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Parents: Not up to the job?

Nancy McDermott

3399317 294x300 Parents: Not up to the job?There is no use in sugar coating it: parents are falling down in the job. Though most people will concede we mean well, the sad truth is, when it comes right down to it, most things are our fault. Climate change? Our fault. The debt crisis? Our fault. Economic decline, obesity, poverty? That’s us too.

Why? Because we are pulling a Phillip Larkin on the next generation, raising sad, ineffectual children who can not cope with a bad grade let alone the demands of adult society. All that time we were engaging in conflict resolution in the sand pit or bolstering their self-esteem, we were actually storing up problems for our kids and the world at large.

It started innocently enough with the desire to have a child. We had no practical reason to have this child, no land to work, no need for someone to look after us in our old age. What possessed us? Was it ego, the desire to populate the world with other people who resemble us? An accident?  Was it some deep biological need to reproduce our genes or simply the whim for a new fashion accessory? Whatever it was, it has been a disaster from start to finish.

Just leaving aside the sorry contribution that having a child in the developed world makes to the carbon footprint besmirching Gaia’s face, we are clearly totally unqualified. Just about anyone can have a child with no training or prescreening whatsoever. Even those who need to resort to fertility treatments to bring children into the world  do so with little or no forethought or preparation for the demands of parenting.

Science tells us that what we do matters – from the moment our children are conceived and maybe even before.  Fetal origins research has shown that even things that happen in utero cast a shadow that lasts a lifetime. We know for instance that the children of women who had the 1918 flu while pregnant did worse than their peers in almost every conceivable way, with less educational attainment, lower incomes and lower socioeconomic status. Over their lifetimes they had higher rates of disability, required more welfare payments and, discounting the effects of the war, they died younger.

A growing number of studies emphasize that women who are depressed in pregnancy appear to give birth to children who are more impulsive, aggressive and suffer more emotional problems than children of their more even tempered counterparts.

It’s not as simple as actively avoiding teratogenic drugs in pregnancy or abstaining from smoking or drinking. Every aspect of our environment, from plastic containers and off-gassing carpets to the odor or smoke seeping through the walls from next door may have untold effects down the line.

Birth ushers in a new set of challenges: creating secure attachment; feeding strategies, sleeping strategies. So many of our choices contribute to shaping our children’s destinies and thus the future of society. Do we read to them? How many words do they hear in our home? Are these words descriptive, neutral, harsh? Are we encouraging or admonishing, positive or negative? Do we use gender-neutral language, age appropriate explanations? Are our homes orderly or chaotic? Do we allow TV? How many books do we own?

When the stakes are this high it’s not surprising that early childhood, the period in which parents wield the most influence has become the focus for policy. President Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan has described the administration’s approach to education as one of “cradle to career” in which parents must share the responsibility with teachers and administrators for their children’s education. In the case of low income or “at risk” homes this literally means working with parents before their babies are born to teach them the basics of how to interact with them.

Of course, most parents don’t need policy to tell us that we bear a weighty responsibility. We live it and breathe it and we’re often our own harshest critics. Perhaps it’s understandable that many of us suffer with periodic episodes of doubt. Fortunately there are many resources designed to help us negotiate the difficulties of bringing up children.

Amazon offers over 126 thousand titles under the heading of “parenting and family”. For those who feel a class might help or those requited to attend classes by the courts (now a routine part of divorce proceedings in many places) there are literally thousands of parenting training programs in the United States. These include: PET (parent effectiveness training), Love and Logic, Positive Parenting, Sensible Parenting, Active Parenting, NVC (non-violent communication) and Dare to Discipline.

Some parents like Amy Chua famously rise to the occasion like the professionals they are, micromanaging their children’s activities and academic careers. Others like Bryan Caplan put their feet up and trust in biology. Most of us fall somewhere in between. In a sense it doesn’t matter what we think or do as individuals because the world is watching.

It makes intuitive sense. If the parent child relationship is the most important, the ability of young people to stand up to the challenges we face must, at least at some level be a reflection parenting collective parenting skills. Right? Wrong.

