The fevered insecurity of contemporary parenting first announced it­self to me when I signed my twin four-year-old boys up for piano lessons. Once a week, a Soviet Jewish émigré redolent of Russian stoicism and expensive perfume clicked into our west Los Angeles home. For a single half-hour session, she taught my boys to sit up straight and to find mid­dle C.

The boys learned to repeat “Every Good Boy Does Fine” and “All Cows Eat Grass,” while their fingers traced the lines and spaces on an enlarged version of the grand staff. Gradually, they learned to plink out very simple and satisfying tunes. She was pleased. I was a mess.

“Was it your decision to start the boys on piano or theirs?” other moth­ers wanted to know.

“Both,” I lied.

The question didn’t deter me, but it rattled me. I began checking in regularly with my boys to make sure they were “still enjoying piano.” Then I reassured the Russian piano teacher that they remained game for her instruction.

Finally, she leveled with me. “You must stop this. Sometimes they will like the piano; sometimes they won’t. This is normal. Stop asking.”

Where had I gotten the idea that at every moment of their lives, my boys were supposed to be gleefully engaged? Why was I so insecure? I had endured all sorts of lessons and sports teams as a kid; some I stuck with—most, I dropped. Neither of my parents lost sleep fretting over the optimal age to start me in tap dance. No one monitored my ongoing yen to become the next Bojangles.

But my generation decided that the ideal parent was never stern or dis­engaged or even particularly natural. The ideal parent emerged through training and constant practice. All parents became amateur shrinks, and every shrink—even a childless one—was a parenting expert. Parents be­gan to sound less like parents— in the traditional, American vein— and more like therapists. “Sammy, I see that you’re feeling frustrated. Is there a way you could express your frustration without biting your sister?”

Why Gen X Parents Were an Easy Mark

For many members of my generation—Gen X—adolescence was a trial. Our parents divorced in larger numbers than America had ever seen. Adults often acted as if that was the best outcome for every­one. They said it made kids happy to see their parents fulfilled by new relationships. But the kids who turned up to math class without a text­book because they’d left it at their dad’s house and wouldn’t see him again until Saturday didn’t seem happier because their father was starting a new, better life. They were just kids without the right textbook.

We reached adulthood and millions of us entered therapy. We had kids of our own, purchased stacks of parenting books, most of them written by shrinks, and began to reevaluate our childhoods.

We’d all been spanked as kids, but suddenly, that made us feel ashamed; it came to seem like abuse. We’d all been yelled at and punished when we talked back or acted out, but that now seemed off-limits with our own. Most of us came home after school to empty houses. But in retrospect, that level of neglect seemed to warrant a visit from Child Services. Our parents attended a few of our soccer games, but if we skipped even our kids’ practices, we felt like we’d abandoned them at Port Authority.

That the vast majority of us ended up in pretty good shape—that we married, made and kept friends, held down jobs, and created lives that required others to depend on us because they could—carried a whiff of dumb luck. We assumed it was despite our parents’ terribly uncool man­ner of childrearing that we turned out okay. We would have been so much better off, we decided, if only we’d had gentler and more involved parents.

With our own kids, we used soft voices, met them at eye level, and asked them constantly how they felt about things. It seemed obvious: How do you produce gentle, calm kids? With gentle, calm, patient parenting. We constantly invited our kids to weigh in on all of the choices we made for them. We asked our kids for feedback on the job we were doing.

All parents became amateur shrinks, and every shrink—even a childless one—was considered a parenting expert

It never occurred to us that “unconditional positive regard” and deep listening may be feasible from a shrink for a single fifty-minute session per week but that it’s a little less practicable for parents interacting with kids for tens of thousands of hours, in endlessly varied circumstances, over the course of years.

Dear God, we were tired. That’s how we knew we were great parents: we’d reached Level 5 exhaustion. Moms were putting in 50 percent more time with their kids than parents did in the 1960s; dads— twice as much. We must be doing a better job.

And yet by objective measures, we weren’t. We had replaced one set of problems for another. Everything we were doing felt so virtuous. Every­thing we were producing seemed so broken.

When asked, our kids said they were miserable. Our kids didn’t want to leave their rooms. Our kids didn’t date. Our kids moved home and stayed. They didn’t want to get married or have kids. Our kids were on four or six different psychotropic drugs. None of it seemed to make them feel better. None of it seemed to make them feel anything at all.

We assumed with perfect faith (and wholly without evidence) that gentler parenting could only produce thriving children. Shouldn’t flow­ers bloom in powdered sugar?

Turns out, they grow best in dirt.

“Knock it Off,” “Shake it Off”

America once had a more masculine style of parenting. It’s a style tradi­tionally occupied by Dad (though, really, I’ve seen women employ it to great effect). This is the style I’ve called “knock it off, shake it off,” parenting. The sort that met kids’ interpersonal conflict with “Work it out yourselves,” and greeted kids’ mishaps with “You’ll live.” A loving but stolid insistence that young children get back on the horse and carry on.

