Sunday, July 15, 2012

Book Review: The Real Purpose of Parenting by Philip B. Dembo

Dr. Philip B. Dembo fancies himself “America’s Parent Coach” and comes across as the modern version of a Ward Cleaver wannabe in his new book, The Real Purpose of Parenting. Though the beginning of the book shows some promise, with notes from the author about how important it is to him to write as a parent, rather than as a therapist and life coach, his approach to teaching us how to embrace our child’s identity  begs the question, does he really believe that all people can really be swell parents, if only they just give it their best shot? His initial outline of how his parents treated him left me shaking my head, after he described how both parents had more invested in their façade as a perfect-little-family, than in their son’s ability to create a healthy identity and feel comfortable in his own skin. And these, he claimed, were still really GREAT people.

But, despite my initial skepticism and Leave It To Beaver induced nausea, I had hope that Dembo would pull through and illustrate a novel approach to the difficult task we have all faced at some time or another in developing a healthy sense of self. Amongst a litany of unnecessary and annoying personal asides, which do nothing to drive his major points forward, Dembo does manage to ask a few sporadically placed questions to ponder, like, “What kind of parent are you going to be and are you willing to change what’s necessary to be effective?” Unfortunately for the reader however, he seems to think that simply asking the questions will be a good enough method to help us change our ways as individuals and as parents.

I imagine that this book would be very disappointing, as well as down-right insulting to any adult child raised in a toxic environment. While Dembo does make a few seemingly lucky observations about the core issue of parents who refuse to exit their denial long enough to see that they are hurting their children, his inappropriately conversational tone and personal vignettes accomplish nothing but distract the reader from appreciating them. He also seems to operate under the completely false notion that most, if not all parents are unintentional when they sabotage their childrens’ lives. He speaks to adult children who suffered abuse but still believe their parents should be considered “good” people; and he speaks to parents, in general, who supposedly have some form of moral code or standard. I think it’s safe to say that people who come from the former category likely aren’t reading this book or any related to it; and people who fall into the latter category want answers, not more inane questions that are being lobbed at them by some guy who seems to be claiming that the world is full of unicorns and rainbows.

Now, that’s not to say that Dr. Dembo thinks it right that a parent deny her children their own reality, but that concept gets watered down in all of his repetitive use of stale theories. He’s also a big fan of ellipsis, speaking in CAPITAL LETTERS to make his point AS CLEAR AS POSSIBLE, and bolding for emphasis because he doesn’t know how to make his point any other way. I guess he figures that readers will just “get it” if he shouts it at them, underlines it, and trails off afterward to leave them in a state of confusion. At least then, maybe they’ll actually finish his book, hoping that the answers will be somewhere at the end.

In spite of the ridiculousness of the chapters where he attempts to appeal to those without a conscience, he does manage to produce a handful of good points for those of us with a conscience (read: the only people who’d have even picked up this book to begin with). If you can get through the chit-chat Dembo offers every other paragraph or so (I recommend using a pen to cross off all his annoying diatribes; if his editor had done it for us, Dembo would only have had a ten-page pamphlet to publish) you may benefit from a couple of interesting points. Then again, if you read Dr. Suess’s, Oh The Places You’ll Go, you’ll get the same points, sounding much prettier and in rhyme.

Dembo manages to highlight an interesting point about toxic parents who control their children by operating under a “success at all costs” mentality. However, though he claims in the opening of the book to have worked with thousands of families, he fails to procure enough clear and concise examples of the effects of that type of mentality. And, if we don’t have the examples, how are we to know where to begin finding a solution? Dembo points out that many children learn to avoid certain experiences instead of learning or gaining from a situation, but his vague anecdotes that immediately follow merely produce the thought that he uses a lot of technical jargon but fails to define it.

If you’re looking for a how-to book, The Real Purpose of Parenting is not for you. If, however, you are looking for a book that vaguely makes reference to various parenting-theorists that you probably already read about in college if you took any psychology courses, such as Dr. Spock, Dr. Thomas Gordon, and Dinkemeyer and McKay, then this book IS for you. By page fifteen, you might as well resolve to flip through the rest of the book with your highlighter and mark the ten most interesting and beneficial points the author has to make – he’ll just be repeating them incessantly through-out the rest of the book. If you’re not bogged down by his trailing thoughts and too-general dialog, and you can skip over the parts where he sounds like he’s just trying really hard to sound like an expert, then perhaps you’ll have time to realize that, his presentation of facts is neither contemporary or useful. For example, the idea that we need to learn how to place blame on our parents while accepting responsibility for our own actions as parents and adults is not novel.