The problem with seeing all the world’s problems through the prism of the parenting is that it obscures all the other relationships and factors that play – or in this case aren’t playing into the development of children’s lives. As long as family groups have been distinct from wider social world, the relationship between parents and their children has been source of tension.

Over time western cultures developed a number of institutions and customs that helped to prepare the next generation to run society. Most of these had the effect of counterpoising the deep emotional relationships between parents and their children to those between young people, other adults and others of their generation. Schools, scouts, sports, universities, all worked to socialize children, to divide loyalties  and widen horizons beyond the family.

Today many of these institution are in crisis or decline and the informal relationships between children and adults who aren’t their parents are considered suspect. This loss of cultural resources has put parents in a difficult position in turn.

Parents have always loved their children. That much hasn’t changed. The difference is that parents today are increasingly expected to take an unprecedented role in a part of their children’s up bringing that was perviously a collective cultural task. We do it willingly because we instinctively understand unless we do it, no one else will.

We cannot possibly succeed. Socializing the next generation is a complex and inherently social task. If there is no pressure beyond the parents, no positive pole of attraction, it’s not surprising that things don’t work out leaving us parents to occupy the hot seat the crux of the universe.

No more. It’s time cut the apron strings. It’s true. Parents are not up to the job, but it’s because it’s a job we should never have been asked to do. Parents do matter, but not in the crass deterministic way we have been told we do. We matter because we have a visceral stake in creating the conditions for our children become competent, resourceful members of society. We can make a real difference to their lives and all our lives by insisting that better parenting does not hold any broader solutions to anything.

And while we’re at it, we might as well make it clear that it matters to us not because some of us share a gene pool with our children or because we’re tired of being blamed for everything or even that it would be good to solve the problems in general. It’s simply because we love them.

Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

Nancy McDermott is chair of the advisory board of Park Slope Parents, the second largest parenting group in the USA. She is speaking at Tiger mothers: the great parenting row at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 30 October.

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  • oommike

    OK, ditch parents.They have failed. But with what do we replace them?
    Unfortunately all the politically motivated attempts to create a brave new world have failed too.
    Where is Mary Poppins when we need her?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_VAB6XX6TWYVSMLY33FBDWDLGPY Helen

    Sad but true. You have to prepare to be hated and hang on by the skin of your teeth or it can so easily go t*ts up. The pressure of having “things” is huge and all pervasive and saying “no” is an art form which demands daily practice. Everyone else’s morals appear up the spout as you struggle to raise young people who you want others to like. I just might have bypassed all the obstacles littering the path of parenthood but no doubt my kids will in time let me know I too have failed. Until then I am blissfully unaware. The best state to be in. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alan-Wilson/636435309 Alan Wilson

    Great article Nancy, although a little harsh on parents, as I believe they are all doing the best they can with what they know. After working with thousands on parents and carers I suggest the biggest challenge they have is not putting themselves high enough up the priority ladder. You know, when you are happy you drive through challenges and your children relate to better, but there are not many courses that focus on you, it’s all about ‘fixing’ your children. But there’s nothing wrong with your children, they just want to see and be with a happy parent – so go and do something different for you and you will see a different result!!!
    Alan Wilson, Family Coach

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    Great article Nancy, although a little harsh on parents, as
    I believe they are all doing the best they can with what they know. After
    working with thousands on parents and carers I suggest the biggest challenge
    they have is not putting themselves high enough up the priority ladder. You
    know, when you are happy you drive through challenges and your children relate
    to you better, but there are not many courses that focus on you, it’s all about ‘fixing’
    your children. But there’s nothing wrong with your children, they just want to
    see and be with a happy parent – so go and do something different for you and
    you will see a different result!!!

    Alan Wilson, Family Coach

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kelvin-Watson/100001932905655 Kelvin Watson

    We all need a senseof the ‘Village’ not just an explosive nuclear family; so the community has got parenting wrong perhaps. Modern cities may not be child friendly-too concerned with following Mammon and not prepared to allow the mess children love. I had no sense of village and felt and feel lost; my children were brought up in a residential business setting where life went on round about them in a personal friendly way and they turned out so well-no dummies, no tantrums, well-lsocialised…maybe I shoulod be asked for my help in my dotage.


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