Saturday, June 6, 2009

Richard Weissbourd's "The Parents We Mean to Be": Book Review

It's easy to sum up this work as previous reviewers have; harder to delve into the details in "soundbite" format for this forum. I'll try to give a more comprehensive overview of each chapter to provide needed detail for readers to make up their minds about this book's relevance to their own moral challenges as encountered by parents, children, teachers, and coaches. Being a decent, respectful, compassionate person today seems harder than ever in a "big-box" culture demanding it all now.

Weissbourd surveyed students, and had students conduct surveys of their peers, and gathered what he finds is an alternative argument to those who demand tougher moral accountability without dismantling the self-esteem and self-important folderol that in the wake of the 1960s-70s pop psychology movement has invaded classrooms, Little League, parent-teacher conferences, and the insanely inflated competition for elite college admissions. Weissbourd advises a less strained, more balanced attitude that allows kids to fail more, to grow up without demanding parents, and to learn morality from how parents and other authority figures model it themselves-- no easy task.

Chapter 1 deals with "Helping Children Manage Destructive Emotions." Shame and self-hatred often emerge from over-coddling children to the extent they cannot form their own values. Chapter 2 "Promoting Happiness and Morality" urges parents that both can be attained, and that true satisfaction need not come from an Ivy League matriculation. Again, parents gain blame here for pushing kids to succeed despite the cost to their psyches at the degrees, possessions, and egotism that earlier generations never could have had, or failed to achieve.

"The Real Danger in the Achievement Craze," chapter 3 warns, is that depression, especially in adolescent girls, can result. Chapter 4 is self-explanatory, full of cases that demonstrate "When Being Close to Children Backfires." I found Chapter 5 my favorite, "Moral Adults, Moral Children," even if the attention paid to how middle-aged adults can find their morality eroding or increasing as time goes on was far too brief for such a valuable topic that could have merited a book in itself.

Chapter 6 examines how schools can assist children better in their moral cognition and demonstration of empathy; chapter 7 studies this in how parents can learn when to step up and when to hang back when it comes to sports, coaches, and their children's fellow teammates and opponents. Weissbourd's own experiences here enliven this chapter considerably, and I sense this may be an under-explored area for psychologists as well as parents and coaches themselves worthy of much more attention given the ratcheting-up of competition in much of America.

The last chapters cover "Cultivating Mature Idealism in Young People" that also recognizes the dangers of trying to change the world too much too soon for young people pushed into community service programs, and "Key Moral Strengths of Children Across Race and Culture" looks at immigrant children mainly from Asian and Latino backgrounds as well as a thoughtful look at African American expectations and child-raising techniques that differ, often in positive and affirming ways little appreciated, from the majority culture. While the decline with Americanization and assimilation in values, respect for authority, and scholastic achievement earn coverage in the chapter, again this topic deserved more concentration, given the impact of immigrants upon nearly every school district in urban and suburban areas today, as well as many rural areas formerly little exposed to such changes.

In conclusion, Weissbourd suggests three types of "moral communities": to bring in the often absent fathers, to help parents support each other, and to allow parenting to become more shared among peers to promote feedback and widen the availability of optional strategies for dealing with discipline, vulnerabilities, and to encourage openness while respecting the need for children as they grow to find their own way that may diverge from the parental expectations.

My wife found a "New Yorker" mention of Weissbourd's work and read it; she encouraged me to do the same. I review a lot of books for Amazon, but this is the first parenting one; this is outside my usual range or interests. Therefore, I found the contents intriguing, but often the points I wanted more depth on were raised, considered for a page or a paragraph, and then the author went on to other subjects. For instance, an observation on how many parents in a secular age lack therefore religious backup or accessible models in making or enforcing morality for themselves and their families deserved elaboration.

Weissbourd's efficiently summarizing his previous research and that of his colleagues, as the well-documented endnotes demonstrate. But, there may have been a reliance on assembling material already published into book form that may account for the uneven concentration given what were for me essential topics deserving more coverage than the two-hundred pages of readable if brisk text can offer.

He tallies up the problems of cheating, selfishness, and abdication by many parents and children of moral responsibilities in a misguided push to succeed at all costs. Growing wealth allows many to indulge themselves more. "The pursuit of happiness" expectation promised in the Declaration of Independence mixes toxically with our self-interest directed in the wrong direction as far as others' welfare is concerned. Too many of us obsess over our satisfactions and avoid any involvement in what dissatisfies us or what cannot live up to our unrealistic, bull-headed, and selfish expectations. Weissbourd provides a way out of a culture of excess and envy; perhaps few parents will read this, but it's a valuable, if often underelaborated, handbook of observations that offer constructive criticism of how parenting, acquisition, and trophies have all spoiled this generation of incessant wannabee overachievers young and not-so-young. (Posted to Amazon US 6-4-09.)

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