Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why has parenting changed?

I've read a lot about "modern" parenting (at least of that of the people who are not near the poverty line).  I'm not sure what proportion of the population I speaking to here, but its people like me who waited until our thirties to have kids, who have at least a college degree, and expect our spouses to change diapers.  Most of my high school class at our 20 year reunion had a child (their first) under 5 years old. We are people who think very carefully about how we going to be a parent (or at least read about in the NYT and talk to our friends about it).  We all know things have changed- unlike in the past, we make sure our kids are more safe (no wandering the neighborhood- now we have play dates; playgrounds are safer, we use car seats, etc.)  We parent in ways that are less like how our parents did it- ie we are more lenient and less authoritarian (at least that's how its perceived).  We try not to say "NO" and tell our kids what they can do, give our kids choices rather than relying on reward and punishment.   I could make this list longer, but you can add your own stuff.

I used to think this was all about that some of us (OK, me) chose to have children, and we want to take on the responsibility of our choice- we want to do it right.  We might only have one of them, as well.  In other words, we invest a lot of emotion and often research into doing it "right".

I know parenting is always changing, and often we think of the changes as reactions to the generation before.  There is some of that, but I don't think that's really what is going on here.  Some people (like myself) are not really unhappy with the way they were raised, but still they expect that life is different now, and the ideals for child raising are changing.  What is different?

Are we more judgmental?  It sounds like we are.  But why is that?  Is it because we realize that we all pay the costs as society for poor parenting? I don't think so.  If we did we would support programs that support good parenting and make sure kids are safe, healthy, and not hungry.  Is it because we are more concerned about our children's peers?  Perhaps, but I think that has always been a concern- that is why we send our kids to the "right school" or live in the "right neighborhood" if we can.  And at the same time, we are less judgmental about certain things- religion, race, gender....we are more tolerant of differences here.

And I think its all related.  One of my friends told me how she wished we'd been told to really consider our spouse's family life/expectations and experiences before we married them.  A lot of people are now raising children with people who had utterly different experiences of culture, discipline, wealth... growing up, and thus somehow they have to find common ground to raise children.  I think this quest to raise children with somebody who might not share your expectations for how children should be raised brings on this questing to find the "best" way to raise a child, and to invest a lot of effort into figuring it out.  You not only have to convince yourself and your parents that you are doing it right, but you have to convince that spouse that didn't grow up like you did.  And if you've put in all this effort to figure it, out, you might feel that you have some grounds for judging others.

In older generations, mixing of class, race, etc was less common, and even when it happened, generally, the women was seen as the primary caregiver who made the decisions about child rearing.  People seemed to be more invested in community (church, and other civics), and shared more values and norms that did not have to be discussed.  They were clear and obvious.  Even if you didn't do them, you knew what you were supposed to do.

Now we are mixing across sub cultures more than ever, we don't necessarily share values and norms with our neighbors.  Additionally, the father is supposed to be included in the decision making.  Its a recipe for conflict, but also for spending the time and energy to think very carefully about what we are doing, and what really is best for the child.  Parents are also older now, so that they have had a lot more time to think about everything.  Perhaps they are wiser, perhaps not, but their world view is that of a thirty-something than than a 20-something year old. Combine the mixing of cultures with an awareness of how important the physical environment is to your child's health (now we know that lead and other chemicals or nutrition can have serious effects), and smaller families that allow more effort to be focused on one or two children, its no wonder we raise our children differently than our parents did.  We've had to think more carefully about it, make different compromises with our spouses, are aware of many more dangers than we used to be, and are investing in a much smaller number of children.

On an unrelated note: my science play space project just lost its possible free space-  the people we were supposed to share the building with just decided to close their business.  This development might have advantages...depends on what other space we get.  We could use the time to build our base, so its not really horrible. One of our grant deadlines got extended a lot (unrelated, but welcome, since the deadline was tomorrow!)

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