Raising children in the current cultural environment can be a daunting prospect. Music, television, social media – all of it impacts our kids (and us) in countless ways. Combatting the dangers of this ever-present culture is important, but instead of just focusing on removing what is wrong, it is equally important that we focus on adding in good habits and fostering a healthy culture as well.
On this week’s episode of the Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast, Dr. Leonard Sax joins host Traci DeVette Griggs to discuss the role of culture in our children’s lives, and how we can best shape it to raise healthy adults. He explores this theme in depth in his newest book, The Collapse of Parenting, which has become a New York Times bestseller.
Over the last few decades, researchers have seen a significant shift in the attitudes and behaviors of American kids. Dr. Sax shares one study that asked 12 year olds in America and in China what they wanted to be when they grew up. Of all the options that were given to them to choose from, the Chinese children most frequently wanted to be an astronaut, while American children frequently wanted to be a social media influencer.
To understand this trend more fully, Dr. Sax – a practicing physician – asks his young patients open ended questions, such as what they do during their free time. “You tell me what you prefer to do in your free time, and you’ve told me a lot. You’ve told me how you choose to entertain yourself, what you think is important.” He adds that the answers to this question, no matter how casual, can reveal much about the child’s life.
Dr. Sax challenges families to reconsider their habits and “do fun things together,” like reading books or eating dinner as a family. “Prioritize the family. Don’t hesitate to cancel the playdate and make a family date instead.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Dr. Leonard Sax discuss why culture matters.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. As parents and grandparents, we may be a bit alarmed at the prospect of raising children in this current cultural environment. Despite our best efforts, culture does matter according to Dr. Leonard Sax, who recently published an article explaining why culture matters.
Well, he’s here with us today to talk about that, and Dr. Sax is a practicing physician in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and a prolific author having written four books and numerous articles about child and adolescent development. His most recent book, The Collapse of Parenting, became a New York Times bestseller. Dr. Leonard Sax, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
LEONARD SAX:Thanks for inviting me.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So let’s just start off with when you say culture matters, what do you mean by “culture”?
LEONARD SAX: Well, I mean the culture that young people experience, the culture of the most popular YouTube videos, TikTok videos, the mot popular hit songs and some of the television.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: In your decades as a physician working specifically with families and adolescents, what shifts have you seen in the perspectives and life goals of young people?
LEONARD SAX: Well, I think it’s summarized pretty well by a recent survey where researchers asked 12 year olds in the United States and China, “What would you like to be when you grow up?” They gave them multiple choices like professional athlete, professional musician, social media influencer, astronaut. The most popular choice of Chinese 12 year olds was astronaut. The least popular choice of Chinese 12 year olds was social media influencer. The number one choice of American kids by a wide margin at age 12 is to be a YouTube influencer, and the last choice of American kids is to be an astronaut. And that’s not just one isolated study. We have many recent studies in this country suggesting that young people, their number one goal for many American kids is to be famous, and that’s a big change from 20 or 30 years ago when that was clearly not the case.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: That’s a scary change as well. Now, you ask this question during your medical exams. Why do you think that’s an important question for you to ask individually?
LEONARD SAX: I think it’s useful to ask open-ended questions so I’ll ask questions like what’s your favorite thing to do in your free time, where do you see yourself in ten years, and just let kids answer any way they like.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: And what does that give you insight into? Why is that a good question for you as the doctor?
LEONARD SAX: You tell me what you prefer to do in your free time, and you’ve told me a lot. You’ve told me how you choose to entertain yourself, what you think is important. And I have found if you have only two minutes to get to know someone well, as well as you can, the best question to ask is what’s your favorite thing to do in your free time.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So does that give you insights into things like depression, the potential for drug use? Are you seeing any correlations like that?
LEONARD SAX: Well, sure, some of the answers are obviously red flags — if a person says my favorite thing is to think about how I’m going to kill myself, and that’s happened. Or, actually, the most common answer I get now, which I would have rarely gotten as recently as ten years ago, is sleep. American kids increasingly are sleep deprived, and when you ask them what’s your favorite thing to do in your free time, they’ll say take a nap because this boy is staying up past midnight playing video games, this girl is staying up past midnight watching TikTok videos, and they’re exhausted.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You mentioned music, also, in your opening statement. How important is music in forming some of these beliefs and attitudes and behaviors that make up this whole culture that’s influencing our kids?
