Why Dear Abby’s Parenting Advice is so Limited


In the preceding weeks I’ve been posting about the 4 primary ways parents can influence their children. Today, we look at the application of what we refer to as the “Parent Influence Model.” More information on this model and how to use it to improve parenting strategies is in the book, “How to Listen so Parents will Talk. . .” by two of my favorite authors. The following is an adapted excerpt.

Many cultures focus excessively on using direct power to get children to comply with parental authority, and our dominant American culture is certainly among them.  This may be in part because of the powerful influence of behavioral psychology and partly due to a historical white-European devaluing of children identified by some authors.  Fortunately, the Parenting Influence Model (PIM) provides parents with effective alternatives to simply using direct power over and over again.

As an American icon, “Dear Abby” regularly provides guidance for parents who face specific parenting challenges. However, for better or worse, Abby usually offers advice based almost exclusively on direct power. While you read through the following summary of a Dear Abby column, consider the PIM. In particular, think about which indirect, problem-solving, and relationship power strategies you might suggest for the parenting dilemma described in this column:

In her February 17, 2009 column, Abby responded to a letter written by a mother described as Tanya of North Lima, Ohio. Tanya described a challenging situation with her nine-year-old son. She reported that he refused or made excuses when asked to take a shower after his wrestling practice and that she was at her “wits’ end.” She noted other personal hygiene problems, including difficulty getting him to brush his teeth and change his underwear. She ended her letter with a plea: “Please give me some advice.”

Abby responded with clear and direct guidance. She instructed Tanya to:

  1. Establish rules and enforce them.
  2. Consider asking the wrestling coach to “impress upon him the importance of personal hygiene.”
  3. Refuse to serve the son dinner until he has showered.
  4. Require him to “brush his teeth before coming to the breakfast table.”
  5. If the problem continues for over six months, consider a consultation with a “child psychologist.”

The problem that Tanya of Ohio presented to Abby was typical. Tanya has an agenda and she wants her child to comply with her agenda. She has tried direct power strategies, failed miserably, but is still unable to think outside the direct-power paradigm. For example, she states: “I tell him to take a shower,” “I have had to personally bathe him,” and “I don’t know what to do to get him . . . .” Each of these phrases articulates at least two things: (1) she has taken on the primary responsibility for her son’s hygiene (and so he is free to not care much at all about hygiene; we refer to this as problem polarization and discuss it at length later); and (2) she is focused, as far as we can tell, exclusively on direct power strategies.

Using the PIM as a guide, in an educational or therapeutic setting, the first step would be for the parenting professional to model an attitude reflected in the short phrase, developed by Linda Braun of Families First Boston: “Get curious, not furious.” The professional would empathize with the parent’s frustration (“It is hard when your nine-year-old smells bad!”) while gently exploring the roots of the problem (“What do you suppose is going on that makes it so your son really doesn’t seem to care about showering and brushing his teeth?”), and gathering concrete information about exactly what the parent has tried and how it has worked. In the end, the professional might provide the parent with a collaboratively generated list of parenting strategies. For Tanya and her son, the list would likely, but not inevitably, include an individualized combination of the following:

  • Mutual problem-solving
  • Solution questions
  • Character feedback
  • Giving choices
  • Asset flooding
  • Expressing anger and disappointment

In contrast, as Abby articulated so well, our popular cultural advice for parents who face problem child behavior is something like:

You need to force that boy to comply with your parental authority.

Abby’s solution advocates parental over-control: She recommended withholding food. She recommended usurping the boy’s privacy by consulting with his wrestling coach (apparently behind the boy’s back). She didn’t seem to understand the powerful force of encouragement—or even positive reinforcement. Although the mom may win this battle using direct power, her withdrawals from her joint emotional bank account with her son may be immense. Their relationship will suffer and their conflicts may continue to grow.  Eventually, the mom’s power-plays may become significantly less effective as he heads into his teenage years.

In contrast to Abby’s approach, many parenting book authors acknowledge the need for parents to have a wide range of skills and strategies for parenting well. As an example, Fields and Brown (2010) described this need for multiple strategies for parents of toddlers:

You can’t make a kid eat, sleep, or poop on the potty. Yes, toddlers have a will all of their own—and if they don’t want to do any of the above, darn it, that’s the way it is. Nope, you have to come well-armed with a series of clever strategies and tricks to work some magic. (p. 6)

Overall, the PIM can help you become more aware of specific influence strategies parents are using in their daily lives. You can then use this awareness to help parents expand their influence repertoire, and hopefully help parents become more successful in really getting what they want: being and becoming a positive and guiding influence in their children’s lives.

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