This book was brought to my attention by a parent who told me that they had found the book helpful and had attended a presentation by the author (a practicing psychologist) in Toronto. After reading the book, I would agree and would recommend it to any parent either currently struggling with an adolescent son or proactively seeking guidance as to sound parenting practices. Despite its value, it was also a reminder of the fact that ideas about education are rarely new. The merits of the book are not so much in its originality but rather as a current restatement of educational ideas of authors no longer in fashion. It is interesting to note that the author makes references to educational theorists whose names now rarely surface and who even more rarely are read, noteworthy of whom is Jean Jacques Rousseau ---an 18th century French philosopher often associated with progressive education movements of whom I will have more to say later.
The first chapter argues that one of the main problems in modern parenting is the fact that parents rarely allow children to suffer the natural consequences of their own actions and constantly intervene to protect them from themselves. The result of this, it is argued, is that children do not learn but displace the responsibility to a parent or supervising adult. One of the most popular books during the 19th century in England for enlightened liberally minded parents was Herbert Spencer’s On Education in which the same argument was made. In the 1920’s the British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote a book entitled On Education: Especially in Early Childhood in which he stated that wherever possible children should be confronted by the natural consequences of their own actions. Of course both authors limited such actions within the parameters of reason i.e. circumstances that were not life threatening or injurious. Bertrand Russell gives an example of allowing his son to eat too much ice cream to the point that he was sick as an example of how the natural consequences of an action could reinforce through direct experience guidance provided by adults. In this case, Russell was also arguing against what he regarded as unnecessary authoritarianism in parenting in favor of promoting independence of thought and action. For Russell, fostering independence of thought and action in a child necessitated parents stepping back and allowing for the process of learning to take place as opposed to developing growing dependence on adults and external authority.
The book under review makes the same argument. As a practicing psychologist the author states that:
“I regularly see parents who take their care-giving obligations to lengths that are actually a disservice: the mother who repeatedly provides alternative food choices and is surprised that her daughter is a stubbornly picky eater; the father who made it his mission to help his son with his homework and can’t understand why the boy now “doesn’t seem to care about school” and expects Dad to deal with the whole business; the mother who, hoping to show how understanding she is, overlooks her son’s bad behavior, language and manners and is dismayed that he’s oblivious to the consequences of his actions”
“They lie awake at night worrying about report cards, university admissions, careers, The Future…
Strikingly, this is exactly what their kids aren’t thinking about. The more parents take on these concerns, the more their children are oblivious to them. It’s not always clear which come first --- the obligated parent or the disengaged child --- but they certainly perpetuate one another.”
Within this model, the ability to make mistakes and learn from them assumes that experiencing consequences both good and bad are essential to growth and personal development. This means that failure as much as success form valued components of the process. This of course should lead us to seriously question much of the prevailing educational philosophy that denies that failures exists and focuses only on success. The prevalent current model of “Building on Success” might be more accurately described as “Building on Nothing”. As both success and failure can be considered as polarities of the same learning curve, the one cannot exist independent of the other. Therefore success without the possibility of failure is meaningless
The book argues that parents who continually direct, organize, reprimand and prohibit their children become “custodians of reality”. As such children will let parents do the worrying and focus on appeasing their parents and having fun. As such “…kids won’t pick up the worry ball unless and until parents put it down.” So from attempting to intervene to prevent mistakes, the author goes as far as to say that “…we should actually cheer for non-catastrophic, painful failure.”
This dropping of the worry ball imagery is followed by an equally compelling image of sitting on the park bench watching your child play not as a participant but as an engaged spectator. Again, the author’s message stresses the importance of distancing parenting in such a way as to encourage autonomy and responsibility for one’s own actions. The author is careful to draw the line between disinterestedness and monitoring from a distance:
“That’s why I encourage parents to err on the side of benign neglect. Think about how your parents raised you. How much more freedom did you have than your own children?”
“Don’t hover around your kid all the time….Don’t let your anxiety fire you up so that you’re off that bench showing yourself and the world what a good parent you are. Just sit on the bench and sip your latte.”
