Slate has a critical piece on Dr. Phil’s new book on parenting.
Having worked in a company that was described by its employees as a dysfunctional family, I was struck by the fact that
The guiding assumption of Dr. Phil’s “step-by-step plan” to help parents become “system managers” at home is that families are just that: systems, in which everybody—from hubby on down to baby—has a role to play. In place of Spockian empathy, we have corporate efficiency for the dual-income family whirlwind. The manual features seven parenting “tools,” checklists to fill out, “audits” to conduct—and even a downloadable “behavioral contract” so parent and kid can spell out a disciplinary deal, in the hope that neither will get angry or whiny when a party fails to comply. “Accountability” along with “consistency” are the watchwords of the behaviorist approach.
But the existence of such tools doesn’t automatically mean that good results come out: you can have Enrons as well as Intels.
And is it the case that maybe, just maybe, some parts of our existence shouldn’t be subject to the kinds of rules that we have in the workplace? Discipline and consistency are great– I try to have them at home, too– but I’m deeply skeptical that my kids would benefit from having signed contracts. You want your kids to internalize these kinds of things, not depend on external tools for them.
And contracts are renegotiable, and rarely can be comprehensive enough to cover all contingencies– a fact that most children are really good at discovering and exploiting. The end result, ironically, can be a world in which you no longer act according to moral precepts and judgments, but according to explicit rules: a world in which you have no fixed rules, nothing you can’t potentially get away with.