A Systems Perspective of Parenting: The Individual, the Family, and the Social Network
a book by Thomas W. Roberts
(our site's book review)
This is a valuable and comprehensive book on parenting methods. It advocates systems parenting as opposed to any other method, such as Adlerian, S.T.E.P., P.E.T., authoritarian, permissive, and behaviorism. The systems parenting advocates consider that the only proper context for family problems is the whole system—the family and its associated social network, which probably involves kin and teachers.
Note: In this parenting book, P.E.T. comes under the heading of Humanistic Parenting (although the author of Moral Politics, George Lakoff, would classify P.E.T. as Harmonious Parenting). Neither would call it Authoritative Parenting, but it can be thought of as authoritative parenting without the logical consequences, which Gordon considers too punitive. Gordon is right to advocate avoidance of logical consequences—to the degree that one can make natural consequences function effectively enough. But as Louise Hart (author of The Winning Family) has pointed out, sometimes the world simply doesn’t offer adequate opportunities or context for this method, and you find yourself needing a nonpunitive logical consequences back-up plan. She also will opt for natural consequences rather than logical consequences whenever possible. On this website , we call P.E.T. Authoritative Lite.
Roberts has written a book not to be ignored by anyone interested in parenting. But in spite of the fact that he advocates systems parenting and not any other type, his book alone is enough to dissuade most parents from ever even trying systems parenting. Here are the weaknesses one will detect as one carefully reads this book, weaknesses that represent barriers to parents getting involved in this method, and reasons why relatively easy methods like P.E.T. are a better way to go:
- It’s too complex. It expects too much knowledge and analytical abilities on the part of parents. It expects either that systems experts would be brought in from the outside to deal with family problems or that parents will somehow acquire: “. . . a thorough understanding of the interaction of the various systems and subsystems involved in the problem.” Neither option is feasible. Ironically, Roberts says that today significant numbers of parents have less time and energy available for parenting, but at the same time he expects these fast-track, stressed-out people to become systems experts.
- Since parents obviously will not be able to meet the formidable challenges presented in the requisite systems analyses and psychosociological understanding in this parenting method, the method is, like bureaucracies in general and government social welfare agencies in particular, set up to perpetuate itself via its own ineffectiveness. (Whether the ineffectiveness stems from the lack of expertise of average parents or from the weaknesses of the method will be fairly irrelevant in the long run.)
Although it ostensibly uses initial interviews, 12 training sessions of 2 ½ hours each, and two follow-ups to give parents enough grounding in systems parenting to go it alone, the intellectual and analytical requirements as well as the sociological and psychological knowledge requirements needed by the parents to actually go it alone are unlikely to be fulfilled. Even the fact of the initial interview that must include all family members will put most families out of the running. Because, unlike P.E.T. and the other methods, systems parenting has a distinct social work flavor to it (the clinic-like initial interview is an example), and only families with very serious dysfunctionality or with welfare dependency problems are likely to be open to such outside intervention.
This effectively knocks systems parenting out of the running for most American families. If it walks like social engineering and quacks like social engineering, then it must be social engineering. And though Roberts doesn’t seem to realize the utter disdain with which the public views the idea of experts interfering with their families and engineering their view of Utopia, most parents realize this.
- It reductionistically and sometimes erroneously analyzes the competing parenting methods (but still somehow manages to be very informative), accusing them of not considering other resources, contexts, developmental facts, or any other knowledge during their usage of active listening, problem solving or application of consequences. Obviously, this is not true since all parents will use all the knowledge they have when applying parenting methods to real-life problems. The accusations are tantamount to charging parents using other methods with lacking common sense. And many parents who are using other methods looked around a lot before they chose, and in the process read and experienced quite a bit that they can apply to their parenting as context and supplement.
- It does not recognize the value of learning specific parenting skills, since it believes that all such skills are cookbook solutions resulting from linear thinking, while all systems parenting is based upon circular thinking. It specifically advocates that, even though it admits the research-backed effectiveness of some of the other methods, no knowledge or skill from the other methods (such as active listening, I-statements, win-win [no-lose] problem solving, logical or natural consequences, etc.) should be used when systems parenting is being done. (These happen to be the best parenting tools ever discovered [and they’ve been validated for many decades], and he lightly dismisses them.) This is shocking in that he reports that research has shown that authoritative parenting results in the best character traits in children, and these traits are long-lasting and involve such things as competence and social skills. Research in systems parenting hasn’t gotten concrete answers yet, apparently.
- Some aspects of it are actually permissiveness (which has been scientifically invalidated) in disguise. In his examples, he offers such sage advice as: “be patient and understanding” when confronted with unacceptable and problematical behavior from children, and he adds the gem: don’t communicate with the kids’ about their misbehavior—instead, play with them more. This sends a message of acceptance of the unacceptable, a classic liberal-permissive error. He should take note of the fact that permissiveness with understanding (his method, at times) is to permissiveness without understanding as a wolf in sheep’s clothing is to a wolf: no matter how you window-dress it, underneath one still finds a wolf.
