Advice for parents in a family-unfriendly culture
“It takes a village to raise a child” — so goes the African proverb. But what if that village, including schools, peers, media, and the culture at large, goes strongly and blatantly against your principles? What’s a parent to do? In her newly released book, Don’t Let the Culture Raise your Kids, journalist Marcia Segelstein gives parents a highly researched and in-depth look at today’s culture.
She describes how it undermines parental influence and challenges traditional family values. More importantly, she offers excellent solutions, tips, and tools for parents who are fighting to protect their children from gender ideology, social media and gaming addiction, sex-ed in schools, pornography, and consumerism. In this interview with Mary Cooney, Marcia Segelstein shares some of her research findings and advice.
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Some people may be surprised to find out what the number one issue parents today are facing. What is it? Why is this such a problem?
The biggest issue facing today’s parents is the current culture of parenting. Modern parents are encouraged to affirm their children, to avoid correcting them, to act like their friends. Put simply, parents (with exceptions, of course) have stopped behaving like parents, abdicating their role as authority figures. This is a problem because children desperately need their parents to be authority figures. Authoritative (as opposed to authoritarian or permissive) parents are the ones who provide rules and set standards for their children in a nurturing, responsive way.
Children raised by authoritative parents have the best outcomes on a wide range of measures. There’s nothing new about children needing their parents to be authority figures, to take charge of raising them, to guide them through the world. But two things have changed which makes the need for authoritative parents even greater today: The culture itself has become decidedly corrupt (think about current cultural views on sex, for example) and, thanks to technology, our corrupt culture is both pervasive and easily accessible to children.
In your book, you give several ways for parents to maintain and/or regain their influence over their children. Can you describe some?
From the beginning parents shouldn’t be afraid to say “no” to their children — whether it’s to keep a child away from a hot stove (that kind of “no” comes naturally) or to stop a toddler from biting her baby brother — and continuing throughout childhood.
Parents should think in advance how they’ll discipline their children when they disobey. If parents realize they’ve been lax in this area, it’s never too late to start. Make rules that are age-appropriate and clear, telling rather than asking children to follow them.
Assign chores: they not only teach responsibility, they keep children connected to their families. Make eating family meals together a priority. They provide a sense of cohesion and give parents an opportunity to share their values.
A huge issue when it comes to influence, especially for older children, is technology. Cell phones, tablets and computers have made instantaneous communication with peers not only possible, but part and parcel of being a kid. As a result, peer influence plays a much larger role in their lives and dilutes parental influence.
The contemporary culture of Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and other social media sites promotes what one expert calls the “premature transfer of allegiance to same-age peers.” To maintain influence — and for their children’s health and safety — parents should know what their children do online, including on social media sites, and set limits on screen time.
In the chapter about schools, you write: “Progressive ideas have dominated the education establishment for years. But it is only recently that educators have taken it upon themselves to attempt end-runs around parents by impressing beliefs on children that are contradictory to their family’s values.” Can you give us some examples?
There are many, unfortunately, but I’ll cite three. Without notifying parents, the students at Emmaus High School in Pennsylvania were shown a series of pro-LGBT videos. Parents weren’t even allowed to view them after the fact, much less before.
A California law passed in 2015 states that parents are not allowed to excuse children from “instruction, materials, presentations, or programming that discuss gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, discrimination…relationships or family.”
Kindergarten students at a charter school near Sacramento were given a lesson about transgenderism which included reading the book, “I Am Jazz,” by transgender activist Jazz Jennings. Parents had not been told about the lesson, and several reported that their five-year-olds were traumatized.
Reading your book affirms my decision to homeschool my kids. But what advice would you give to parents whose children are in public schools? How can parents strengthen themselves and their children against such ideologies that go against their own beliefs?
Understanding that Christian values aren’t going to be taught in public schools, parents should make an effort to do that themselves by talking about their faith, praying together and establishing faith traditions in the home. Know what’s going on in your children’s classrooms. When lessons or textbooks run contrary to Christian teaching, use them as teachable moments.
Be open and frank with your children’s teachers each year about the importance of your faith, what you believe, and what you see as potential problem areas. Find like-minded parents so that you can support each other should controversies arise. There’s strength in numbers!
Let’s talk about cell phones and tablets — the big must-have for kids and teens. At my local middle school, 80-90 percent of students own cell phones. In fact, teachers are asking students to pull out their cell phones to use during class. Most parents I talk to are highly concerned about their children’s cell-phone use, but the pressure they face to give their children cell phones is immense. Why are cell-phones so detrimental to young people?
They’re detrimental in a few ways. They enable (and pressure) kids to be in constant contact with each other. That allows for both increased peer pressure and peer influence. Also, with cell phones always at hand, it’s difficult for kids to get away from the world, difficult not to be distracted, difficult to distinguish between what truly matters and what doesn’t.
And, perhaps most obviously, many of the negative influences the world has to offer (think pornography, sexting, online bullying) reach kids through their cell phones. There is evidence that teens who spend more time on screens are more likely to be unhappy. Psychologist Jean Twenge cites studies finding a correlation between time spent online and mental health problems, specifically depression.
So at what age would you give your child or teen a cell phone? What restrictions would you place on their usage?
There’s no specific age that will work for every child. The experts I spoke with and whose research I read recommend a few things though. Start with “dumb” phones that don’t connect to the internet, and stick with them for as long as possible.
Since parents are the ones footing the bills, they should make it clear that having a cell phone is a privilege, not a right. From the beginning, insist on knowing passwords and logins, and reserve the right to monitor children’s phones (and other devices). Don’t allow cell phones at the dinner table and keep them out of children’s bedrooms, especially at night.