“Knock it off” didn’t suffice in the face of all misbehavior. But in the main, it put the onus on kids to figure out what was wrong with their conduct and desist. “Knock it off” didn’t overexplain: It credited kids with common sense or nudged them to develop it. Rules had exceptions and workarounds, but “knock it off” signaled a parent’s disinclination to become entangled in them. Every kid who hopes to hold down a job with­out making himself a terrible (and disposable) burden to an employer needed to master this art of following simple instruction— without seven hundred time-consuming follow‑up questions. “Knock it off” meant: You’re a smart kid, figure it out. But also: You can.

Shouldn’t flowers bloom in powdered sugar? Turns out, they grow best in dirt.

“Shake it off” didn’t solve the worst injuries, of course, but that was never its purpose. (No one except a sadist ever thought a child could run on a broken leg.) And it rarely operated alone: the other parent, the gen­tler one, often cushioned its impact. But “shake it off” did a… job playing triage nurse to kids’ minor heartaches and injuries, proving to kids that the hurt or fear or possibility of failure need not overwhelm them. “Shake it off” provided its own kind of tough love and emotional nour­ishment. It taught kids to soldier into a world with the hopeful disregard of danger that a cynic might term naiveté. Others call it courage.

In the last generation, all traces of tough love and rule-bound parent­ing have been supplanted by a more empathetic style, the one once asso­ciated with moms. Most dads have been told explicitly—or made to feel—that the approach their own fathers took was wrong and their na­tive instincts, no guide.

But even Mom isn’t in charge today—not really. The proof is how many books she must read to establish her competence as a mother. She may not trust her husband’s instincts with the kids, but she regards her own as only marginally better. And her parents’ methods? Obsolete as the Yel­low Pages. Unlike most of the experts, her parents raised a few kids who managed to become self-supporting, capable, and dependable citizens. But her parents corrected and punished their way through childrearing, so Mom discards most of their example off the bat. In its place, she de­ploys phrases borrowed from her shrink. (“Why don’t we try taking a few breaths together now, Harper?”)

Mom’s therapist may not have had any stable romantic relationships to speak of, and she raised no more than one child of her own. (The out­come of that effort, anyone’s guess.) But her therapist knows all about mental health. She therefore must know more about parenting than the people who’ve actually done it…

For at least a generation, Mom hasn’t provided her children escape from the quackery of wellness culture, and she certainly is no bulwark against it. She is an ersatz therapist, practicing bad therapy on kids whose emotions grow increasingly unruly, whose behavior eludes the traps set by her affected questioning. When she has no patience left to offer, she turns a gimlet eye on her offspring and downgrades her assessment: Mad­die has significant challenges and needs a great deal of additional support.

In September of 2021, I attended a dinner of five couples, all young and upper-middle- class, denizens of an affluent West LA neighborhood. One father, I’ll call him “Alan,” excitedly relayed a parenting fail his wife had witnessed at the playground. A young, well-heeled mother was strug­gling with a recalcitrant six-year-old son. “Please be a good boy,” the woman had said to her son. “If you’re good for just five minutes, when we get home, I’ll let you do anything you want. What do you want?”

The little boy looked his mother straight in the eye. “I want to punch you in the face,” he said.

We dinner guests laughed uproariously, shrill with worry that we, too, might be raising little Pol Pots.

But then Alan said, “I don’t care how many experts we have to consult or how much we have to pay, I don’t want to end up with that.

Here, finally lucid, was the dastardly trap of modern parenting. The woman at the park, straining to be gentler than her parents likely ever were with her, is met by her son’s contempt; Alan, believing that there must be some expert who can assert the necessary authority to control his own child.

Moms like the one at the park are everywhere practicing expert tech­niques of positive incentives; devising the proper consequences; pleading with kids to behave; afraid of the kids they are raising.

Life Hacks for Abused Parents

A friend’s wife became a parenting coach, and one of the popular videos she posted begins with this: “Have you ever been at a loss for what to do when your kid hits, kicks, bites, or scratches you? If so, I have a tool for you!”

Can you imagine your own parents asking that question? Can you imagine thinking, as a four-or five-year-old, that you would kick, hit, or bite your parents—more than once?

You may be thinking: Well, my parents spanked me. Or, But I was afraid of my parents. I don’t want my kids to be afraid of me. You have nothing to worry about. This generation of kids is absolutely not afraid of their par­ents. They think their parents are nice people. And they are frequently contemptuous of them.

The mom coach suggested the following script: “Sweetie, I know you are so upset because I gave you the blue cup instead of the green cup—or because I told you it was time to take your fort down. But next time you’re upset, we can clench our fists or stomp our feet or tell Mommy what’s wrong and I might be able to help.”