I did enjoy Dembo’s rather simplistic notion of “conscience,” which he defined as our development of morals by way of interpretation of the world around us. He outlines that a child’s ability to detach himself from his feelings “of the moment” is a key part of the process of deciding “right” from “wrong.” Of course, Dembo’s unfortunately poor grammar had me more intrigued than the points he was trying to make: Did he self-publish this book? Who else would have published it? Did he simply copy and paste from a personal blog and then throw it together as a manuscript to be printed? I want to know who his editor is. So I can avoid her at all costs, should I ever attempt to publish a book. Nearly everything about the set-up of this book makes it a challenge to read, including but not limited to his choppy sentences and poorly constructed paragraphs that just manage to make the concepts more difficult to conceptualize.

I’m sad to say that nothing is as rosy as Dr. Dembo paints it, when you come from a dysfunctional family. In spite of his claim that “parents can learn to honor and protect the true experience of their child” (page 22) most people who’d be picking up this book know all too well how very few parents manage to pull that particular feat off. Dr. Dembo writes like dysfunctional parents think: If we just keep swimming on the surface level and assume that nice is as nice does, then we can all (cue cheesy smile and thumbs up) be GREAT parents. And, when anyone comes along who doubts that, then distract them with plenty of ellipsis and generic examples of loving families that you’ve seen in sitcoms. Be sure to make irrelevant points that draw attention away from the fact that your parents were abusers by making claims that they were “well-intentioned” in spite of how things turned out. This book fails to outline in a clear and reader-friendly way precisely how we can overcome the legacy of parents who failed us by turning ourselves into the parents we wished we had. It’s a pretty thought indeed, but one that Dr. Dembo fails to define. Unless you fall into the very specific category of “Adult children that have just started on the parenting journey who were raised by wealthy socialites with an ‘Ivy League’ mentality” then this book is definitely not for you. Dembo offers little to no practical advice to those of us who really want to know how to raise our children with a healthy sense of self and a rock solid self-esteem. He’s no more an expert than he is an author.

19 comments:

  1. Jonsi you are sublime. You know exactly what to look for as you read.
    And you are so right to point out the fallacy that all, even most, parents who damage their children do so unintentionally. This is completely wrong for the category both of NPD and MNPD. All the great poets and philosophers throughout history have understood that people have negative drives and emotions that lead them to deliberately hurt, maliciously compete with, and dominate others. Unless they actively work against such impulses, and the hallmark of NPD is not to work against any of your own impulses. Nice column.

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    1. The author mentioned these so-called "unintentional abuses" several times through-out the book and it really got under my skin. I believe that intentions really only "matter" (in that the situation is "worse" because a person who behaves in a cruel manner ON PURPOSE is least likely to change) when their intentions are BAD. Other than that, it really doesn't matter that a person has abused their child UNintentionally. The abuse is still abuse, period.

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    2. Plus, how often can we really be sure that a person who is claiming ignorance to the abuse (by saying they didn't "mean" to do it) isn't just using that as an excuse for what they are doing? In other words, how can we trust them? How do we really know that they even mean it when they say, "It was an accident?" And, if it really was unintentional, and we point out to them what they have done, their actions have moved from unintentional to intentional, because now they know.

      Not that it's up to the abused party to force the abuser to change; but it just seems worse to me when the abused says, "Stop!" and the abuser keeps doing it.

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    3. The fetish made of "meaning well," of "good intentions," is a serious obstacle to ethical responsibility. It has become, in my family, a portmanteau word into which anything can be stuffed. But there is an easy way to cross-check intentions: the rate at which narcissists repeat the same "mis-steps." Narcissists refuse to see that they leave "tracks" behind them that over time become ridges, then troughs, then tectonic rifts. "Meaning well" can never account for that.

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  2. The following comment is from Toto, who had some trouble posting it:

    I think that a lot of us study psychology to figure out what happened to us and we read a lot of books trying to figure out how to fix it. Reading blogs has given me more insight into my crazy upbringing than anything else I've ever read because the blogs are written by people who've actually lived through it and are learning how to overcome family craziness. And the only way people can be good parents is to be people of conscience who can be present in their lives and in the lives of their children - can't imagine that any book can produce
    that, no matter how well written... We do have a national fantasy that all parents love their children and will do right by them even at the cost of geat personal sacrifice -that certainly wasn't my reality nor the reality of many people I know. And because of the fantasy that all parents are, deep down, good parents, we aren't believed when we tell our stories,even as adults! I love myths that give us truth by way of story, but the mythology that all parents are essentially good parents
    keeps children stuck in crazy-making lies and keeps even good, concerned adults from really hearing the truth that children would tell if they felt safe.

    -Toto

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    1. "We do have a national fantasy that all parents love their children and will do right by them even at the cost of geat personal sacrifice."