“This will be a hard thing to do and sometimes you will feel like a bad parent. But you will be doing the right thing for your kids and ensuring that they succeed in the jungle gym of life.”
There follows a very interesting chapter entitled Obligated Parents and Entitled Kids. An important argument is presented to the effect that the more parents feel obligated to accommodate a child the more the child will feel entitled. As he puts it, bad parenting can often arise as a result of “being too patient, too reasonable, too available and too accommodating.”
“Obligated, over-involved parents tend to raise entitled, disengaged kids. It’s an epidemic, with cases ranging from mild to extreme. The more disengaged or inappropriate a child is, the more active and involved parents tend to become….the more active and involved parents get, the less engaged and responsible children behave.”
The book makes for good and instructive reading and I have ended up quoting directly from the book much more than I typically do in reviews because paraphrasing seems to diminish the impact of the specific examples provided. However, the overall argument of the book is fairly simple and as I have mentioned has a long tradition within Western intellectual writing going back at least to the 17th century English philosopher John Locke and passing through to the 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell. The argument being that children learn as a result of direct interactions with reality not mediated by adult interference and that suffering negative results from actions is as constructive an experience as experiencing positive results. The view that children can mature more effectively through consequences rather than relying only upon adult authority is intimately associated with the growth of liberal democratically oriented societies. It is interesting to note the fact that this philosophy also underlies Montessori methods and play therapy.
Rousseau is an interesting figure in the history of education given that being associated with writings that fueled the French Revolution he is often represented as a proponent of ‘free’ education. However, he was far from that. His seminal work on education was called The Emile and then as now it is sometimes quoted and never read thereby fully qualifying to be a classic. However, a reading of the book describes how the guardian of Emile focuses his entire life on the upbringing of the perfect male child. To this end, Emile is placed within a wholly contrived environment in which his range of options are limited not by choice but availability. Adult authority is therefore implicit in that situations are engineered or contrived to create predetermined outcomes. As such, adult manipulation is everywhere inherent in an environment devoted to the purpose. Such an overwhelming task resulted in Rousseau himself disposing of his infant offspring to a foundling institute in Paris not known for promoting longevity among its clients. Rather than do an imperfect job, it appears that he chose to entirely abrogate the responsibility. With regard to independence, Rousseau was fortunate to find a noblewoman of substantial means to support him and as such his personal freedom was underwritten by an aristocracy that he attacked.
The problem with the distancing argument as basis of parenting lies in the manner of interpretation and application. Drop The Worry Ball provides numerous examples of sage advice by the author to clients with positive results. I would have been interested to hear more accounts of similar advice given that did not have the desired effect but assume that this would be self-defeating. The problem with many issues involving children is that they are often a long time in the making and as such do not readily respond to any quick fixes or in some cases any fixes at all. Much of the advice given in this book has more value as a pro-active parenting strategy than a reactive one. By the time that parenting strategies have been addressed and corrected, the damage is often done. Unlike other areas of human endeavor, most parents regard themselves as educational experts until proven otherwise. That expertise is based upon examining their own childhood with a view to perpetuating what they liked and removing those elements that they remember distastefully oblivious to the fact their negative experiences may well have resulted in positive reactions. Rather than improving upon their own experience, they are puzzled, shocked and horrified to find disappointing results.
Much of modern parenting suffers from the same issues that affect much of current society in that there is a great deal more emphasis placed upon feeling rather than thinking. A general lack of tolerance for opinions other than our own or within an identified group of orthodoxy has as its foundation a feeling that something is true. The stronger the feeling, the more the conviction that one is right and others wrong. The appeal to reasoned facts and an understanding of alternative opinions or interpretations is not widely evident. With the emphasis upon diversity, there seems to be a focus on everything but a respect for a diversity of opinions and an attempt to understand them.
Parenting is much less a matter of feeling your way through things as it is thinking your way through things. Our first response to a situation is often to give in to our child to secure happiness or peace in the present. However, good parenting often consists of thinking rather than reacting and definitely in resisting initial impulses.