Wolf in sheep’s clothing
- His methods are way too nonspecific. His generalities give one a nice feel for having a holistic perspective on the complex interactions between people in family networks, but, eventually, one has to confront the pragmatic question: do they fly? If administered by an expert in a social work setting with bottomless resources and total cooperation from the entire social network, one could assume that they do—why else would Roberts have bothered to write the book? But if a harried, busy, stressed-out parent tries to fly his method, does it even get off the ground? One finds oneself skeptical, given the evidence.
Plane trying to get off the ground
- Often, after putting down other methods with regards to how he says they would handle a specific situation, he offers what he would have us believe are better ways of dealing with the situation: vague generalities and systems clichés that are essentially nonresponses. Kids need responsive parents.
- Simply because he knows that regressive and hostile behaviors involved in sibling rivalry in a steep-gradient-nurturance environment full of intrinsically win-lose connotations are “normal” and expectable, he finds them acceptable. For a method that prides itself on its systems context, it is disappointing to see the antithesis of good systems thinking so blindly flaunted in his book.
Obviously the proper systems response here is not expert system engineering, psychological analysis, triangulation analysis, circular thinking or dialectical reasoning (another systems parenting trademark) but flat-gradient nurturance with its win-win connotations. How can he say that you need to change the family system so that it functions better when you encounter family problems, and then when symptoms arise that are “normal” but very distressing and annoying and problematic, and sometimes traumatic and dangerous, he says family members “must adjust”? Fromm (Escape from Freedom), Riesman (The Lonely Crowd), Laing (The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness), Putney and Putney (The Adjusted American: Normal Neurosis in the Individual and Society), Jourard (The Transparent-Self), Slater (Earthwalk), Lindner (The Fifty Minute Hour), et al., would wince.
- Systems parenting says that it empowers. But it actually encourages dependency on experts by its complexity and lack of specific methodological practices. What the systems parenting methodology needs most is someone coming in and doing good systems analysis on it until the rough spots are detected and ironed out, and the various proven parenting skills involved in Winning Family Lifeskills, P.E.T. and self-talk become incorporated into the method so that the average parent can use it with good results without the need of handholding by and intervention by “systems experts.”
But there are many positive aspects of systems parenting:
- It encourages seeing things from a holistic perspective and reflects the new, ecological-holistic paradigm and worldview.
- It encourages parents to become very knowledgeable about parenting, and to take it so seriously that they get involved in training so they become good at it.
- It admits some of the great results authoritative parenting methods are getting.
- His handling of the subjects of enmeshment versus well-differentiated and autonomy versus connectedness demonstrates uncommon sagacity.
- He advocates parents learning from each other and using each other as social resources—which would include childcare resources; he stresses the value of connectedness.
- He gives valuable statistics on family dysfunctionality.
- He gives great examples of family problems, even if some of his solutions are simplistic and/or inadequate.
- His treatment of the subject of giftedness is quite good. He acknowledges that gifted kids come out of environments that are conducive to exploration and adventuring, and that allow as much freedom of choice as possible—and are authoritative but not permissive or authoritarian environments. Independence as well as good support and nurturing are also stressed. Contrary to the expectation of some, families that emphasized achievement less but just talked with and read to their kids a lot had the most gifted people in them. Kids need love and support, not pressure. And to his credit, these are all things Roberts recommends.
- He establishes the clear relationship between social isolation and family dysfunctionality.
- He acknowledges that once child abuse starts, it’s very hard to stop, and stopping it needs to involve an impetus for change that comes from outside the system. Here again, however, he’d have been well served to mention flat-gradient nurturance as a preventative, rather than looking at treatment as a clinical problem. The facts about low incidence of abuse in flat-gradient situations are not hard to find, so this should be one of their main systems parenting techniques. The fact that it isn’t exposes the fact that they haven’t thought it through.
One is tempted to blurt out “Doctor, heal thyself,” in encountering a systems-obsessed book that comes to some obvious systems-based conclusions in its analysis of parenting methods, but misses the most important conclusion of all when it comes to prescribing preventatives and cures for family dysfunctionality. But, since the purpose of Roberts’ book is as a university textbook for parenting courses at either the graduate or undergraduate level, and it does a good job of summarizing the issues involved, it should not be expected to be more than it is. It is a good first try at integrating systems thought and parenting. It is not a revelation that will turn the world of parenting around or transform the dysfunctional into the functional due to its magic formulas. It is a good springboard for parenting issues thinking, however.
It is also not a comprehensive parenting method that seriously challenges authoritative or humanistic/harmonious parenting methods because of its great wisdom or effectiveness. It would be wise for Roberts and/or his associates to engage in P.E.T. and/or Authoritative Parenting in their own homes and find out why it works so well—and then go back and rewrite this book based on the fact that the other methods could use more holistic perspectives and systems thinking. But until the steep-gradient versus flat-gradient insight hits the systems parenting people and wakes them to the fact that system enhancement and system acceptance are very different concepts, they should hold off the revision.
Since few parents will be able to meet the challenge of becoming systems experts, his system will require bureaucracies to send out their experts, which will be cost-prohibitive to either parents or social program administrators or both