Has Parenting Become a Religion? and Mastering the Art of Tough Love by Tim Elmore


I just finished speaking at a school, where I did an event for students, faculty, parents and community leaders. It was refreshing to talk to such engaging audiences, both adults and kids. After my parent workshop, one mom approached me with a comment that stopped me in my tracks. She said, “Don’t you think part of our problem today in America is that parenting has become a religion?”

Wow. Her remark made me pause to think.

I think I agree. Let me tell you why.

We’ve all seen the signs of this emerging “religion” over the last thirty years:

  • Baby On Board Signs on the back of the mini-van.
  • “My Kid is a Super Kid at ABC Elementary School” bumper stickers.
  • Trophies and ribbons are given away just for playing on a team.
  • Blockbuster movies where kids not only the stars… but also the heroes.
  • Entire restaurants and TV networks devoted solely to children.
  • Television programs all about parenthood as the primary theme.
  • Parents acting like “agents” at school plays or little league games.

Yep. Kids are front and center in our minds. Anything less is politically incorrect. Children have actually become the new “scorecard” for our success as adults, and now, parenthood is acting like a religion.

Why and How I Think It Began

I remember watching early Baby Boomers surrender to narcissism. In the 1960’s, young adults gave in to a pursuit of finding themselves through carefree living, drugs, and rock and roll. Millions of them grew to regret it and returned to more traditional lifestyles of marriage and family. They began raising children with the mantra: “Do as I say, don’t do as I did.” They determined to do a 180-degree turnaround.

Afterward came Generation X, who also watched the self-absorbed early life of the Boomers and decided that as they raise kids, they’d do the opposite. They would focus on raising children who are happy, who have high self-esteem, and who are safe within their nurturing arms. Having been the children of those early Boomers, they reacted by focusing on being good parents. Children became the obsession of adults, and most of us unwittingly joined the religion.

If you know me, you know I absolutely love kids—that’s why I work with them. So I feel a need to call out this elephant in the room:

Making kids the center of attention is not healthy for them or you.

No doubt, there are benefits to making parenthood a “religion.” It reminds us of our priorities—children need us to invest our time developing them. At the same time, there are vivid pitfalls as well:

  • Adults who don’t feel free to honestly express their feelings about kids are less likely to resolve problems with their kids at home.
  • Kids who are raised to believe they are the center of the world have a tough time entering adulthood, where that special status evaporates.
  • Couples who live child-centric lives often lose touch with each other and tend to have nothing in common as kids leave home. (No wonder kids return.)
  • Young people don’t have the maturity to handle the weight of their parents’ happiness rising and falling with their performance.

May I tell you what I see this “religion” doing to the fabric of our lives?

  1. It’s hindering relationships between teachers and parents.
  2. It’s ruining marriages, where children step in between spouses.
  3. It’s hindering neighborhood sports programs, dividing parents over kids.
  4. It’s negatively impacting employers who can’t find career-ready grads.

Call me a heretic, but I think it actually helps (rather than hinders) a child’s emotional security to see their parents prioritize their love for each other, as husband and wife. In this safe haven where they see this modeled, they become secure and don’t feel the need to be the source of everyone’s happiness. Children take their proper role as part of the family… not the “star” of the family.

Mastering the Art of Tough Love

Yesterday, I blogged about how parenting has become a “religion” in America, where children have become the absolute centerpiece of the home and nothing negative can be said about them. Yep. Some time between our childhood and the moment we had children of our own, parenthood became a religion. As with many religions, complete, unthinking devotion is required from its practitioners. Nothing in life is allowed to be more important than our children, and we must never speak a disloyal word about our relationship with them. If someone says or does anything contrary, they are not welcomed into civil discussion but persecuted and judged as a heretic. Hmmm. Sounds like an unhealthy religion to me.

We all know, however, that parents are the key to young people. Parents and kids are joined at the hip. Although freshmen are officially adults, colleges now cater to parents, knowing they must please them if they want to keep the customer. The average parent is in touch with their college student between 7-11 times daily.

Some employers are now catering to parents, too, having conversations with a mom or dad over the interview they just had with their newly-minted college graduate. Supposedly, nearly one in eight young job candidates now bring a parent to the interview.

And if that wasn’t enough, I recently saw a TV commercial in which the U.S. Army was attempting to recruit potential soldiers. But instead of targeting the potential recruit, they targeted their parents in the message. Yes, not the actual candidate who’ll be joining, but mom and dad. The message? Your son or daughter doesn’t actually have to do something violent. There are plenty of military jobs that are safe. In my opinion, this is a picture of a growing trend where vendors assume mom and dad will continue to treat their adult children… as children.

The Facts of the Matter

Let me share with you why this is a problem:

  1. More and more from Generation iY are moving into adulthood unready. An over-functioning parent disables their child in the end. Kids get stuck.
  2.  The primary reason for this is we’ve failed to help them navigate their journey. We’ve not been healthy leaders who both “support” and “let go.”
  3.  We’ve come to believe that our kids must always feel wonderful about themselves and should never experience the negative feelings of failure and disappointment life brings.
  4.  This conclusion leaves kids without tools to function in the adult world. Their childhood looks nothing like adulthood, so they return home.
  5.  All along, they needed caring adults who were both responsive and demanding. Sadly, we assumed they were fragile, or that we’d ruin them if we got tough.
  6.  In the end, we believed: if we are too tough, we have failed to love them well. Unfortunately, this mindset has set them up to be ambushed by the realities of adulthood.

Puzzle Pieces and Box Tops

The truth is, every student needs caring adults (teachers, coaches and parents) who collaborate in their messaging. Kids need to hear about Puzzle Pieces and Box Tops. This is a new Habitude that will be released in 2015 and reminds students of this truth: It is almost impossible to put a puzzle together (especially if there are many pieces) if you don’t have a box top to see the big picture. The only way you’ll know where to place a piece is to see where it fits, and the only way you can see where it fits is to see the whole picture. In light of this truth, we must communicate to our young people:

“You play an important role, but you’re part of a bigger picture… and you may not be the center of it. You may play a supporting role, but that’s OK. It is more rewarding to play a role in a much bigger story than to be the center of a tiny, one-person show.”

Reminders About What Real Love Looks Like

  1. If I really love my students, I am honest with them. I don’t paint a dishonest picture about their giftedness or beauty. I speak lovingly but truthfully.
  2. If I love my students, I’ll care enough to offer them clear direction, even if it’s unpopular at the time. It’s more important to be their leader than their buddy.
  3. If I really love my students, I don’t always give them what they want but what they need. I recognize they’ll choose ice cream over vegetables, so I help them make better choices until they’re ready to do so themselves.
  4. If I love my students, I want them to respect me now even more than love me. I know they will appreciate me at age 30, so I’m willing to lead them now so they grow into healthy adults.
  5. If I really love students, I will help them see the long-term ripple effect of their decisions. I teach them to “pay now and play later.”
  6. If I really love students, I provide discipline, but more than that, I teach them to discipline themselves so someone else doesn’t have to.

Did you know that most Japanese schools don’t have janitors? Instead, the children do the cleaning daily to associate cleaning with morality. They believe it builds a work ethic, where as we Americans would see this as child abuse.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.