One of the greatest opportunities that I have had over the past twenty-five years has been teaching a number of sociology classes at Suffolk Community College's Selden campus. Every semester I am blessed to have a cross section of college students who are bright, insightful and refreshing. Suffolk Community is probably one of the best-kept secrets in Suffolk County.
This semester I have a class of thirty-five college coeds who cross the generation line. They are ethnically and racially diverse. They are refreshingly open and honest with their opinions and viewpoints.
Recently, we were discussing the problems of the American family and possible recommendations on how to address those concerns. As a group, they raised all the traditional issues - drugs, alcohol, abuse, poor communication, divorce, problem children and a host of other issues.
What was profoundly missing from that conversation regarding the problems of the American family was comments about priorities, parenting skills and what kind of road map is given to people who are considering creating a family.
Many students seem stuck with a very idealized vision of family: Mom, Dad, two kids, a white picket fence and everyone lives happily ever after. Most people would concede that having a happily married Mom and Dad with little fiscal worry would be ideal. Unfortunately, based upon our culture, it is not very realistic.
Human dysfunction is everywhere. There are many single Moms and Dads raising children much more efficiently than the traditional two parent family. There are many blended families that are successful and healthy.
One's priorities are key to a healthy family. As a parent, what is important to you? What kind of time are you willing to invest in your children and creating a healthy living environment? Are things more important than people? What kind of consistent family traditions and rituals do you keep? Is family life a "catchers catch can" or a "make family happen on the run?"
As parents, we need to be willing to set reasonable limits and enforce reasonable consequences for non-compliance. "No" is not a dirty word, but rather one that needs to be uttered, especially during the painful adolescence years. We need to know who our children are hanging out with. We need to know which parents supervise house parties and which don't.
Socially, do your teenagers smoke pot and/or cigarettes? Do they drink on the weekends? Do you turn your head and pretend these behaviors don't exist or do you ask the hard questions and react responsibly?
What are appropriate limits and expectations for teenage behavior? Should your children be home most nights for a family dinner? Are underage smoking and drinking behaviors that you should just tolerate and hope that they are "just phases" your teenager is passing through? What is part of growing up and what is behavior that has crossed the line? How do you decide? When do you know it is time to intervene?
These are all hard questions, but questions that must be considered. As parents, we need to respond. Unfortunately, we were never given a handbook or a road map to guide us. Most of us have learned by trial and error and the school of hard knocks.
Some parents have chosen not to learn. They have elected to let their children find their own way. It is more important to be friends than to set standards and parent one's teenager in a positive way.
Family life in America is deteriorating because many of us are ill equipped to face the challenges of modern parenting. Being an effective parent takes time, effort and extreme openness. Life today is very demanding, ever changing and challenging.
As parents, we need to model what we want our children to embrace. If family life, however we define it, is important, we need to live it. If eating together is an important family ritual, then as a parent you need to show up and demonstrate that it is an important value.
Communication is a vital variable in every family. If we want our children to be open with us, we need to be open with them. We need to model positive communication and respect with our spouse.
Our children are not born with these skills. They learn these skills as they grow, if they are exposed to them. They cannot learn what they do not see or experience.
So many parents will say to me that they believe this present generation is immoral. I don't believe they are immoral. I believe they are amoral. Immoral means you know right from wrong and do wrong purposefully. Amoral means you really don't know right from wrong.
How do you hold a teenager accountable for responsible decision making when all he or she sees around him or her is recklessness?
It was fascinating to listen to those college coeds talk about family life, child rearing and holding one's children accountable for their social behavior. We talked about what influences behavior and how we might protect our children from falling off the "crazy cliff" of life.
What I realized once again is that there is no clear road map or handbook for effective parenting. However, what did emerge is that we need to do more with our children early on. We need to educate them about positive, healthy interpersonal relationships and we need to expose them to positive role models.
We have to do a better job of preparing young people for marriage. Whether they are religious or not, whatever we are doing is failing miserably since one out of two marriages ends in divorce within the first five years.
As parents, as adults, as community members, we don't talk enough about these vital life issues in a way that is not grounded in confrontation, shame, blame and guilt. These are our children, our national treasure. We are cheating them because they are ill prepared to meet the challenges of adult life living in a narcissistic world.