"Back off." John Marsden says parents should follow these 7 steps to stop being 'toxic'.


Over the last ten years award-winning author and passionate educator, John Marsden, has noticed the disturbing rise of ‘toxic’ parenting approaches that he believes are contributing to a pandemic of anxiety in young people.

With two schools of his own in Victoria and many years as a teacher and principal, John has had plenty of first-hand experience dealing with children and parents.

Mamamia spoke to John about his new book, The Art of Growing Up, and for his thoughts on 21st century ‘toxic parenting’ to find what he thinks we should do.

While John recognises that the past was far from perfect, he believes contemporary ‘toxic parenting’ is the major cause of bad behaviour, depression and anxiety in children.

Yet he believes that as a society we are uncomfortable acknowledging and discussing our mistakes.

“In the old days physical abuse was more common and widespread, yet today we have serious emotional and social issues to deal with,” John says.

“Kids used to grow up in bigger families with one parent at home. They likely had more freedom and contact with extended family and the wider community.

“Today what we see a lot of are suburban nuclear family homes where both parents work and the children don’t always know their neighbours’ names.”

Side note – On the latest episode of This Glorious Mess, Bec Sparrow shares the right age you should be letting your child have Instagram. Post continues after audio.


While the modern generation are safer than ever before in terms of coming to physical harm, John says that middle class parents, in particular, are fearful of their children being snatched or harmed.

“On the rare occasions these horrific things happen, we hear or read about it because of global media coverage, which makes it seem more likely to happen to us.”

John believes that this feeds into parents’ fears, creating an intense regulation and idealisation of a ‘perfect’ childhood that causes severe difficulties for both children and adolescents.

So, what can we do?

Throughout his book The Art of Growing Up, John includes plenty of ideas about how we can approach parenting more thoughtfully and with less fear.

Here are just seven ways he says we can help our children to grow up happier and healthier.

1. Let your kids be bored.

“Many well-meaning parents jump to their child’s aid as soon as they say ‘I’m bored’. I suggest instead saying, ‘well that’s your problem’ and let them be bored.

“A little bit of benign neglect is good for them! Let your children go and find their own fun by using their imagination and initiative. It’s amazing what kids can do when left to it.”

2. Get them back to nature.

“Playgrounds and parks are so sterile, dull and unimaginative. To me they look like arid wastelands! Children need to explore the wild places – get out into the bush, let them feel the rain on their faces or the sand at their feet. They need to get dirty, throw mud at each other and be creative.


“Learning about insects, reptiles and our natural world is also a great way for them to understand more about their place in the world that is simultaneously significant and insignificant.”

“So many kids and teens are anxious about the future of our planet and they have every right to be.”

3. Encourage first hand experiences over second hand ones.

“Seeing Bear Grylls have adventures on screen is nowhere near as exciting as having an adventure yourself.

“When kids are on screens playing games, there is no depth or complexity playing a character in an artificial two-dimensional world.

“In contrast visiting a graveyard or even just taking the dog for a walk to visit a friend up the street is a full mind and body experience that also involves them in their community.”

4. Don’t get involved in every detail.

“Sometimes parents simply need to ‘back off’ from their kids’ lives and allow other positive influences in. Whether that means their school, their friends or extended family, I don’t believe parents should poke their noses into every corner of their children’s lives.

“Encourage them to have sleepovers with their cousins and friends and have experiences without you.”

5. Don’t shelter them from real life.

“Acquiring experiences in early life that help them to understand the adult world is very useful. They will suffer difficult times and nasty people as adults, so helping them to navigate this as children will prevent them from crashing and burning when they grow up.

“If they come across bullies at school, engage with your child and help them to work out multiple solutions to the problem.


“Don’t just give them dogmatic advice. Look at ways to help them strengthen themselves and always work with the school on the issue.”

6. Encourage the acquisition of wisdom alongside knowledge.

“Many schools forget this important aspect to a person’s education and this is where parents are so important. Children need to learn to become abstract thinkers; they need to know that not everything is solvable via a neat slogan.

“They should learn that extreme statements or views must always be viewed with suspicion.

“Help them to read widely and learn from literature. To watch a broad range of movies, not just Hollywood blockbusters. If you can, enable them to travel and engage in their destination. Guide them to understand and speak their own language with confidence and fluency.”

7. Understand when it is your issue, not your child’s.

“Parents need to attend to their own mental health issues and make sure that he or she is responding rationally and giving balanced, positive and helpful advice.

“So many parents are afraid and anxious of life and this leads to them becoming fearful and overprotective of their children. There can be so many reasons for this, but parents need to recognise when this is happening and seek help if needed so that they do not project their fears onto their kids.”

Do you believe modern parenting has become ‘toxic’? What do you think of some of John’s ideas? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

To order a copy of his book The Art of Growing up visit Pan Macmillan Australia here.