This is precisely the playbook propounded by a raft of therapeutic par­enting books, from the iconic How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk to Raising Your Spirited Child. The approach to bad behav­ior is always therapeutic— meaning it is nonjudgmental. It’s the parent’s job to understand a child’s frustration— never the child’s job to learn to control his impulses.

Parents eschew all punishment. At most, they might al­low a child to live with the result of what she has done. If a child throws a toy at the wall and it breaks, the gentle parent points out that now the toy is broken and isn’t that sad? A kid writes on the wall, and you tell her it makes you unhappy when people write on the wall and you ask her to help repaint the wall. Those are consequences.

Where things get a little murky is when the “consequences” aren’t ac­tually consequences. They’re punishments in dress‑up. “Since you threw your food on the floor, I cannot take you to the park. I cannot take anyone to the park who throws their food on the floor, because now I have to spend the time I would have spent at the park cleaning this up. Would you like to help clean it up?” This is supposed to impress the child because after all, the parent has avoided appealing to her own authority. She merely offers a description of what happened, nonhierarchical invitation to “connect” over the new task, and so much shrugging of shoulders: “I don’t make the rules here! I just follow them.”

But of course, it’s also bollocks. A parent can take a kid to the park who has thrown his food on the floor. She just doesn’t want to. And she does make the rules— or, at least, she’s chosen to adopt the rules, supplied by the parenting experts. But here is the parent straining to act as therapist, divesting herself of moral judgment, refusing to chide bad behavior, pre­tending her hands are tied.

“Anyone Have Advice about How to Get a Three-Year Old to Accept the Consequences?”

If someone wanted to kill all human desire to reproduce—to achieve, at last, this thing environmentalists call “population control”—steering readers to the Slate Parenting Facebook group might be a promising way to start.

Home to an educated, conscientious, liberal-leaning readership of eighteen thousand regular members, the Slate Parenting Facebook group provides a worthy terrarium in which to observe highly educated, pro­gressive, therapist-directed parents as they air dilemmas and seek advice from their equally flummoxed counterparts. These preppy parents have read stacks of parenting books and listened to thousands of hours of par­enting podcasts. Many adhere to “gentle parenting,” a therapy-infused model that requires parents to give choices instead of orders. (Parents get plenty of orders; children get none.)

These parents are “intentional” about everything. Even before they had kids, they adopted a parenting philosophy. So does it work?

The short answer is no. The longer answer is noooooooooooo.

Believing their kids may have “sensory” issues, they hunt for cumu­lous fabrics, snip the tags from every undershirt. When their kids express aural discomfort at the roar of a toilet, the parents search for a school with a quieter flush. They avoid shampooing the hair of kids who don’t like water poured over their heads, while their kids grow more determined in their refusal to bathe.

“Anyone have advice about how to get a three-year-old to accept the consequences?” writes Airin, one frustrated parent. “When he hits, kicks or yells (no provocation), how do I get him to calm down? I’ve tried ad­dressing his feelings and time outs. But when he goes into time out, he gets very destructive and violent (throwing anything he can lift) or at­tacks me if I’m there.”

Another parent volunteers: We have a dedicated “ ‘calming corner’ with pillows, feelings posters and cards, in her bedroom and in the living room.” Another recommends: “We use apology chores,” so that the violent child never has to face the pain of being “isolated or forced to hold still.”

A parent identified as “Rico” offers: “With our kid, we use an ‘I don’t like it when you hit me so I’m gonna stand up and stop playing for a while’ approach.”

These parents proudly declare that they avoid ever saying “no” to their children. They regard time-outs as cruel and “triggering.” Isolating a child in his room? Emotionally hurtful—and out of the question.

Even in response to violence, they offer almost no correction and ab­solutely no judgment. Instead, they announce their preferences: “I don’t like it when you hit, so I’m gonna stand up.” De gustibus non est disputan­dum. I don’t prefer to be hit; others may differ.

But does this sort of announcement end the disruption? “He often throws himself down and cries after that, but that’s just part of the learn­ing process,” Rico writes.

Even in response to violence, Gentle Parents offer little correction and absolutely no judgment

I have never interviewed the man who bought a Siberian-Bengal tiger and tried to raise him in a Harlem apartment. But the parents of Slate often sound like I imagine he must have felt: lowering raw chickens on a pole through an open window so as not to displease the feral creature he’d long since lost the ability to control.

“Have you tried any sensory items to help him regulate, like a weighted Stuffie or a blanket?” asks another parent. “I would gently tackle him into his room and stay with him, wrapped around him, until he started to come down the other side of his tantrum.” It’s easy, really. Just tackle him and hold him down for twenty minutes or so. (Here’s hoping you’ve got nothing cooking on the stove, and no other kids who need tackling!)