Having said that, it must be clarified that parenting should never be presented as an exact science or a science at all, but more as an art where actions are considered within existing contingencies and where the quality of the effort as opposed to the amount of effort determine the outcome. Much of what passes as informed opinion is grounded in beliefs that arise from things that support our existing beliefs. Those beliefs are often grounded in self-interest and emerge from what we want to believe as opposed to what we know. As some contemporary wit stated it “I will see it when I believe it”. It is also more convenient to blame others or portray ourselves as victims than to take responsibility for our own actions and to scrutinize the beliefs giving rise to them. Parenting also relies upon consistency and given the state of many marriages this is something to be sought rather than merely assumed to be in place. Many parents agree to disagree and in so doing child rearing becomes a battleground of contesting approaches doomed to have disastrous but predictable outcomes.
The overprotectiveness of children is associated with over mothering. In 19th century England, upper class boys were removed from protective nannies and mothers and sent off to board schools giving rise to books such as Tom Brown’s School Days. This was regarded as a necessary measure needed to prepare them for a less than receptive adult world. Poor families did not need to go to these measures because the work and effort required to subsist spared nobody. The luxury of a childhood emerged only with wealth and leisure. With changes in family dynamics and a discrediting of paternalism in all its forms, it would seem that we might have now entered an age of maternalism in which the primary parenting influence has been taken over by the mother. The result of the expansion of extending this approach to the care of infants and adolescents could be argued to be a consequence of men’s diminished role in parenting, the erosion of the family unit and the lack of positive male role models.
Be that as it may, the messaging and parenting within the family do not exist in a vacuum and there are many more challenges from without than in previous generations.
Present educational policies and philosophies undermine consequences by producing an artificial environment that conforms to students and yields to demands for special treatment and exemptions. Advocacy for children is based upon the same premises as the criminal justice system in that lawyers define guilt and innocence in terms of intricacies within the law. What was once trial by combat to determine guilt or innocence by brute force is now trial by argument in which one side attempts to outwit the other regardless of the guilt or innocence of their client. Advocacy for one’s child more than often is motivated by a desire for special treatment or an exclusion from the consequences that apply to others. Much of the flawed educational practices and philosophies currently in place are not just the result of being poorly thought but also responses to parental pressures of advocacy to bend rules or make exceptions.
Schools used to be based upon a competitive meritocracy to screen students for desirable careers and post-secondary options. Prior to this, those options were largely determined by those who had money rather than the superior ability or indeed ability at all. Attempts to eliminate competition from within schools is as ill advised as eliminating it from sports. In the final analysis, it not only destabilizes the activity but also denies the fundamental nature of society and the individuals who make it up. Competition is not just a want, it is also a need. Competition does not vanish by suppression. However, it does benefit from being directed into positive venues. Competition cannot be successfully repressed but it can be constructively sublimated.
Other families in the immediate community often present challenges. Instead of providing support they can often provide examples that threaten or undermine positive parenting models. Whereas families traditionally looked to each other for support, that common ground is no longer apparent or to be taken for granted. This factor combined with the alternative reality promoted through media in all its forms, makes information more available in quantity while totally bypassing any considerations of quality. Much of the available messaging can be confusing and destructive to any mind seeking answers amidst confusion.
Parenting is hard work and a huge responsibility but it is also the important bridge between one generation and another. The shortcomings of our children weaken their prospects for personal happiness and fulfillment but also weaken the society at large and jeopardize its future. Given the current state of affairs, there is some justification for concern as the challenges ahead of our children continue to grow both personally and collectively. Again, it is important to stress the quality of that effort and not merely the quantity of it. The struggle to provide children with what they need as opposed to what they want is both stressful and difficult requiring constant vigilance.
Dropping the Worry Ball is a good introduction to the art of parenting and to the general topic of thinking about how to be a good parent. It is easy to read and you will find it constructive and worthwhile.