I have a friend whose 8-year-old son is driving her up the wall. The child has gone from being obedient and truthful to being a disobedient mischief-maker whose mother says she doesn't know what to do with him. She says she punishes him and he gets worse. She is now working on the theory that he wants attention, but she is as baffled as most of us are when our children become, in a word, awful.
Help has arrived, however, in this month's Atlantic Monthly, which has published an article on raising children by James Q. Wilson, Shattuck professor of government at Harvard. Wilson has studied the research on the causes of antisocial behavior, he has looked at experimental projects on curbing it, and he has come to some conclusions that are so well-grounded in common sense that they are like a breath of fresh air.
The most promising research he found was at the Oregon Social Learning Center, which has treated more than 250 families with problem children ranging from ages 3 to 15. The center, Wilson writes, has successfully treated a number of these children by working with the assumption "that many parents do not know how to raise children. What makes bad families bad is not neurosis or indifference as much as incompetence. When parents have an unruly, violent, sneaky kid on their hands, it is not because they like him that way, or because they don't care how he behaves, or because they have failed to solve his Oedipal conflict; it is because they fail to tell him clearly how he is expected to behave, fail to monitor his behavior closely to ensure that he behaves that way, and fail to enforce the rules with appropriate rewards and penalties, promptly and unambiguously delivered."
Instead, therapists who monitored the families found that the parents "nattered" at the child, or scolded him, "occasionally and unpredictably interrupting the nattering with a slap or a loss of privilege." Wilson writes "that nattering instead of effective discipline occurred in part because the parents were less attached than other parents to their children, in part because they did not know how to control behavior effectively, and in part because they felt overwhelmed by a succession of minor problems that cumulatively amounted to a crisis. The irritable parent who does not discipline effectively tends to produce aggressive children; the indifferent and ineffective parent tends to produce larcenous ones."
And he concludes: "The notion that there is a defect in parental skill, as opposed to personality, mental health, or economic resources, that accounts for failures to socialize young children may not be a surprise to many normal parents but is a revolutionary conclusion in the field of family psychology."
The Oregon center taught parents to give steady verbal encouragement and loving support for "pleasant language and helpful behavior" in their children, and to use a point system leading to small treats. Instead of harsh punishment for an accumulation of misdeeds, the center favors prompt and consistent punishment for an instance of bad behavior. Sending a child to seclusion for five minutes, without a long lecture, was particularly effective.
Evidence that parents of problem children lack parenting skills leads Wilson to a recommendation that has been discussed for years but never implemented in any meaningful way--and that is, why not teach these skills to young people before they have families and before they enter into a destructive parenting cycle that is hard to get out of. Wilson saw videotapes of families learning new parenting skills and he wonders why similar training films could not be offered in schools, at least on an experimental basis.
It seems clear from the research he cites that there are certain methods that are effective in socializing children and that they can be taught to parents. Unruly, aggressive children and frantic, angry parents produce enormous family tensions, which might be avoided, in part at least, if parents were more competent.
We offer home economics and shop courses in schools because we understand that cooking and sewing and woodworking are skills, not instincts or reflexes. The evidence is in that raising children is a skill, and judging from the troubled young people and unhappy families all around us, there is plenty of evidence to suggest it is a skill too few of us have acquired.