Did you know that some of America’s most pressing ills—obesity, psychiatric illness, and our eroding educational system among them—have a single cause that can easily be fixed? I didn’t, either, until I read Leonard Sax’s new book, The Collapse of Parenting. And you guessed it, dear parents: It’s all our fault.
Sax, a family physician with a Ph.D. in psychology, bases his new theory on more than two decades of clinical experience as well as visits to schools and communities. But while Sax may have clocked a lot of hours with parents and kids, he sure doesn’t frame his observations rationally or responsibly: He overgeneralizes and misinterprets, then makes ridiculous conclusions based on his own generational biases rather than scientific evidence. In fact, Sax’s main premise—that the parent-child relationship has eroded over the past several decades—is backed by no research whatsoever. And ironically, some of his parenting recommendations are considered potentially harmful by psychologists.
Let’s start with Sax’s main claim. “We now live in a culture in which kids value the opinion of same-age peers more than they value the opinion of their parents, a culture in which the authority of parents has declined not only in the eyes of children but also in the eyes of parents themselves,” he writes. In other words, in contrast to parents 30 years ago, parents today aren’t commanding the respect of their kids—they aren’t, to borrow some of Sax’s emblematic examples, forcing them to finish their veggies or go on vacation with them or put down their iPhones—and that means they are turning today’s youth into rude, obese kids with ADHD.
The problem is that scientists have been studying the relative influence of parents and peers on children and adolescents for decades, and they don’t agree with Sax’s diagnosis. “I have not seen any hard evidence to support the hypothesis that there is a secular trend toward greater peer influence,” says Kenneth Dodge, a psychologist and neuroscientist who directs Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy. As far back as the 1960s, Dodge told me, research has shown that as kids graduate into adolescence, they start to follow the beliefs of their peers more than their parents, and “the peer-influence effect in early adolescence was as strong [then] as it seems today,” he says. Psychologist Judith Rich Harris, who received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her book The Nurture Assumption, which tackles the topic of peer versus parental influence, agrees: “Peer influence has always been important,” she says. “I’ve seen no evidence that this has changed in the past 40 years.”
The evidence Sax supplies as proof that parents have lost all authority over their kids is laughable. Much of it is derived from family interactions he has overheard through the years. One key example was a mother who gave in to her son’s obnoxious demands for doughnuts at an airport before boarding a trans-Atlantic flight and who later did not discipline her rude teenage daughter for talking back. He cites this as clear evidence that the mom “had not encultured her kids into her own culture,” which “means that these kids will be ill-equipped to withstand the challenges of later adolescence and adulthood.” Those kids certainly don’t deserve awards for their behavior, but family airport interactions aren’t always an accurate reflection of true family dynamics; I have let outbursts go unpunished at airports that might have elicited different responses at home, because travel is stressful and exhausting for everyone. He tells a handful of other anecdotes, too, but each one involves a single family, so it’s ridiculous for Sax to extrapolate that these problems plague the entire nation—especially considering that most conversations were overheard in his clinic, which serves families in one of the 10 wealthiest counties in the country. Other things Sax cites as clear signs the world is going to hell in a hand basket: Kids today wear obnoxious T-shirts, TV shows aren’t as good as they used to be, and Miley Cyrus. You’re probably starting to get the drift: The foundation for Sax’s theory is light on evidence, heavy on old fuddy-duddy.
If there’s no good reason to believe Sax’s contention that kids don’t respect their parents anymore, there’s even less of a reason to trust his advice on how to make things rosy again. Over and over in the book, Sax sings the praises of authoritative parenting, a style first described by developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind in the 1960s. It’s an approach that involves balancing parental warmth (called responsiveness) with limit-setting and control (called demandingness). It is often contrasted with the authoritarian parenting style, which is heavy on the demandingness and low on responsiveness. There’s also permissive parenting and neglectful parenting, which are pretty self-explanatory. Sax is right to support the authoritative parenting style. Research has shown that kids raised this way are the most well-adjusted, healthy, and successful.