The Slate parents are rich in kids who lash out like Sonny Corleone when a kid at preschool chooses a toy they wanted—or does nothing at all. “What do you do for a 3.5 yr old who doesn’t seem to care about any consequences? He is super bright and has some mild sensory issues. I have always tried to be a gentle parent (absolutely no physical punish­ment) though I know I yell way too much,” a parent named Hollie writes, a little abjectly. “He is super strong. I’ve tried time outs but I end up hav­ing to hold him the whole time and generally end up getting punched in the face (usually accidentally),” she says, oblivious to her own battered mommy syndrome.

“I take away things like screen time. He just doesn’t seem to care. For instance he jumps on our couch, super unsafe. He also will get mad and throw things at his sister like matchbox cars. Am I raising a sociopath? Help!”

She intends this as a joke. One hopes the next kid to get beaned by a metal matchbox car finds it funny. As melee weapons, they work well—as projectiles, even better. But don’t imagine mom ever takes away the matchbox car or sends Junior to his room. (At most, she takes away the expensive gaming screen she supplies.)

Notice, too, the only grounds the mom believes she has for objection to her son’s bad behavior is that it’s “unsafe” for the monster himself. She can’t possibly say, “Don’t jump on our furniture; you’ll break it.” Or even, “Don’t jump on things that don’t belong to you.”

That this child will one day break someone else’s sofa without regret—having never been told that it is wrong, that he can and must stifle the urge to destroy—feels like the inevitable next act of the psychodrama.

Could Mom benefit from the guidance of an expert? Of course not. She already has one. “Please note that I have worked with an OT for the stuff,” she writes. “He sleeps with a compression sheet and we do lots of activities for his sensory stuff. The quarantine has completely changed his schedule, but I had these issues before. I’d love any advice on how to get his attention and let him know I mean business.” Yes, preferably be­fore he maims his sister.

But siblings or bystanders are rarely considered. Their rights never cross mom’s mind. Empathy is nothing if not monogamous, everybody else—sister, Grandma, other kids at school—be damned. That’s just Levi’s inner turmoil spilling out!

“Anger can often be anxiety or shame in young children,” opines an­other mom in response. Indeed. You can’t correct a presumptively trauma-filled tot. And if you send him to the isolation of a (toy-packed) room? That may be enough to inflict childhood trauma.

Gabor Maté claimed this explicitly, during his appearance on Joe Ro­gan’s podcast. Appalled by the idea that a parent would compel an angry child who lashes out to sit by himself until he calms down, Maté offers a perfect encapsulation of therapeutic parenting’s view of disci­pline: “Notice the assumption: anger in a young child is neither normal nor acceptable. . . . [The child] is not to be accepted for who she is, only for how she is. Here’s the problem: even if the parent wins the behavior-modification game, the child loses. We have instilled in her the anxiety of being rejected if her emotional self were to surface.”

Maté then catastrophizes the consequence to the child of even this mild imposition of discipline:

When you repress healthy anger because you’re programmed to do so because some parenting expert told your parents that an angry child should be banished from your presence . . . then they learn to suppress their anger all their lives. That represses the immune system. Now, the immune system turns against you or it cannot fight off malignancy.

Send a kid to his room, wreck his immune sys­tem for life.

When one Slate mom, Liz, writes to complain that her “emotional roller coaster” of a five-year-old daughter often collapsed in screaming fits in the weeks after she broke her arm, Slate parents rush in with diag­noses. “It sounds like she is having a trauma response,” opines Brian.

“Remember, Post Traumatic Stress is a normal reaction to an abnormal traumatic event.” (No, actually, it isn’t; resilience is the normal response.)

“This may be a sensory issue for her, combined with difficulty regu­lating emotions,” suggests Maggie. She suggests the likely culprit is “ADHD or another neurodivergence.” It’s not just her arm that’s broken. She has a psychological problem, of that Slate parents are sure; they just haven’t decided what diagnostic code to offer insurance.

Occasionally, it dawns on a Slate parent that the therapeutic approach might be part of the problem. A self-described “gentle parent,” Heather writes that every morning her six-year-old daughter refuses to get dressed, complaining that her clothes are too rough, demanding others. And yet Heather writes: “I was out of town part of last week and she got dressed with no issues for my husband on school days so I think it’s all related to me.”

Dad levels with the kid, issues a direct order, expects the kid to com­ply, and—voila!— she can. Where is the Enigma cryptology team when we need it?

In the end, Mom dislikes being with her daughter. “I hate every morning,” Mom writes in a moment of honesty.

It’s inevitable, isn’t it? The people who make parenting look exhaust­ing aren’t all that fond of the kids they’ve raised.

If it’s any consolation— the rising generation’s employers and colleagues aren’t smitten with them, either.