LEONARD SAX: Well, we have good research from the Rand Corporation and other scholars that how kids choose to entertain themselves, what kind of music they choose to listen to does influence their beliefs, their perspective on a wide range of topics, and yet the kids usually don’t have any insight. They insist that the music does not influence them even though it clearly does.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: That sounds so similar to like movies and video games. Are you thinking that those things are also influencing our children, as far as their aspirations?
LEONARD SAX: Without any doubt, how you choose to entertain yourself influences the kind of person you are becoming. And there’s a great line in the book of Proverbs, chapter 4, verse 23, “Above everything else, guard your heart, because everything you do flows from it.” If you choose to spend your free time playing video games where you kill people, that’s going to influence the kind of person you become. If you choose to spend your free time reading a book, you’re going to become a different kind of person, or playing a musical instrument, or shooting baskets to become a better basketball player. What you choose to spend your free time doing has a big impact, and this is especially true for children and teens.
You and I cannot change the culture, but we can change the culture in our own home, and we can limit how much of this toxic culture comes into our home. As parents, we need to do that.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You also mentioned reading books, and I think you’ve written that you don’t think young people are reading for pleasure very often at all. How important is this?
LEONARD SAX: We don’t have to guess. We have scholars, the National Endowment for the Arts, who have surveyed American kids and find, indeed, that American boys have pretty much stopped reading altogether. It’s a big change over the last 30 years, and it’s a problem because reading, you and I know, can open up your mind to different worlds and different experiences. And you’re creating that world in your head. Reading is a creative experience, as opposed to watching a TV show or watching a video on Youtube where you’re not creating, you’re consuming more passively. So I do think we need to encourage our kids to read. We need to model that and read to them. My daughter is 16, and I still read to her every night at bedtime.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: That’s a pretty important point right there that you still read to your daughter who is 16. How does that go with her, and what kinds of things are you reading with her?
LEONARD SAX: We are reading the original Harry Potter books again, which I read to her years ago. It takes about a year and a half to get through all seven, and, yeah, she has requested that we do those again.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Tell us how that works because I think some parents might be surprised to hear how you do that.
LEONARD SAX: Well, in our home it’s a tradition, and my daughter looks forward to it and requests it. You need to create these rituals in your home that are about you spending time with your kid. I don’t have a TV in my bedroom. My daughter doesn’t have a TV in her bedroom. Bedtime is for us. We say a prayer together, and then we read a book together.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: A lot of parents will do this with their children when they’re little, but they somehow along the way drop that thinking that it’s just for little kids. But what a great idea. Good for you.
Talk about some other things. You talked about the rituals that families can create that will help them to have a more positive influence. What are some other things that parents and even grandparents, for those of us that are older, can start to instill in our children’s lives?
LEONARD SAX: So I wrote a book called, The Collapse of Parenting, and one chapter of that book is, “Enjoy.” That’s the title, “Enjoy,” and the point I’m making there is that you must prioritize. You must make time to do something every — certainly several times a week and ideally every day, something fun with your kid. Driving them to school doesn’t count. Helping them with homework doesn’t count. It needs to be something fun, whether it’s going for a bike ride together or a walk in the park together or singing songs together. You need to do fun things together. That’s got to be the foundation of the parent-child relationship is fun things that you do together, and that makes everything else easy. If your kid loves you because of all the fun things you do together, then they want to please you and they don’t want to disappoint you and parenting is easy. If your kid hates you because you’re always nagging them, then parenting is very difficult.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: I think most parents, especially in this culture where we put so much emphasis on getting ahead and on our children progressing, getting in the best schools and impressing the other parents on the block, that the advice to have fun would be surprising. Why have we lost sight of the importance of having fun together?
LEONARD SAX: Well, American parents are very confused. They think that their kid has to be amazing, has to get into the top college, and so they pick them up from school and drive them to computer coding and then on to travel team soccer. And they’re eating a sandwich on the way from computer coding class to travel team soccer class. That’s a big mistake. That parent is sending the unintended message that being amazing and doing all these activities is more important than having a meal at home with family. Cancel computer coding class. Prioritize supper. A sit-down meal at home with your kid is the single most important thing you can do each day, and I defend that statement.