Yet Sax doesn’t seem to understand what authoritative parenting is. Take Sax’s “#1 recommendation” for parents: “Command. Don’t ask. Don’t negotiate. … When you lay down a rule, and your children ask why, answer, ‘Because Mommy (or Daddy) says so, that’s why.’ ” In fact, this kind of parenting is authoritarian, not authoritative. The scientist-authored book Authoritative Parenting, which Sax references in his book, points out that authoritative parents should be willing to negotiate and change their demands when their children reasonably object and that it is authoritarian parents who, “if challenged, threaten punishment and give ‘because I say so’ as a reason for compliance.” As Baumrind herself explained, authoritarian parents “do not encourage verbal give and take, believing that the child should accept her word for what is right.” That sounds a lot like Sax’s recommended parenting style. And research has found plenty of problems associated with authoritarian parenting. A study published this month found that kids of authoritarian parents were more likely to be bullied and depressed; they also have been shown to have less self-control, more alcohol-related problems, and more eating disorders. Finally, they eat fewer fruits and vegetables and are more likely to be obese.
That last part is funny, actually, considering that Sax also blames today’s parents for the epidemic of obesity. “When parents begin to cede control to their kids, food choices often are the first thing to slide,” he writes. In other words, kids aren’t eating fruits and vegetables anymore because parents aren’t forcing them to. In fact, American kids were eating 45 percent more whole fruits in 2014 than in 2004, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and their vegetable consumption has increased since then, too. This isn’t to say that kids couldn’t be eating better, but the point is that children’s consumption of healthy foods hasn’t suddenly plummeted, as Sax contends. (Ironically, the people who have let their fruit and veggie consumption slide in recent years are Americans over 45.)
But what’s worse than Sax’s misplaced blame on parents for causing the obesity epidemic is his advice for how they can fix it. He says parents should literally command their kids to eat their vegetables—“no dessert until you eat your broccoli” is one phrase he uses, which, by the way, is another clear example of authoritarian parenting. He explains that it is “unrealistic to expect that simply offering kids healthy choices will consistently and reliably lead to kids making healthier choices” (emphasis his). He also advocates not giving snacks to kids who ask for them between meals.
It’s too bad Sax didn’t consult the research on how kids develop good eating habits, because he would have discovered he’s got this all backward, too. Starting in the 1980s, researchers found evidence to suggest that commanding kids to eat foods like vegetables, and making dessert contingent upon finishing them, makes them dislike the vegetables even more and consider dessert foods more desirable; it may also interrupt the development of satiety cues, so they have problems regulating caloric intake. As a 2011 research editorial published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association explains, “Children who are encouraged to clean their plate after stating they are full, or who are told to wait until meal time to eat when they have stated they are currently hungry, consume a greater total number of calories throughout the day as compared with children who are allowed to eat when they feel hungry and stop when they feel full.” In other words, being a controlling parent is actually a risk factor for overeating and obesity—not the other way around. Indeed, research now suggests that offering a child healthy food, but not forcing her to finish it, is actually the best way to go.
Finally, there’s Sax’s claim that parents have caused the ongoing explosion in and overtreatment for childhood psychiatric illnesses. How’s that, exactly, Sax? Well, doctors are confusing sleep deprivation with psychiatric illness, he says, and the reason kids today are so sleep-deprived is because parents suck at setting boundaries. Boys are “playing video games at 2am and girls [are] staying up past midnight texting their friends on their cell phones or uploading selfies to Instagram,” he writes.
Sax is certain that sleep deprivation is masquerading as ADHD in millions of American kids because he once saw a patient who had just been diagnosed with ADHD who was also sleep-deprived. While he’s right that kids who have ADHD are often sleep-deprived, Sax is confusing correlation with causation. The relationship between sleep and ADHD is considered by scientists to be “complex and bidirectional,” meaning that it’s possible the symptoms of ADHD (and the drugs that treat it, which are, after all, stimulants) may sometimes cause sleep deprivation rather than be caused by it. Sax isn’t wrong to question the recent diagnostic explosion in ADHD and other psychiatric illnesses among children and hunt for potential causes, but it is irresponsible to tout that he has found the answer based on anecdotal experience. He’s also wrong to blame moms and dads for overtreating their kids, because research has shown that parents, fearful of side effects, often start their kids on medication only after trying alternative treatments first.
Sax does make some good points in his book. He advocates for more family meal time, screen time limits, and teaching kids to be humble and gracious, all of which are research-backed ideas that could help kids thrive. But these helpful messages are lost in the garbage of his central thesis and his other archaic, anti-scientific recommendations for how parents should interact with their kids. So, I’m not asking you—I’m telling you: Don’t read Sax’s book. Because the scientific evidence says so.
Previously in Slate: