June 18, 2015


When Kids Call the Shots: How to Seize Control from Your Darling Bully—and Enjoy Being a Parent Again. By Sean Grover, LCSW. AMACOM. $15.

     Today’s parent-child dynamic, many people argue, is out of balance, with some parents “helicoptering” above their kids at all times and supervising their every move, while others take a hands-off approach that leads to kids without any sense of personal or social responsibility, much less morals or ethics. Into the fray of this discussion comes psychotherapist Sean Grover with something else to worry about: circumstances in which matters are so far unbalanced that kids, not parents, are in charge of family dynamics, bullying and even oppressing adults in ways that are highly detrimental to older and younger alike.

     Grover is not quite sure whether he wants to call bullied parents to arms or sit them down for some tea and a nice chat. In a section on parental burnout, he makes comments that apply to the book as a whole: “This book is meant to challenge you, to start a revolution in your parenting and empower you. Its ultimate goal is to end bullying in your household. But before we can do that, I’m going to need you to take better care of yourself. Standing up to your kid’s bullying will require more energy and stamina, both of which are impossible to master when you’re burned out. …It will be impossible to transform your relationship with your kid unless you transform your relationship with yourself.” So, overstressed and overworked parents whose kids take constant advantage of them: here’s one more thing for your ever-growing list of must-dos. Four more things, actually: put time aside for yourself, exercise more, find ways to express your inner creativity, and take a break from your kids to go out of town or otherwise make time for adult friendships and activities.

     Whatever the merits of these suggestions may be, they are likely to come across as additional burdens to parents who are already so time-pressed and stressed by work and home life that they have allowed their kids to take control. Or perhaps “allowed” is not quite the right word. Grover himself seems to think bullying by children is normal, as in his comment about an instance of it involving his own child: “My daughter had every right to bully. She’s a kid, and that’s what kids do. The problem was my reaction to her bullying.” This is, at best, arguable. Yes, parental reaction to children’s behavior is always an issue, but whether bullying is simply “what kids do” is by no means self-evident. Nor is Grover’s simplistic assessment, again using himself as an example, of ways to control kids’ demands that reach the level of bullying: “If I wanted her to be more patient, I had to be more patient. If I wanted her to be more mindful, I had to lead the way.” Furthermore, Grover significantly undermines his own claim to analytical expertise when he marvels at his discovery that the underlying reason for his own daughter’s unacceptable behavior is nothing more unusual than sibling rivalry: his daughter is jealous of and in competition with her recently arrived parental-time-hogging baby sister.

     The fact that this “revelation” will be a “well, duh” moment for many parents shows that the reasons for kids’ behavior are by no means as difficult to fathom – at least in many cases – as Grover considers them to be. Nor is it necessary, to benefit from this book,  to accept his self-congratulation in the form of self-abnegation when he mentions that he is “a therapist who works with children, who leads parenting workshops, publishes parenting articles – and I [didn’t] have a clue what to do with my own kid!” For there is certainly material here from which readers can benefit. Grover says that children have several different “bullying styles” and that understanding them is one step required in dealing with them. Kids, he writes, may be defiant (“in-your-face” and “exceedingly confrontational and oppositional”), anxious (tending to “oscillate between clinging to their parents and pushing them away”), or manipulative (“extort[ing] his wants and needs from his parents by preying on their anxieties and generating self-doubt”). In addition, certain types of parents are more likely to be bullied: those who are guilty, anxious or determined to fix everything. Grover explains what each child-bullying style may mean and how it may interact with each parenting style – and then makes suggestions, based on case histories, of ways to improve family dynamics and move beyond bullying to better communication and improved relationships.

     It will come as no surprise that the one most-recurrent recommendation from Grover is to go into therapy – sometimes individual, sometimes as a family, sometimes on a parent-and-child basis. Other suggestions involve fundamentally remaking the adult relationship that allows bullying by children to gain a foothold – for example, at one point Grover says, “Edward needs to step back and allow his wife to share more parenting responsibilities. …Edward’s doting…shuts out his wife and creates an imbalance in the parenting Teddy receives.” Unfortunately, as is always the case in self-help books that try to address deep-seated and complex interpersonal issues in a couple of hundred simplistic pages, Grover’s counsel is far, far easier to give than it is for parents to act upon. And the fact that it is given so matter-of-factly, even glibly, makes it all the more difficult for parents to try to follow it. By the time Grover announces a chapter in which “I’m going to give you the essential tools for undoing bullying behaviors and restoring balance in your relationship,” parents will likely feel so swamped by the analyses and action points in When Kids Call the Shots that they will have little ability to understand, much less accept, what Grover presents. What that is boils down to three steps that sound good but are enormously, overwhelmingly difficult to implement in the real world: “1. Stick to your vision. 2. Tale responsibility for your behavior. 3. Manage your feelings.” Certainly these are worthy goals, and certainly they are clearly presented here. But Grover is simply too dogmatic, and often too emphatic, for parents depressed, repressed and suppressed by family life and the rest of everyday living to be able to tackle many of these notions: “STOP Relying on Faulty Coping Mechanisms and START Standing Up for Yourself,” for example.

     The book also has some irritating errors in the writing and/or editing: “Let’s delve into Dorothy’s pasts [sic],” for example, and “Abandoned by her mother, her Grandma Pat was Dorothy’s only family” (which says that Grandma Pat was the one abandoned, which is not what Grover means). Also, to cite another example in this single section, Grover – who has certainly changed all names of people he writes about and/or created composite case histories – unaccountably omits what would clearly be something crucial to understanding the situation: “Dorothy’s one brief romantic relationship (too awkward to describe here) produced Stewart.” Describing, explaining and dealing with awkward matters is, after all, supposed to be a major point of When Kids Call the Shots.

     There is much trenchant analysis in this book, and there are many good ideas about handling serious imbalances in parent-child relationships. But there is little if any acknowledgment of just how difficult it is to make fundamental, foundational changes in one’s marriage or partnership and, indeed, in one’s entire way of interacting with the whole world. Ultimately, what is missing in When Kids Call the Shots, despite Grover’s attempt to say he himself has “been there, done that,” is a dose of empathy sufficient to make some extremely difficult prescriptions seem positive and worthwhile, even if distinctly unpalatable.

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