Frequently Asked Questions
Excerpted from an Interview with Dan Kindlon,
So tell me about the Parenting Practices
at the Millennium Survey? Why did you do it?
The main purpose of the survey was to identify
risk factors for the kinds of problems teenagers often have. I was
interested not only in headline problems like substance abuse and
eating disorders but also emotional problems like depression and
anxiety. What was more unique about my study was that I also focused
on problems with character development - things like being self-centered,
spoiled, or slothful.
So basically, in the same way that a researcher
studying heart disease wants to identify factors like lack of exercise
or a high fat diet that increase the risk of a heart attack, I wanted
to identify some risk factors for adolescent issues such as weak
character, depression, and eating problems.
Who took the survey and what did it ask?
My research assistants and I gave questionnaires
to 650 teenagers asking them about many facets of their lives -
things like are they happy, do they get along with their parents,
do they drink or take drugs. We also asked them what kinds of things
they owned - for instance do they have their own cell phone, a car,
how much allowance do they get. And we were especially interested
in what was required of them by their parents - are their parents
strict about having them keep their rooms clean, or helping with
the dishes. Do they have a curfew? We gave a similar survey to over
1000 parents with questions asking whether they think their children
are happy, did they buy them a cell phone, or how strict they are.
This sample included not only parents of teenagers but also parents
of younger children.
I should add that the people I studied were
not poor; most were upper middle class and some were wealthy. The
children we studied attended private schools or suburban public
schools located in different regions of the country - the far west,
midwest, south, mid Atlantic and northeast
Why study the affluent? Aren't the kinds
of problems you're talking about more common among the disadvantaged?
The answer to your question really has two
parts. First is that it is not necessarily the case that one can
help the disadvantaged only by studying them. In Too Much of A Good
Thing I use a quote by Ruby Bridges, the African American girl who
integrated an all white school in Mississippi in the 1960's. As
she put it it's the "rich folks who decide how the poor folks
live". Part of my interest in studying character development
among the affluent is that, unless there is some kind of seismic
shift in our political culture, they will be the ones occupying
the most influential positions in society. Many of them will be
able to make a difference in the lives of the disadvantaged.
The second part of the answer to your question is no, not necessarily.
That is while there are many adolescent problems, such as juvenile
crime or teen pregnancy, that are more common among the disadvantaged,
there are many problems that are not. Alcohol and drug use, for
example, is more common among affluent adolescents. Our research
also showed, for example, high levels of depression, and anxiety
among the kids we studied.
How high? Give me a brief encapsulation
of what your survey found.
This will have to be brief because there are
a lot of interesting findings. Some of the more interesting in terms
of the prevalence of problems were that around 40% of the teenagers
said that they were seriously depressed but when we asked the parents
if they thought their child was depressed, very few thought they
were. Regarding anxiety - about 1 of every 4 teenagers could be
classified as very worried. Around 60% of the kids had used tobacco,
alcohol or other illegal drugs during the past month. About 1 in
4 have very permissive attitudes towards premarital sex. Lastly,
the majority of parents - around 60% - say that their child is spoiled
and a fair number of their children agreed with them.
The majority of these upper middle class parents
admitted that their children were spoiled? That surprises me. I
would have thought that they would have denied it.
Perhaps many of them did. The actual percentage
may be higher. An interesting sidebar to this is that a near majority
of parents also acknowledged that they are less strict than their
parents were. It didn't really matter what part of the country they
were from or whether they were middle class or a millionaire, somewhere
between 40 to 50 percent of parents said that they are less strict
than their parents were.
Why are parents less strict? What do
you think is going on?
A complete answer to that question would take
longer than we have; I spend a lot of time discussing reasons in
the book, but let me highlight a few things. I think that these
survey results show what many people feel, that there has been a
cultural shift over the last generation in terms of parent - child
relations. I think that many parents today having grown up under
the influence of Vietnam, Watergate, and other cultural cataclysms
of the 60's and 70's are more distrustful of authority than their
parents were and as a result they are less comfortable wielding
power over their children. Then of course there is the fact that
people have less time. In fact work obligations was the most common
obstacle given to being a better parent by both mothers and fathers.
It is often the case that both parents work and because they spend
less time with their kids than they'd like, they may feel guilty
and as a result not require their kids to do things that they should.
Also a large number of parents today are simply too tired to do
the hard work it takes to be a good parent. You can clean your child's
room in 10 minutes, but it make take you a half an hour of struggle
to have them clean it themselves.
Then there is the issue of this generation
of parents being more likely to depend on their children to give
meaning to their lives, to make their lives fulfilling. It is a
kind of a children-as-Prozac phenomenon. We use our children's happiness
to make us happy, so we are reluctant to be strict about their behavior
in ways that would upset them or jeopardize our relationship with
them. Also, because families tend to be smaller now, each child
becomes that much more precious. We want to protect our children
from all kinds of pain; we try to make their lives perfect. I think
also that psychologists have contributed to this in leading parents
to believe that if their child becomes upset, it will lead to emotional
So are you saying that pain is good for kids?
In a way, yes. If a child never experiences
the pain of frustration, of having to share a toy or wait their
turn in line or if they are never sad or disappointed, they won't
ever develop psychological skills that are crucial for their future
happiness. I think that there is a direct parallel between this
and the body's immune system. There is a lot of research showing
that we will never fully develop disease defenses or immunities
if we aren't exposed to certain viruses or toxins at a young age.
It is important for children to develop their psychological immune
system as well or they will have a very hard time effectively coping
with emotional stress when they get older.
And is this what your study showed, that kids
whose parents weren't strict had more problems than the kids with
Basically, yes. But it also depended. Remember,
the study looked at many different adolescent problems.
Give me some examples.
O.K., take drug use. The factors that make
it more likely that a teenager is using drugs are the teen's parents
aren't strict about things like swearing and monitoring the movies
they watch or the video games they play, that the family doesn't
regularly eat dinner together, and finally that the child says he
or she is spoiled. Or take depression, 2 of the risk factors for
depression are that the child is not required to do chores for his
or her allowance and again that the family doesn't regularly eat
dinner together. Or take self-centeredness - a child is more likely
to be self-centered if he or she gets an allowance without having
to do anything for it.
Were their any teenagers that didn't have any problems? If
so what were they like?
Yes there were. About 12 percent of the kids
didn't have any of the problems we studied. They didn't use drugs,
they weren't mean, lazy, self-centered, or spoiled, they weren't
anxious or depressed, and, unlike many of their peers, they didn't
think it was OK for a 13 year old to have oral sex. There were 5
factors that distinguished them from everyone else. 1) their families
frequently ate dinner together, their parents weren't divorced,
they had to keep their room clean, they weren't allowed to have
a phone in their room, and they regularly did community service.
What specific advice can you give parents?
Well I think the set of results I just mentioned
are a good place to start. I think the results lead directly to
action. They show that what children need is TLC - Time, Limits,
and Caring. Regarding time, our results show that eating dinner
together, as a WHOLE family is important - it reduces this risk
for developing problems. In terms of limits - being firm and consistent
about chores like keeping ones room clean is important. If a parent
will be consistently strict about even just one chore, their child
will be better off. And caring - really listening to what your child
is saying and demonstrating that you believe that caring for others
is important through actions such as doing community service.
Is there anything else that you'd like
Yes, and that is that while most parents
will say that what they really want for their child is for him or
her to be happy, they act in ways that put their child at greater
risk for unhappiness. From all the research I've read and from the
results of the PPM survey, it is clear that children will have a
greater chance for happiness as adults not because they have a lot
of material possessions but because they possess strength of character.