I’m Positive About Parenting

Both our media and our politicians tell us that it is a terrible time to rear children. As parents, we are tempted to sing, "Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?" We understand totally when one novelist says, "What a chance we take when we raise children. What a terrible chance," and another declares, "Don’t have children! You give them life, and they give you death." Indeed, "What’s the matter with kids today?"

It is a terrible time to raise children, except that Bye Bye Birdie opened in 1960. Chaim Potok published his best selling work in 1969; and Honoré de Balzac published his in 1835. Have parents always thought it was a terrible time to raise children? Is it more challenging today than ever?

Clearly, many risks have been reduced by modern medicine, coming from improvements in immunization and treatment. Yet previous generations did not deal with HIV/AIDS and the prevalence of teenage pregnancy. In fact, however, as reported in America’s Children in Brief: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2008, much of the news is positive. Granted the numbers are high, and far too high, yet in most cases the numbers have been improving over the last decade. The numbers are down in the problem areas of cigarettes, alcohol, illegal drugs, sexual activity, and teen pregnancies. Youth are more likely to be in school or holding jobs. The numbers suggest that raising kids today might be less risky than raising kids a decade ago. Given this evidence, why do we hear so much youth bashing?

Maybe it is just political manipulation. If I can convince you that times are terrible, and that I can do something about it, whereas my opposition is clueless, then perhaps I can earn your vote. Well, we know that we should hold a healthy skepticism about the claims and promises of politicians. So, why does it matter if the politicians (and the media) exaggerate the troubles of our youth?

It turns out that it does matter, and that it matters a great deal, because of a social psychological phenomenon known as the self-fulfilling prophecy. When we as a society come to believe that a certain outcome is inevitable, then we tend to act in such a way as to create the very outcome that we expect. This seems to be the case with one youth issue in particular, that of binge drinking. Granted, there is too much binge drinking on college campuses across the country. Young adults are forfeiting many of the benefits of a rich college experience because of their binge habits. Yes, it is a problem, but the problem is not universal. It is simply not true that "everybody is doing it." When the media exaggerate the alcohol problem, they communicate to some college students that binge drinking is the norm, which can encourage our peer-driven students to engage in more binge drinking, worsening the extent of the problem.

Recent research at the University of Virginia has sought to overcome this self-fulfilling prophecy by creating a new more positive norm, telling incoming freshmen that students drink less than their peers perceive that they are drinking, that binge drinking is not as common as you might think. Planting this belief is not an example of propaganda, by the way, because it is true—the media exaggerate the problem. While correcting this belief, and perhaps because they have corrected this belief, UVA has seen a reduction in the number of alcohol-related injuries, the extent of drunk driving, as well as reductions in other problem behaviors.

Politicians and the media might think they are doing a service by emphasizing a problem such as binge drinking, but in fact there is evidence to suggest that by exaggerating the extent of the problem, they have created a self-fulfilling prophecy that is actually making the problem worse. Instead of serving our society by being part of the solution, they are part of the problem.

I should not point fingers, however, because there is a sense in which the field of psychology has followed this model for most of its 100+ years. Psychology has focused on the problems of human existence. By spending most of its time and effort on the negative, psychology might very well have created self-fulfilling prophecies, making existing problems even worse. The discipline has started to correct this problem in the last decade, however, developing the new field of Positive Psychology. Although it is important to understand why certain negative outcomes occur in the process of human development, why not ask the positive question, "Why is it that some kids turn out so well?"

We as parents are also tempted to exaggerate the negative. Because we have such high expectations for our kids, and because so few of them are perfect specimens, we tend to focus on their every fault, minor and trivial though most of them are, in the larger scheme of things. In fact, most of our kids will eventually become independent contributing members of society. Most of them will have some struggles and issues as they mature (and so did we), but most of them will enable us to be very proud grandparents.

My father-in-law, reflecting the fears expressed in the quotes at the top of the column, once said to me, "If I had known how well my kids would turn out, I would have had more." Perhaps we need to create new messages about parenting our teens. Yes, there are no guarantees. Yes, we do take a terrible chance. But spending more time and effort communicating the positive outcomes might just increase the positives and decrease the negatives.

By the way, my family fulfills me in a way I never could have imagined!

Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment and a professor of psychology at Grove City College. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.