According to Wikipedia, a meme is “an idea … that spreads from person to person within a culture.” A meme is analogous to a mental virus – although not necessarily bad – that “catches on” relatively quickly and usually with significant influence on popular behavior. Most memes are unspoken, subconscious. The concept was popularized by evolutionary philosopher Richard Dawkins, who proposed that memes are like genes in that they replicate, mutate and respond to selective social pressures.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, a number of parenting memes entered American culture. Nearly all of them developed within the mental health professional community were subsequently disseminated by the media and spread like wildfire. Collectively, these new ideas, these memes, constituted a radical shift in America’s parenting paradigm, the consequences of which include that the raising of children became stressful and anxiety-ridden, and children moved into positions of significant power in their families.
The most influential of the parenting memes in question was “parents should pay as much attention as they can to their children.” Prior to the 1960s, parents supervised. They did not, however, pay their kids much attention. When children needed attention, they received it. (It should be unnecessary to point out that I am speaking in general terms, as I must. There were, of course, exceptions to these pre-’60s child-rearing “rules.”) But parents did not believe that parental attention was essential to a child’s well-being. Thus, they were not highly involved with their kids (another postmodern parenting meme being “parents should be highly involved”). The consensus was children needed to encounter difficulty, struggle, frustration, even failure. These were the very sorts of experiences that built strong character (and still do). Parents needed to manage and sometimes mitigate these experiences, but to consistently prevent them was not in children’s best interest.
Another nouveau parenting meme is “good parenting is reflected in a child’s accomplishments.” This very odd notion explains to a great degree why so many of today’s parents help with homework and often go to great lengths to increase their kids’ chances of developing scholarship-worthy athletic skills. By contrast, the pre-’60s parent rarely checked to make sure her child had even done his homework.
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It is fitting at this point to mention that the mental health of America’s kids was much better in the low-involvement days than it is today, as was their academic achievement. It is also worth noting that recent research finds an inverse relationship between parent participation in homework and school performance – and that the finding holds regardless of race, socioeconomic status or IQ.
As these and other equally destructive memes took hold, raising children took on a new name: parenting. The new name implied a full-time job. Consequently, the roles of husband and wife became secondary to mom and dad. And the full-time job became stressful, anxiety-ridden and so on and so forth.
With all of this in mind, I propose the revival of a rather traditional meme: While their proper upbringing is a big deal, children themselves are not.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website, Rosemond.com.
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