In the chapter about sex, you write: “It’s up to us to make sure your kids know the real truth about sex according to the Church’s teachings. But we can’t stop there… our kids will be bombarded by explicit and implicit messages that say exactly the opposite. They have to know the truth and be prepared for the lies.” Exactly what is the truth about sex, and what are some of the lies being pushed on our kids, particularly through Sex Ed?
It’s pretty simple. Christianity teaches that sex is a gift from God to be shared within the context of marriage, marriage being the union of one man and one woman. It serves two purposes: to bind a husband and wife together and to make babies. In the culture at large sex is broadly viewed as something casual, purely an act of pleasure, without meaning or consequence, to be engaged in without restriction, except maybe a condom.
When it comes to sex ed, programs vary, but the vast majority of schools teach “comprehensive” sex ed. In a nutshell, students are presented with a laundry list of options for giving and receiving sexual pleasure, with an emphasis on artificial contraception. In other words, most sex ed programs promote a secular, amoral view of sex.
I must admit that this chapter was both appalling and disturbing. However, at the end, you once again give us some very helpful antidotes. You even give us a glimmer of hope when you write about “high religiosity” and immersing teens in “religious plausibility structures.” How does religiosity help teens remain chaste?
This is research done by Mark Regnerus. He found that the more involved adolescents are in their churches, the more they believe in what those churches (and their parents) teach about abstinence until marriage. “Religious plausibility structures” are essentially networks of like-minded friends, family and authority figures who reinforce parental values.
It gets back to the issue of influence. The more that kids are primarily influenced by their parents and others who are like-minded (as opposed to peers and the rest of the world), the more likely it is that they’ll embrace their values.
Reading your book, I was shocked to find out that “the largest group of viewers of pornography using the internet is children between the ages of twelve and seventeen.” Furthermore, you write: “Among fifteen to seventeen year olds, 80% have had multiple exposures to hard core porn. A 2014 Canadian study found that 40% of boys between the ages of four (!!!!) and eleven have sought out online porn.” What’s going on? Why are so many young children and teens watching porn?
Many kids stumble on explicit material while doing otherwise innocent internet searches, doing homework, or simply by opening email. One study found that 70% of children ages seven to eighteen have inadvertently been exposed to online pornography. By one estimate there are over four million pornography websites in operation. Some of those website operators intentionally use words and terms a child might innocently put into a search engine to draw them to their sites.
In some cases, stumbling across pornography can lead children to start searching it out. Some young people turn to pornography for sexual information. They hear a word or term they’re too embarrassed to ask about, so they go online. That can lead them into a world of outrageously graphic and often perverse demonstrations of sexual behavior for which they have no frame of reference.
So what should parents do to prevent such exposure? And what should parents do if they discover their child has been exposed to or has been watching porn?
At an appropriate age, or when children gain access to the internet, parents should let their children know that there are dangerous and inappropriate things online. Be clear that if and when they come across something that makes them feel uncomfortable they should report it. Children should be told that they might stumble across it by mistake and that friends might try to show them inappropriate material, and that in either case they should tell their parents about it. One therapist told me that parents need to discuss the existence and dangers of pornography with their children just as they do when it comes to drugs and alcohol.
Parents should also make use of the filters that exist to help block pornography. I include a list in the book of specific filters that are highly rated; parents should choose the one that best fits their family’s needs. Sadly, in some cases exposure to porn can lead to habitual use which can create serious problems down the road. So if a child has been exposed and seems traumatized, parents should seek professional help. The same is true if parents become aware that their children are seeking it out.
Let’s talk about consumerism, another plague of our modern day society. There is a lot of pressure on parents — from their children and other parent peers — to give their kids the latest and greatest of everything. For example, some kids refuse to wear anything but expensive brand name clothing. How can parents teach their kids that stuff and money doesn’t buy happiness?
For my chapter on consumerism I drew a lot from Dr Thomas Lickona’s books and interviews. He has some great suggestions on this topic. Talk with children about what truly makes us happy in the long-term: relationships, taking pride in hard work, being kind and helpful, for example. Point out once-cherished toys and gadgets that are now long forgotten. One father found that volunteering with his teenage son in a soup kitchen helped curb his constant requests for “stuff.”
Encourage gratitude by going around the dinner table every night for a quick round of “gratefuls,” where everyone names something they’re grateful for that day. Make it a family policy that no comparisons to others are allowed. Lickona even suggests posting a sign on the fridge that reads: NO COMPARISONS. Teach kids that comparing ourselves (or our “stuff”) to others makes us unhappy, and that there will always be someone who has more than we do.
Responsible parents today have countless battles to fight in order to protect their children’s innocence and integrity. Many have to confront their schools, fight social policies, face pressure from other parents, and, of course, the deal with demands of their own children. Do you have any final words of advice for parents who are trying to raise their kids in a culture that undermines their values?
Remember that you’re not alone, so don’t go it alone. Seek out like-minded parents at church or your children’s school. In the book I tell the story of a mother and father who, when their teenage daughter became a challenge, arranged a meeting with the parents of her five closest friends. One meeting led to regular meetings of what became by their own description “an amazingly effective parent support group.” The group opened up channels of communication among the families, helping parents resist unreasonable demands from their daughters, and helping the girls resist peer pressure from others.
If we want our children to follow us instead of the culture, we need them to listen to us and to trust us, so that ours are the values they embrace, and ours are the voices they heed. Remembering that children need both love and limits, parents should be authoritative and confident in providing both.
Marcia Segelstein has covered family issues for more than 25 years as a producer for CBS News and as a writer and columnist. She is a regular contributor to National Catholic Register and is a Senior Editor for Salvo magazine.