happen in the family, who their parents are dating, what's happening on weekends.

What's going on with American parenting that seems to have resulted in a whole generation of parents who have lost the reins? For one, we are all busier. We work full-time and then we go to yoga and the gym, and when we are not working or working out, we are crouched over some sort of screen from iPhones to iPads, laptops to televisions. The screen has replaced real life. Instead of interacting with our children, we are living virtual lives.

When my kids were growing up, we went ice skating, roller skating, horse back riding and camping; we actually did stuff together. But now when I go over to friends' houses, each person is often separately in a room staring at a separate screen living in a separate cold, ether world. And when those kids emerge into the real world, they don't know how to take no for an answer. In dating, in friendships, in interactions with others, they don't know how to negotiate.

There are three ways humans deal with conflict: Fight, flight and negotiation. Conflict is an inevitable part of human life. You don't learn how to choose the correct method and facilitate a resolution by playing "Call of Duty" or "World of Warcraft" or even by Skyping, texting and Facebook. You learn that by living in the real world and figuring out your way around obstacles.

One of Red Hen's newest titles is called Parnucklian for Chocolate by B.H. James. In it, a single mother tries unsuccessfully to negotiate with her son. She calls the neighbor for help in boarding him up in a room where she plans to keep him. The neighbor calls Child Protective Services and young Joshua is taken away. But he's allowed to come back and by that time, there's another issue. The parents say, "No," and then they say "No" again. You can imagine how far that goes. It's a great story about what's wrong with American parenting. The parents are too busy with their own lives and with trying to get laid to understand or care what's happening with their kids.

When we decide to be parents, that's supposed to be our first and biggest responsibility. I hear parents blaming the ex for their kids' issues. Or complaining that teachers need to help out. That teachers need to solve the problems of parenting. That's like wishing your therapist could live your life for you and fix your life. I don't have a therapist, but I hear good things about how clearly they see solutions to life's problems. In the end, though, you have to solve your own life. You have to raise your own kids. Nobody is going to raise America's kids for us. We have to stop thinking this is a problem that's going to go away. It's not. It's going to get bigger unless we step up to the plate and say, "No, Johnny, let's establish who's in charge here." Now that my kids are out of the house, I can speak very boldly about parenting. While they lived at home, I struggled over discipline issues every day. But I was working at it. Being a parent requires engagement, it requires work if you're going to be any good at it.