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Father's screed a wake-up call for permissive parents

By Ronni Berke, CNN
December 1, 2012 -- Updated 1457 GMT (2257 HKT)
Should parents confide their disappointment in their children? Dr. Gail Saltz says honesty is necessary to a degree.
Should parents confide their disappointment in their children? Dr. Gail Saltz says honesty is necessary to a degree.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Father Nick Crews wrote a scathing e-mail to his children about their failings
  • When the e-mail became public, many people praised Crews for his bravery and honesty
  • Others said he was too harsh and a parent should never speak to children so viciously
  • CNN's Ronni Berke said that though the letter was harsh, parents could learn from it

(CNN) -- They're calling it the "Crews missile."

Fired from the keyboard of 67-year-old Nick Crews, the missive blew the lid off his dysfunctional family.

In an e-mail titled "Dear All Three," published in U.K. newspaper The Telegraph, Crews excoriates his three grown children for their professional and personal failures and for the "bitter disappointment each of you has in your own way dished out" to him and his wife.

Crews, a retired British naval officer, was fed up with his children's unsuccessful marriages and inability to earn a living that, as he said, measures up to their potential.

"I for one, and I sense Mum feels the same, have had enough of being forced to live through the never-ending bad dream of our children's underachievement and domestic ineptitudes."

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In the e-mail, made public with his permission by his daughter Emily, Crews describes his concern for his grandchildren.

"It makes us weak that so many of these events are copulation-driven and then helplessly to see these lovely people being so woefully let down by you, their parents."

And then this ultimatum: "I want to hear no more from any of you until, if you feel inclined, you have a success or an achievement or a REALISTIC plan for the support and happiness of your children to tell me about."

Ronni Berke
Ronni Berke

Whoa. This is beyond disappointment. This sounds just plain mean.

Yet, the story, and support for Crews, has gone viral. It "struck a chord," wrote Telegraph reporter Cristina Odone.

Sure, what parent doesn't fear raising a bum? But as the mother of two young adult children, I had to wonder whether a withering e-mail attack was the best way to go about getting the kids to shape up.

I asked Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, whether the former submarine captain took the right tack.

For a parent fed up with his child's behavior, "It can be useful to do something shocking to get someone to take it to heart," said Saltz. But, she added, one must pave the way long before the children became adults, with a warm, communicative relationship.

Although two of his children haven't spoken to him since receiving the note, "Crews has been swamped with encouraging messages," writes Odone. Many are applauding Crews for "telling it like it is."

But does he? In the e-mail, he alludes to his own mistakes: "Having done our best, probably misguidedly, to provide for our children..." He describes his envy when hearing his friends brag about their children, and seems deeply wounded by the fact that his children don't consult him or his wife before making life decisions.

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Perhaps he played a larger role than he would admit, or even knows, in how his children turned out. He did acknowledge to Odone that due to his naval career, he was pretty much an absentee father.

The Crews story may sound frighteningly familiar to baby boomer parents.

In the wake of the Great Recession, many parents have resigned themselves to the fact that their college-graduate children may not be moving out anytime soon and may not even have a job.

A U.S. 2010 policy brief sponsored by Brown University showed that 43% of those under 25 live with their parents, up from 32% in 1980.

But is the economy alone to blame for what I fondly call "Deadbeat Kid Syndrome?"

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"Not everything is parenting and not everything is biology," said Saltz. "There's a combination here." And sometimes, she added, families just have bad luck.

Saltz said although Crews obviously loves his children, "he ended up missing the mark" with the e-mail.

Still, the fact that so many are rallying to his defense can be a positive thing, Saltz said, especially in a world full of "overly indulgent parents," who aren't teaching children life skills.

Everyone's tweeting and boasting about their kids' successes, but missing an important point, failure is important too.

"If you don't teach your kids any resilience, you fail them out of everything," Saltz said. "They need to fall down, say I fell down before but got back up, and I know I can do that."

I'm guilty of this sort of thing. Growing up, I never once called my mother at work. Yet I allowed my own kids to call me all the time. It just took that much longer to wean them off the "workday quickie advice call." Perhaps I should have let them figure out mundane daily jams on their own.

Many parents have blinders on. If you don't want your kids to end up with an entitled attitude, why lambast their teachers for giving them bad grades, which they likely deserve, or for failing them for cheating?

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Timothy Law Snyder is vice president for academic affairs at Loyola University Maryland and lectures nationally about generational differences. Snyder says some parents blame the school or the professor, rather than the student, for bad grades, even when their child is caught plagiarizing.

"It's at its worst when the parent is living through their child," he said. "The parents' successes, even life accomplishments, are identified entirely with those of their child."

"It used to be parents would go to the school and care that (their) kid has a moral compass and understands right and wrong," Saltz said. Nowadays, the concept of right and wrong isn't as clear. "They're more concerned that the kid gets an A than be a kind person, a moral person."

Saltz said parents are under pressure for things to look good and feel good. "They love their children. .... But they've got tunnel vision."

Case in point: when everyone who plays soccer gets a trophy no matter how well, or poorly, they've played.

"Children come out and experience nothing but success, not necessarily done by them but enabled by their parents, intervening all the time," Saltz said.

Such intervention also creates a shortcut to adulthood, and that's not a good thing. Nor is having too many choices too soon.

Take the beauty salon. How young is too young for a manicure? In my salon, there's a 4-year-old girl who's been getting "mani-peds" for two years. She loves the pedicure bath," the manicurist told me. What happens to that little girl when she grows up and can't afford manicures?

And think, does your 6-year-old really need a cellphone?

As for the Crews saga, Saltz said she hopes it makes a lot of people think about being more honest with their children.

"Someday they'll have to frustrate their child, disappoint their child, point out their child's mistakes. By doing those things earlier rather than later, they'll help their children to be better people."

Would you write a letter like Crews' to your children? Do you think such a message would be effective in changing behavior? Leave your opinion in the comments section below.

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