March 9, 2014

When parents are their kid's only playmates, their authority is undermined

An earlier post looked at how kids these days have only their nuclear family to socialize with, especially the ever-present parents. A first-hand report on how disrespectful kids are toward their family opens up a paradox -- how is it that, if kids spend all their time socializing with their family, they're so incredibly bratty toward them?

It's not that way with peers -- if you act like a brat around them, they ostracize you until you atone (or if it's happened too often, you're out for good). Evidently there's a different set of dynamics going on when the social circle is the family, and it keeps children stunted in brattiness rather than push them to mature.

I think what's going on is that play is a form of interaction among equals. You don't "play" with your boss, nor do mayors or policemen "play" with citizens. If there's a pecking order, the superiors do not play with the inferiors. The military discourages fraternizing between people of noticeably different rank, for example officers vs. enlisted, probably for the reasons discussed below.

Everybody in a play group agrees to the rules, whether they've been passed down (tag) or have been created by the group members themselves (as when new playground games are improvised). Nobody has greater influence or "say" over what the others do. If somebody did try to assert dominance over the others, usually the others will respond with "Who died and made you king?" or not play with the power-tripper in the future.

If somebody breaks the rules, or violates general norms of the peer group, they are shamed and shunned until they comply. Otherwise they're out of the group. But only rarely does it involve control or force -- you don't tell the rule-breaker to go sit in the corner or wear a dunce cap, and you don't withhold resources from him (like meals). If you do use force, it won't be a paddling or spanking -- you're going to shove them down, grapple with them, punch them, or something serious to get the message across to the offender.

Also, everyone is subject to the same rules and the same forms of norm enforcement. Someone might get special treatment if there are extenuating circumstances, but no one enjoys long-term better treatment than the others.

These are egalitarian norms and methods of norm enforcement, without appeal to higher authorities. They are a key part of what bonds a peer group together. What goes on here is our own business, and we can take care of whatever goes wrong (most of the time, anyway). How cohesive can a group be that regularly needs to resort to outsiders to perform the basic functions of a social circle, such as norm enforcement?

So, what happens when the social circle is shrunken from a group of genetically unrelated peers to the kid's own nuclear family? Now the parent is trapped trying to play two incompatible roles: the egalitarian activity partner and the authority figure.

Parents rarely discipline their kids nowadays, so 99% of the time the kid is getting the message that he and the parents are equals when it comes to the rules they're held to, and the methods of norm enforcement. Being playmates implies being equals. He realizes he isn't equal to the parents in terms of size, material resources, and so on. I mean regarding what the system of behavioral regulation is going to be like among them all.

Hence when that 1% of the time comes where the parents switch gears from being an activity partner to asserting their authority, the kid looks at them like, "Who died and made you king, DAD?" How else can you expect children to respond when the overwhelmingly consistent message is that "we're all players on Team Johnson?" Yet when the intended coach fraternizes so much with the players, the family team has no coach -- they're just going to blow him off when he tries to make a call.

That also explains why Millennials are so resentful toward their parents when they do put their foot down. They've been led to expect egalitarian relationships among family members, so when one or two of them use their greater size, age, wealth, etc., to push the others around, it stings as unfair bullying. And unlike a real peer group, they can't push back against the parents -- not effectively, anyway, although they will have the audacity to try shaming and shunning them for being bad parents. The kids also can't just move on to a different peer group that is not plagued by power-trippers. That makes the resentment fester over time.

For Gen X, parents putting their foot down was one of those things that you just had to deal with as best you could -- either sticking out the punishment, or disobeying it if you thought it was unjust. In either case, your view was that parents were the authorities, and you were the governed. You expected them to discipline you, that's just what authorities do. Therefore, you did not hold it against them as people. You were eager to leave the house and be free from their authority, not to escape from folks you regarded as unfair bullies with smiling faces.

And what made the X-ers different from the Millennials was the climate in which they were raised. This review of a Mr. Rogers special on parenting from 1982 showed how different the attitude was back then. Parents saw their main role as providing structure, guidance, and discipline -- not being the kid's activity partner, which was largely left to other kids of the same age.

Even when our parents seemed to play with us, it was not so much play but instruction. Here's how you throw a ball or hit it with a bat. Here's how you pedal a bike. Here's how you move your arms and legs to move through the swimming pool. They wore smiles to encourage us, told us to keep at it and not worry if we whiffed the ball, crashed onto the pavement, or slipped below the surface and got water up our nose. But they clearly sent the message that they were the ones who knew how to do it, and we were the ones who had to learn. It was playful, but not real play.

After we had mastered most of those things by kindergarten, our parents left us alone. My dad used to strap me into the baby seat on the back of his ten-speed when I was under a year old. Once I learned how to ride a bike, though, I don't remember ever riding somewhere with him or my mom. Sometimes I went someplace with my two younger brothers (to school, pool, or library), but most of the time it was either with friends or on my own as I headed to hang out with them.

It was my mom who taught me how to swim, and I do remember her being in or near the kiddie pool when I was real little. Once I was 5 or 6 or so, I was in the regular pool while she was somewhere else enjoying a little time away from mothering. Only if it was time to eat or leave would she approach me again. Otherwise I had come with my brothers or friends to play with, and of course you could always make friends with the kids you didn't already know. Sounds strange, but that used to be normal.

