When Kids Head for Disaster

How to prevent going from “no response” to “irresponsible.”

Posted Apr 28, 2019

The other day a young family came to visit my home. One kid, eight years old, sat down comfortably, his phone, should you wonder, tucked away in his stylish jeans. I asked, “What would you like to drink, if anything?” Instead of answering, he looked away, not nervously but as if he had not heard my question. So, I repeated the question slightly more distinctively, a smile on my lips. No response. I looked to meet the eyes of the parents. The mother stated, “He often does not react”—If the boy suffered from a disorder, I would not think of the incidence twice. But he didn’t. The father’s disinterested nod said something like, “Yes, this is the way it is.” 

This is not unique to this family. While many parents work themselves to the ground and are highly involved in their kids’ “optimal stimulation,” they passively watch their offspring’s lack of engagement. The kids often study hard and are otherwise ambitiously involved-- that is when it suits their interest. When apparently inconsequential social behavior is asked of them, they frequently do not deliver. Manners are out the window. Effort is experienced as “awkward,” so is reading a book that’s not on the list for a school essay; standing up to greet an adult; lifting a finger in the household; making their own bed. They walk slowly as they cross a street, unaware of others waiting. Neither do they speak on the phone. They text without regards to spelling and punctuation rules. Other than their peers’, they overlook others’ expectations. There seems to be no awareness of a broader social responsibility. Dr. Michael Winterhoff, an expert in the psychology of children, reports that major firms find that their young trainees are no longer trainable.Many do not grasp when to pay attention and how to answer to social demands.

All kids need to learn how to allocate their energy. It used to fall to the adults to train kids to look up, sit up, and stand up, and not for an instant reward like a praise or good grade, but for whatever was deemed “good and right.” Our brain’s frontal lobe allows us to focus our attention in such a way that we not only can survive well, but can lose ourselves in flow experiences and happiness. If we adults do not take on the task of guiding our children to find what’s “good and right,” they will not know what to do. Cultural conventions are not to be found in anyone's heart; our DNA is a rough draft that allows us to be exceptionally social, but adults must spell out how, when, and with whom to be social. We must help our young to concentrate their effort on community, love, friendship, charity, responsiveness and service to neighbors and citizens from whom we cannot hope to gain an instant advantage. Otherwise kids will grow up to be lonely. It has long scientifically established, without the “know how” of connecting with others, there cannot be happiness (see also the Ten Building Blocks of Connection2). 

So, why is it that so many hard-working, emotionally smart parents merely watch their kids’ unresponsiveness? I believe the problem cannot sufficiently be explained with our addiction to technology or our overconcentration on rights and privileges. There is a deeper psychological reason and that is the adult’s hesitation to define what constitutes “good and right.” Parents still have the power of the purse, but have abdicated much of their moral authority. Often, there is a tendency to join the confusion. In former times, children were indoctrinated by all-powerful parents and religious dogma. This strategy is passé. We now know that we do not know (much). In addition, the authoritarian style has brought us horrific world wars and the murder of millions of innocent people in the Holocaust. Can we be trusted to know the difference between right and wrong? Joining our kids, often symbiotically, seems to be the safer, humbler and more loving approach. 

There is no going back to the old, flawed authoritarian approach. However, as we want our children to be happy and take on responsibilities beyond self-interest, we must do something. Telling our children that they are wonderful is not enough. Neither is believing in their potential. Here is what you can do:

One: Accept that you cannot be your child’s friend. Set clear boundaries and do not let him or her decide over the right up-bringing. Never forget that your kid looks up to you and must look up to you to be functional in society. Accept your authority consciously and unapologetically.

Two: Confidently teach manners and demand social behavior within various communities. When your kid does not look up or properly greet an adult, do not spare him or her the embarrassment of a reminder. Insist. Ask your child to get something for a guest, like a glass of water. Eye contact and responsiveness are a must, which must be conveyed to the kid ahead of a social encounter, again and again, hundreds of times. Be patient, kind, but very clear about your expectations.

Three: Discuss. Unlike in former times, we ought to discuss the underpinnings of good behavior. Lead frequent conversations about what love is and is not; about tending to other people’s needs and how; about contributing in concrete ways to the family and other groups; about charitable giving; about chores and growing up as a responsible member of society.

Four: Seek professional help. If you have difficulties being a good example for social behavior or if you find the setting of boundaries difficult, consult with a psychotherapist. A few consultations with a professional can be enough to reinstate your authority and encourage the proper allocation of energy for manners and other social behavior.

© 2019 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.


1)  Michael Winterhoff. SOS Kinderseele. C. Bertelsmann Verlag.

2) Andrea F. Polard. A Unified Theory of Happiness: An East-Meets-West Approach to Fully Loving Your Life. Boulder: Sounds True. Chapter 6: Connection.

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