      I read an article once in a local newspaper in which the author said that "Deep down, all mothers love their children" or some shit like that. I was so incensed, I had considered writing to the author and saying, "What the hell fantasy world are YOU living in?" The real truth is that so many parents DON'T love their children. That's why there are so many children that wind up abused, alone, and destined to repeat the same dysfunctional patterns of their ancestors. Not every parent is good at heart, because it is not the virtue of parenthood that can miraculously change a person from being evil/dysfunctional/cruel/etc to good/well-meaninged/loving, etc.

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    2. Toto, I think your comment is exactly right. I too have read a mountain of books about psychology and personality disorders. But I really feel as if reading these wonderful blogs, and starting to write about my experience, is making the knowledge real to me affectively. I feel accompanied on my journey in real time by other ACON travelers, and that's not something we can get from books.

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    3. Jonsi,
      apropos of your question about whether or not a real publisher published Dr. Dumbo's book (tks TW), there are people out there who can only publish their work themselves, precisely because a)they have nothing original to say b) they have no credentials in the area and c) their writing isn't good enough to pass muster with real professional editors. If you self-publish a book, you can print any "publishing company" name you want to as long as get copywright first. So that it can look to the innocent reader as if "published by UPMYBUTT Press" is a real publishing house. When these people self-publish, they pay their own money to have the books printed, at a printing shop, and there is literally no editing/quality control whatsoever. There's a lot of palaver out there.

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    4. "If you self-publish a book, you can print any "publishing company" name you want to as long as get copywright first."

      Wow. I had no idea.

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  3. I have no desire to read this book. But I am about to scroll back up and read your review for the fourth time.

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    1. Ha! I'm hoping that's because the review is good. :o)

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  4. It's great. And I am not shitting the bull.

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    1. Wicked.

      (I feel an intense need to say something of importance now, but I've got nothing so I'll just say I appreciate your appreciation of my review.)

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  5. jonsi, It's an excellent review but I also had to re-read it not because of your presentation, but because I couldn't believe this Dr. Dumbo really IS. What on-line university/diploma mill did he purchase his purported credentials from? Who is his Licensing Agency(ies)? I was also questioning "Who would publish this shit?"
    I am so sick to death of these self-proclaimed "Experts" particularly in the area of Parenting and ACs/EPs. They shamelessly Shill For Clients In Cyberspace and systematically loot the wallets of good people seeking assistance. They relentlessly peruse the Blogs of ACs (including yours) and armed with a Thesaurus and not an ounce of ethics steal Posts AND Comments, Trademarks be damned. I pointed this out to another Blogger during an email exchange late last winter as an aside, "Oh by the way, I've noticed.." She couldn't believe I had picked up on this-she thought initially it was her imagination. It's not.
    Dr. Dumbo appears to be cut from the same cloth. But he's "well intentioned" and that's all that matters, right?!
    TW

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    1. I picked up on that vibe while I was reading the book; and I LOVE that you called him Dr. Dumbo - DH was calling him that too (I was reading the book aloud to him while I was reviewing it). It was frustrating to read because it just reminded me that there are so many people out there who subscribe to the belief that ALL parents LOVE their kids on some level. I just don't buy that.

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  6. So in the world according to Dumbo. What is the real purpose of parenting?

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    1. Essentially, to create a world where children are able to develop their self-esteem while being able to decipher "right" from wrong. The problem, as I see it, is that Dumbo really fails to outline precisely HOW to do that. I mean, I think he's right, that a HUGE part of parenting has to do with teaching our children how to have a healthy sense of self. He just sucks at explaining how to do that.

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  7. Ugh. Thanks for sparing us the trouble of reading this one! Every time I read his name my brain saw "Dumbo" instead of Dembo. Very appropriate. ;)

    The "all parents love their children" and "good intentions are what matter" myths are two of my least favorites. Sure, parents will sometimes screw up and while meaning well, may harm their children. When the kids tell them to stop or otherwise provide feedback to the parents, if the parents don't immediately listen to the kids, apologize, and try to work out a mutually agreeable solution, all the good intentions in the world aren't worth a thing.

    I've been reading Unconditional Parenting (Alfie Kohn) lately and it is so, so, SO validating. I've liked his writing for a long time but have never actually read all the way through this book. He challenges parents to tune in to their kids, ask hard questions of themselves, and CHANGE whatever needs changing. All without controlling and criticizing the kids to death. If you and VR have space for another parenting book on your list, I'd highly recommend it!

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    1. I definitely need to look into that book. It sounds so much better than this one and I think both DH and I could get something out of it. Thanks for the recommendation. I'm always on the lookout for good or otherwise informative reads.

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