As for activities that they did not even have an instructor's role in, they never thought to join me in the first place. Playing video games at the arcade or at home, for instance. Playing with action figures. Climbing trees, playing war with sticks or guns, shaking up soda cans and throwing them high in the air so they'd explode on the road, and so on.

We also used to have a separate "kids' table" at large gatherings like Thanksgiving or Christmas. The idea was that adults had their own social sphere, and so did the kids. It would be awkward to mix the two, and the egalitarian atmosphere of a feast would threaten to undermine the grown-ups' authority if they had to discipline the kids for getting out of hand (not unlikely with all that starch and sugar, and each of them egging the others on).

A kid plopping down at the grown-ups' table and acting like one of them was seen as presumptuous. You had to be invited there once they thought you could behave yourself, which in my case was somewhere around 9 or 10 years old. And man, were you afraid to open your mouth! They didn't give you mean looks or anything like "Know your place, runt." It was just that they had a different way of interacting with each other, topics they'd talk about, and so on.

You were there more to observe how things were done for awhile before you could try to join them, and when you did, it was infrequently, lest you bug them with your interruptions. And that is how the typical kid's "contribution" to the conversation comes off -- an interruption. You humor him a little, and then return to the grown-up conversation already in progress. Worse, the interruption may be attention-grabbing in the age of indulgent parenting.

In fact, if there's a child at the table these days, the entire "conversation" will be The Jayden Show, starring everybody's favorite child... Jayden! That offends the group participation of an adult conversation around the dinner table, and is one of the most socially corrosive effects of wussy parenting in everyday life.

The climate of helicopter parenting has also brought grown-ups down to the kids' table. It's usually not the parents themselves but an older cousin or uncle or aunt who doesn't want them to feel left out and unappreciated. As though that would inflict the grossest trauma on their fragile brains. The effect is the same, though: the kids come to view themselves as equals with the older members of the family, and expect to be treated as equal peers rather than as subordinates.

Don't even start me on how children are given a say in the ubiquitous "family meetings"...

The cocooning mindset has led to parents sealing their children away in the nuclear household for their entire lives as minors. On some level, the parents realize this deprives them of social contact, so they try to make up for it by converting the family and the home into a peer group and social hang-out space. Yet the only result is that parents' authority is undermined, their children treat them with disrespect, and grow ever more resentful toward them (though usually without acting out in flagrant disobedience, since we're talking about Generation Wuss here.)

It's hard to feel sympathy for the parents when they never stopped to ask, "I wonder if this might have bad side effects for us and for them?" and proceed with caution, ready to change things if the experiment looked like it was causing harm. And it is an experiment, since the parents know they and their whole generation were not raised that way -- indeed, were raised the opposite way. Their mindset has rather been one of complete paranoia and hysteria -- lock up the children at all costs.


Womanish hysteria and sheltering has not only warped an entire generation of youngsters, but blunted the ability of grown-ups --inside and outside the family -- to dampen their anti-social behavior. Shaming the helicopter parents is all well and good, but it's time to start thinking about how to tax or fine them so we can get some kind of compensation for the pervasive social pollution of which they have been the direct and ongoing agents.


  1. Playing with your kids is not the problem. The problem is something you hinted at but glossed over. Nobody disciplines their kids anymore, this is so course a generalisation, but in most cases it is true. The problem is that parents are confused, most don't know the meaning of discipline, they confuse it with corporal punishment, and because corporal punishment is frowned upon in our society they think they shouldn't discipline their kids. The rest simply haven't learned how to discipline. The problems strart with the do gooders trying to protect our kids from dangers but they don't realise that when you start to complicate parenting it all just falls apart, parents don't go to school to learn to be parents, so how are they supposed to learn these things?

  2. Great post.

    This can also happen when the mother inappropriately treats her children as friends and confidants rather than finding friends her own age.

  3. In that Duke study about the shrinking size of American social networks, using GSS data, they found that folks have begun to replace friends with family members for discussing important matters. And also the spouse or partner, giving them way too much to shoulder.

    I don't know if they looked specifically at using your children as surrogate friends, but you're right, that wouldn't surprise me.

  4. Yet, in feminist dominated times, the most disciplined and obedient children are most likely to be beta male cuckolds or naive girls set for heartbreak after heartbreak, and eventual bitterness. A traditionalist upbringing in the modern West (and Japan, 3x over) is what is abusive, when it's the spoiled children who get to dictate how the world works. Authority figures are history; we have anti-authority figures now, and it will last until (?) feminist influence wanes. Maybe until the end of democracy.

    Anonymous 2

  5. I wonder if the decline in size of extended families exacerbates the trend of letting kids into the adult table. A generation ago, your parents were likely to have two or three siblings with multiple kids of their own, but as family sizes shrink, especially among the upper classes, there just aren't enough cousins to even bother with a kids table.

  6. Parents shouldn't even have the energy to pretend to "play" with their children as if it were a paid job. For the life of me I can't imagine the origin of the helicopter parents' hipster pedagogy. Historically, children have been something that happened, not something that was planned.


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