I have never fought in a war. And I have never been forced to run for my life. But I am a parent, which seems to me to be as stressful as just about anything one could do except for war and flight.

Parenting, particularly how not to parent, is always a topic of debate. It flared into full form again this weekend after a family “allowed” a 4-year-old boy to commando crawl into a gorilla pit. The boy was rescued, but not without the killing of a rare gorilla. Critics have been pounding not only the zoo but the parents for failing to keep an eye on the boy.

As someone who has been the father of a 4-year-old boy, my sympathy is with the parents. Young boys have a gift for mayhem that is nearly impossible to prevent short of physical restraints. Want to keep a boy out of trouble? You might actually need a set of handcuffs, although their use on toddlers is generally frowned upon by authorities on child care.

But I’m not really interested in debating the parenting skills of a mother who may have made mistakes and is definitely lucky to not have had to pay the price. She should be allowed to get on with life unmolested by the angry online mobs that always rise up for these extraordinary and rare circumstances. What interests me is the debate about everyday parenting and what we are and aren’t doing as a culture.

What made me think of this is a recent interview by WHYY’s Mary Cummings-Jordan of Leonard Sax, a psychologist and physician who wrote a book called “The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups.”

Sax blames parents for a whole host of adolescent problems – from rising rates of obesity to an over-reliance on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder medications. He believes there is a serious sleep deprivation crisis among young Americans and that many symptoms of ADHD are caused by lack of sleep.

For the most part, his views are the sort of anti-scientific, Dr. Phil-level homespun common sense that plays well with most parents because it sounds right. He offers more anecdote than evidence. But no group is more receptive to arguments that they may very well be screwing up everything than parents.

Sax’s remedy to most problems is authoritarian parenting. In other words, parents need to be sure that they remain the boss, that they don’t treat children as peers, seeking consensus rather than enforcing right and wrong. While I have seen parents try painfully to reason with unreasonable children in a way that seems a poor choice for all involved, it’s often not that simple.

While Sax’s diagnosis of poor parenting as epidemic in the United States might be misguided, I think some of his recommendations are not bad. In particular, his advice on making sure kids get enough sleep – that they have enforced limits to screen time in order to get more sleep – is simple common sense that is ignored by a lot of people. I have a hard time putting screens down at night, never mind my kids.

Will a good night’s sleep solve obesity, depression and ADHD? I’m not so sure. But it will help kids and parents be ready for whatever the day ahead will bring. It will help us have clearer minds.

And, hopefully, that will make us less likely to blame everything on parents.

— Pete Mazzaccaro

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