There’s actually a lot of scholarly research on this point, which I present in my book, The Collapse of Parenting. Prioritizing time to have a meal at home with your kid each evening is the simplest and most important thing you can do to restore that parent-child bond, and we have very good research on this point. And yet what’s happened over the last 30 years? The proportion of kids who have an evening meal at home with a parent has dropped by more than half because parents think and accept this societal assumption that it’s more important to be amazing and do all of these activities rather than have a meal at home with family. Cancel computer coding class. Have supper at home instead.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: That advice, eating an evening meal together and having fun, could be a relief, I would think, to parents who are kind of trying to keep up with the culture these days. Thank you for that.
So talk a little bit about — you discuss the difference between greatness and goodness, and you reference this a little bit. Why is that important?
LEONARD SAX: Again, we have good research on what the culture has prioritized over the last 30 years and how that influences kids. So, for example, researchers at UCLA looked at the most popular TV shows in the United States from 1967 to 2017 and found from 1967 to 1997 what the shows were teaching is that the most important thing is to do the right thing, to be a good friend, to tell the truth even if it hurts. But in the last 20 years that’s shifted completely, and now the most important thing that TV shows are teaching — the most important thing is to win and to be famous on shows like Survivor or American Idol. It’s all about winning, and doing the right thing, that’s going to get you voted off the island. And that shift is really harmful because anyone can be a good person, anyone can tell the truth, anyone can be a good friend, but not everyone can win American Idol. Not everyone can be famous, and the researchers concluded that our culture is now a cult of fame. And if being famous is now the standard by which you’re going to judge yourself, most kids are going to be frustrated and disappointed because most kids are not going to be famous and they can try as hard as they want. Again, the culture tells them if you work hard enough it will come true, your dream will come true. That’s just not true. It’s not a true statement, and I’ve seen this firsthand. Kids who are way more talented — I talk to girls about JoJo Siwa. JoJo Siwa is this 17-year-old woman who at age 12 did this video, “Boomerang,” which went viral. It had over 900 million views, and she’s now famous, but to be blunt she’s not a very good dancer. She’s not very pretty, if I’m allowed to say that. So this other girl says, hey, I’m way prettier than JoJo Siwa and I’m a way better dancer and my video is way better than her, and it is. All of those statements are true, but the girl’s video fizzled. It didn’t go viral. She’s not famous, and she’s angry and resentful and life isn’t fair. And it’s not, but the culture doesn’t teach them this. The culture teaches them just the opposite. The culture now promotes a lie, which is that you, too, can be famous, if you just put in a little extra effort. “You, too, can be famous” — that’s not a true statement. It’s a very harmful belief.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Do you have anything else that you would like to leave with our parents and grandparents, as far as how they can counteract some of these negative aspects of the culture all around us?
LEONARD SAX: It’s a long answer, and that’s what my book, The Collapse of Parenting, is about. The original title of that book was, The Collapse of American Parenting, and the subtitle was, Why most kids would now be better off raised outside North America, but non-celebrity authors don’t get to choose their title. But there are many aspects of American culture that are now uniquely toxic to kids, and I’ve seen this firsthand because our culture is different and in many ways more toxic than the culture that I encounter when I meet with kids in families in Germany, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland. I’ve spoken to families in all of those venues on many, many occasions. So have the courage to do things differently. Prioritize the family. Don’t hesitate to cancel the playdate and make a family date instead.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Dr. Leonard Sax, where can our listeners go if they want to learn more, read your article, “Why Culture Matters,” and follow your other work?
LEONARD SAX: Well, I hope you’ll visit my website, LeonardSax.com, and sign up for my newsletter there. I’ll never share your email. I send out a newsletter about once a month with links to whatever I’m writing or things that I think would be of interest to concerned parents, LeonardSax.com.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Dr. Leonard Sax, author of the recent article ,”Why Culture Matters,” and the best-selling book, The Collapse of Parenting. Thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
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