Does anyone feel like being a parent has become even more challenging lately? I feel like parenting in the United States has become increasingly more demanding that it used to be for financial reasons, emotional reasons, and the increasing social pressure to make sure that our children are more successful than we were. I read a very interesting article by Claire Cain Miller in the New York Times back in 2018 and it’s really got me thinking now. I want to share some of it and my own thoughts with you.
Did you know that the word parent as a verb did not get widely used until the 1970s? This was around the same time as the explosion of parenting books all over the country. The ‘helicopter parent” was invented in the 1980s to keep kids safe from harm due to a rash of media attention frenzy child abductions. Even though these incidences were rare, the media ( like they do even now) focused us so strongly on them that it’s all we could think about and it changed a whole generation of parenting.
After the helicopters came the intensive parents. We are still most definitely in the intensive parenting era even now. Let me explain. Intensive parenting first showed up in the 90s and 2000s. We all changed our perspective with regards to our kids. Instead of viewing them as independent, joyful and capable of anything, we started seeing them as moldable, extremely vulnerable beings that needed to be shaped from a very early age. We had a lot of help with this thinking with all the child development research that was flooding our senses at every book store, social circle and media outlet.
So, what was the consequence of this intensive parenting shift? It sounds like it should mean that we spent a lot more time with our kids. In actuality, the real numbers of hours that parents and kids spent together did not change significantly, BUT, what we did during those hours changed a lot. Everything shifted to more hands- on interactions. We started doing more crafts, attending more recitals, going to more sporting events, spending more time helping with homework. Did you know that parents spend an average of five hours or more a week just helping with homework now, as compared to the 1970s? And we still worry that we are not doing enough. Another potentially unhealthy trend was that we started spending all of our leisure time focused solely on our children, instead of leaving anything for ourselves. We greatly increased structured activities, sometimes to the point that every single minute of our child’s lives, and thus our lives, was plotted out to the minute. Then came the overwhelming sense of guilt if you had a few minutes to yourself. We have started spending so much money doing this that we have created a new level of economic anxiety that we have never had before. To me, that is a recipe for disaster and resentment. When you leave nothing for yourself, how can you be the best parent you can be? I am not sure it’s possible. Of course, there is a finesse to the balance. I am not suggesting sitting and eating bonbons all day long while the kids run rampant like “Where the Wild Things Are” or anything.
We have taken this trend to another unhealthy level by tacitly not supporting the working parent. The job flexibility options to facilitate balance between work and home are just not universally available. Then here comes the guilt again about not spending enough time, but you have to work enough to feed them….and afford all their activities…don’t you?
Do you remember you felt free and joyous as a kid? Drinking from the hose? Playing outside until the streetlights came on? Not tied to a screen or having to go to ten activities in one day? Not every kid on the block was headed for an IVY league college? Was it so bad? Did you know that for the first time in history, it is actually about a 50/50 shot whether our kids will end up better off than we were? Studies also show that kids today aren’t any happier or more satisfied than they used to be either. Despite all this extra effort? Whaat?!
I think then that begs the question….what are we doing? Why are we doing it? I think we need to stop and think a minute. Slow down the relentless wave of activities. Allow our kids to think for themselves and be a part of choosing their own path. If what we are doing is not actually working, isn’t time we re-evaluated? I truly think that a child’s own path depends largely on the child. We all have heard stories of inner city children ending up rich and famous and likewise of privileged children ending up aimless with no steady job. No matter how many opportunities are thrown someone’s way or how many hours are invested, it is ultimately up to the individual to make the most of it. Let’s give them a chance to be independent. Let’s keep watching but not always interfering.( Within reason. I know even I can’t let things go all the time. ) If anything, you might have time to sip a glass of wine once in awhile and they might even end up happier. Isn’t that what matters the most? Just think about it.