Yesterday, I stumbled across a remarkably silly op-ed published in the Omaha World-Herald after writer Lyz Lenz shared it on Twitter and my local bookstore tagged me, asking for my take.
The op-ed is titled “Living with Children: You Shouldn’t High-Five a Child,” and in a nutshell, it argues that parents should never high-five their kids because then their kids will no longer respect them and will become hellions.
In tweet form, here is my take:
Okay, but you know me — I always like to share the why behind my opinions. So today, I’m going to tell you why this op-ed is a steaming pile of old-school authoritarian parenting poop, and why this guy’s opinion directly contradicts the science on child development. Although the op-ed is silly, I also think it’s extremely harmful, because it promotes outdated, unscientific ideas about parenting.
First, let’s take a quick look at the author of this op-ed, John Rosemond, who refers to himself as a “family psychologist.” When I found his website, I learned that “John’s new book, The Bible Parenting Code, is now available for purchase!” I could say a lot about this book title, but I’ll just point out that the Bible is not exactly a paragon of parenting excellence (I’m looking at you, Abraham), so we might not want to use it as our go-to parenting guide.
Here’s another gem I found on Rosemond’s website:
All of his professional accomplishments aside, John is quick to remind folks that his real qualifications are that he’s been married to the same woman for over forty years, is the father of two successful adults, and the grandfather of seven children…make that seven well-behaved grandchildren.
Skipping past his moralizing comment about marriage, I don’t agree that the goal of parenting is to produce 1) successful and 2) well-behaved children. Sure, I want my kids to do well in the world, but I more than that I want them to do good in the world and make the world a better place. I’ll dig more into the problems with focusing on “obedience” as a parenting goal in a minute, but suffice it to say that this was another red flag.
Moving on to the actual article, here is the crux of Rosemond’s argument:
Respect for adults is important to a child’s character development, and the high-five is not compatible with respect. It is to be reserved for individuals of equal, or fairly equal, status. It is good for children to view responsible adults as people who exist in a higher plane. That “looking up” causes children to aspire to become adults, which seems to be in short supply these days. The child who is allowed to high-five an adult has tacit permission to talk to said adult as if they are peers. Do not wonder why, if you high-five your child, he often talks to you as if you are his equal. (By the way, a child does not ever think of an adult as an equal. He either thinks the adult is his superior or his subordinate. In a child’s mind, there is no middle ground.)
Wow, there’s a lot of bullshit to unpack here.
First, can I get a WTF regarding the assertion that if you high-five a child, you have somehow relinquished all your power to them? Do you know of any evidence suggesting that high-fiving another person affects the power balance between them? What planet do you live on, my dude?
But the real problem is that Rosemond misunderstands and misrepresents the science of parenting style. Based on what he writes, I can tell he is a proponent of authoritarian parenting, an approach in which parents maintain a clear power hierarchy and in which the goal of parenting is, essentially, to produce an obedient child. It’s the parenting style in which kids are expected to be seen but not heard; the style in which parents bark “because I said so!” when kids ask “why?”
Here’s the thing: authoritarian parenting was popular back when Rosemond was a parent, but we now know it is not great for kids. Children of authoritarian parents are at an increased risk for anxiety and depression, exhibit more disruptive and rebellious behavior (haha, so no, they aren’t actually more obedient!) and are more likely than other kids to have low self-esteem. That’s in part because this form of parenting is associated with harsh punishments and with psychological control — a harmful approach in which parents toy with children’s sense of self and intrinsic value to get the behavior they want.
Rosemond makes another egregious mistake when he implies that the only alternative to authoritarian parenting is, essentially, to relinquish all control to your child. This is a false dichotomy. Rosemond has forgotten about a very, very important middle-ground parenting style known as “authoritative parenting.” (As an aside, I hate that the words “authoritarian” and “authoritative” look so similar, because they are actually very different.)
Authoritative parenting is the parenting style that we should all, ideally, be aiming for. In it, parents are still in charge, yes — but they also treat children with respect. They set limits, but they engage in conversations about those limits, and sometimes even negotiate with their kids. They are warm and loving and sometimes give their children high-fives. Research shows that children of authoritative parents perform better in school than their peers, are more honest with their parents and are also kind and compassionate. They also exhibit fewer behavioral problems.
Here’s an excerpt from Rosemond’s op-ed that illustrates to me the Rosemond isn’t a proponent of middle-ground authoritative parenting and is instead very much a harsh authoritarian:
“Dad,” my son once said, “(his then-5-year-old) doesn’t understand why you won’t high-five him.”
“I don’t expect him to understand, and I’m not going to explain myself to him.”
“Well, I don’t understand, either,” he said.
“I’m not going to explain myself to you, either,” I said, to his chagrin.
This exchange made me sad for Rosemond’s kid and grandkid. Refusing to answer your kid’s questions is not respectful, authoritative parenting. It’s “because I said so” authoritarian parenting. There’s research showing that kids benefit from parents’ explanations of their rationale, and that these explanations help kids connect the dots and become more empathetic. Denying kids such explanations doesn’t teach children anything except that you don’t respect them enough to meaningfully engage with them.
Finally, the op-ed closes with this nonsensical rant:
Children should know their place. Adults should know their place. The more adults and children commingle as if they are equals, the more problematic become their relationships. Why should a child obey an adult who high-fives him? And make no mistake, the happiest kids are also the most obedient. The research says so, as does one’s common sense.
As I’ve already explained, over the long-term, the happiest and most well-adjusted kids are actually the kids of authoritative parents. We know this from decades of research. You can absolutely be “in charge” as a parent even if you co-mingle with your kids. Even if you talk to them. Even if you high-five them. Rosemond believes that you cannot respect your children and also be respected by your children — yet the science very clearly shows otherwise.
In last week’s New York Times Well newsletter, I wrote about bone health — and what I did when I realized I wasn’t getting nearly enough calcium. Read it here.
If you missed my event on teen sleep with Lisa Lewis, you can now watch it on YouTube!
Great piece here! Rosemond is gross in so many ways. Just a weird swampy blend of out dated Southern Christian values he’s clinging to. But my heart skipped a beat when I saw this because I was afraid you were writing about me! I once wrote online not to high-five your teen because they’ll look at you like an adult who high-fives teens... which I meant jokingly. So whew!
Wow. This guy is just making stuff up and calling it researched. I am not a fan of banning books (librarian here!), but I think about softening that stance when I encounter books that give tragic parenting advice. There was one a few years ago, also by a Christian author, who advocated corporal punishment. Freedom of speech, yes please, but what happens when it harms vulnerable and helpless humans?
And I rolled my eyes at all the "parents and children are not equals" talk. I'm a human. My kids are humans. That's equal to me. As my kids grow, and as the pandemic showed me, our nation does not treat children as full humans. Here is yet another example.