Plays Well With Others Ⅴ- Woodmam

We began this chapter by asking why modern parenting has failed to result in a generation of kinder, gentler kids. It turns out that many of our enlightened innovations have had unintended consequences.

When we changed the channel from violent television to tamer fare, kids just ended up learning the advanced skills of clique formation, friendship withdrawal, and the art of the insult.

In taking our marital arguments upstairs to avoid exposing the children to strife, we accidentally deprived them of chances to witness how two people who care about each other can work out their differences in a calm and reasoned way.

We thought that aggressiveness was the reaction to peer rejection, so we have painstakingly attempted to eliminate peer rejection from the childhood experience. In its place is elaborately orchestrated peer interaction. We’ve created the play date phenomenon, while ladening older kids’ schedules with after-school activities. We’ve segregated children by age—building separate playgrounds for the youngest children, and stratifying classes and teams. Unwittingly, we’ve put children into an echo chamber. Today’s average middle schooler has a phenomenal 299 peer interactions a day. The average teen spends sixty hours a week surrounded by a peer group (and only sixteen hours a week surrounded by adults). This has created the perfect atmosphere for a different strain of aggression-virus to breed—one fed not by peer rejection, but fed by the need for peer status and social ranking. The more time peers spend together, the stronger this compulsion is to rank high, resulting in the hostility of one-upmanship. All those lessons about sharing and consideration can hardly compete. We wonder why it takes twenty years to teach a child how to conduct himself in polite society—overlooking the fact that we’ve essentially left our children to socialize themselves.

One more factor that contributes to children’s aggression needs to be mentioned.

Dr. Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan did a study of parenting styles, and how they relate to aggressiveness and acting out at school. The fathers in her study fell into three camps—the Progressive Dads, the Traditional Dads, and the Disengaged Dads.

We might expect that the Progressive Dads would smoke their competition. No longer inhibited by gender roles, and very involved in child rearing from the moment of birth, Progressive Dads are regularly shown in the research to be an almost universally good phenomenon. Children of these coparenting fathers have better sibling relationships, feel good about themselves, and do better academically.

And at first, in Schoppe-Sullivan’s study, the Progressive Dads far outshone the other two groups. In the lab, they were more engaged with both spouses and kids. At home, they shared responsibility for the children. While the Traditional Dads were involved parents, their involvement was usually at their wives’ direction. The Progressive Dads, on the other hand, were adept parents on their own. These dads figured out what the kid should be wearing for school and the rest of the morning routine and then put the child to bed. They played more with the kids, and they were more supportive when they did so. They were just as likely as the moms to stay home from work if the kid was sick.

However, Schoppe-Sullivan was surprised to discover that the Progressive Dads had poorer marital quality and rated their family functioning lower than the fathers in couples who took on traditional roles. Their greater involvement may have lead to increased conflict over parenting practices—which in turn would affect their kids.

At the same time, the Progressive Dad was inconsistent in what forms of discipline he ultimately used: he wasn’t as strong at establishing rules or enforcing them. Extrapolating from earlier research showing that fathers often doubt their ability to effectively discipline a child, Sullivan has hypothesized that the Progressive Dad may know how not to discipline a child (i.e., hit the kid, scream), but he doesn’t know what to do instead. Indeed, the whole idea that he would actually need to discipline a child—that the kid hasn’t simply modeled the father’s warm, compassionate ways—may throw him for a loop. Moreover, he finds punishing his kid acutely embarrassing. Therefore, one day it’d be no dessert; the next day the silent treatment; the third it would be a threat of no allowance if the infraction happened again; the fourth it’d be psychological criticism meant to induce guilt. He’s always trying something new, and caving at the wrong time.

This inconsistency and permissiveness led to a surprising result in Sullivan’s study: the children of Progressive Dads were aggressive and acted out in school nearly as much as the kids with fathers who were distant and disengaged.

There’s an old word in the Oxford English Dictionary that means “one skilled in the rearing of children.” The word is pedotrophist. We sometimes assume that today’s progressive coparents who can set up a portable crib in sixty seconds and can change a diaper one-handed are the contemporary pedotrophists.

But at least in one dimension, the progressive parent appears to come with a natural weakness.
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