Are you trying too hard to be a good parent?
Published 13/04/2010 | 05:00
No doubt frightened of being told to go to bed while I read my book, my 11-year-old son asked on Sunday night if we could watch a DVD together. He gave me a choice of two: Michael McIntyre Live at Wembley -- oh please not -- and the 1986 film that launched River Phoenix's brief career, Stand By Me: a story about four 12-year-old boys who go off together down a railway line to find a dead body.
Yes, I said, eager like any guilt-ridden working parent to tick the box called "childcare" while also doing the crossword, lying on my bed, and running a bath. We cuddled up together cosily for an hour and a half -- less if you subtract the times when I had to leave the room for fear that one of the other children was about to be mown down by a train.
But that happy evening left me with a problem of definition when I opened the newspaper. Could film-watching with one arm draped around a child be reckoned among my working mother's childcare minutes, as quantified by Dr Oriel Sullivan?
The Oxford University sociologist gave a paper at the British Sociological Association's annual conference in which she looked at how much time parents spend on childcare, and how this has changed since 1975.
There appears to have been a dramatic shift: men are up from 8 minutes per day (scarcely enough for a bedtime story) to a princely 32 to 36 mins (enough for two stories and a fight about bedtime).
Women, meanwhile, have made even greater strides towards child-centredness. In 1975 working mothers spent just 8 to 21 minutes on childcare, which makes it hard to understand how they ever managed to feed their children, let alone have rows about homework and lost shoes.
Twenty-five years later, that had increased to a magnificent 51 to 86 minutes. According to Dr Sullivan, who has not yet had time to crunch through thousands of time-use diaries for 2005, the upward trend appears to continue: not only are parents spending more time with their children, both sexes are also devoting more hours to household chores. Hooray.
Children are getting far more attention than ever before from both working parents and they are living in clean homes. Fingers crossed, they should end up sane and healthy.
It sounds like unequivocally good news, but not everyone agrees. "This intensification of parenting is a pretty bad thing," says Professor Frank Furedi, who wrote Paranoid Parenting. "There's a slightly obsessive dynamic at work that makes mothers, and increasingly fathers, live their life for their child."
"And are children the better for it?" asks a cynical friend who, like all working parents, is constantly anxious about getting it right. "If we are all so much better at parenting, why is it that when children come to my house for lunch they seem unable to say a word, and just sit there playing with their PSPs?"
Tricky one that. Nice as it would be to congratulate ourselves for once on doing something right, we may be fooling ourselves.
It may even be an illusion that we are spending more time with our children. To some extent, Sullivan says, we are simply reclassifying activities -- such as watching films -- as childcare because it suits our self-image. My father, for example, would never have described watching the cricket, with me looking bored in the same room, as childcare; I bet he would now.
But however slippery the data, it is abundantly clear within minutes of meeting any parent that, regardless of how much time we spend with our children, we are obsessed by them. They have become domestic gods, our purpose in life, the focus of our spending, ambitions and spare time.
Weekends are no longer about parents amusing themselves, while children tag along. The children decide what to do -- as long as they let us tag along.
We do, however, like to insist that they choose from a list of improving activities that may one day mean they get into the right school, and top university. They'll thank us for it, we assume.
I plead guilty. When my five children, now aged 11 to 20, were younger I would start every weekend by asking them what they wanted to do. Greeted by blank looks, I would take them off, protesting, to a museum or gallery.
As they crashed around annoying adults, I would hiss like a latter-day Joyce Grenfell, telling them to behave while I pointed out interesting facts about Impressionists. A low point occurred in the Prado Madrid where I sang so tunelessly to quieten my bored son that other visitors begged me to shut up.
Every parent I know has been through the same rigmarole. "Changes in the educational system have put pressure on parents to instil in children their cultural capital," Sullivan notes.
We want them to do at least as well as we have ourselves. That seems to mean taking them to Shakespeare, aged five, in the hope that somehow the wonder of the language will result in a lifelong love of literature, rather than a yearning for an ice cream in the interval.
All this anxious attention has its good side, of course. "My father was a remote figure, in a way that few fathers are nowadays," says Carl Honore, father of two and author of the childcare book, Under Pressure. "It's something we should celebrate about modern life."
As a striving sort himself, he has made a conscious effort to rein in the busy parent's tendency to make every second count.
"Children can sense if you are with them, but really want to be somewhere else, that you are just going through the motions," he says. "Guilt can backfire. You aren't necessarily harming the children, but you are wasting your time."
He, too, has been through the museum and galleries routine, but has given up, now that the children are old enough to have their own ideas. "The obsession with buffing up a child's CV is part of a whole culture of thinking of children as projects and viewing parenting as product development. Again that backfires.
"Instead of being relaxed and fluid, parenting becomes about striving."
Every child will find their own interests and obsessions. My own have gone to some lengths to identify activities in which I have no personal interest, so I can be sure not to want to come to the gig, the shoe shop, the skateboard park or the hot Bikram yoga class.
That's fine, so long as every now and then they parrot some deep thought about life, that they may have gleaned during my hours ferrying them around.
Acting as their personal slave, I would like to believe, has had no ill effects. But there are only a certain number of hours in the day, and if we are spending ever more of them on children and housework, something has to give.
Too often that's the parents' own relationship. As for old friends, those who don't have children of exactly the right ages, and who happen to get on with your own offspring, are often cast into outer darkness. Instead we adopt our children's social lives. We hook up with the parents of our children's friends because we think we can only enjoy ourselves if the children are happy.
'I'm so excited Claudia Schiffer is having a baby at the same time as I am," says one pregnant friend. "She lives nearby. I know we are going to be best friends." It's not an unrealistic aim because social life is often child-led. What begins at antenatal classes carries on inexorably until they leave home. On top of the empty nest, that can leave us with an empty life.
"I recently bumped into an academic in Arizona who said he had no friends left," says Furedi. "When I asked him why, he said that all his friends were parents of their children's friends."
That's not just sad for the parents but for the children who have had the parents hanging around all the time, They want to be left alone. Watching Stand By Me brought that home to me. As in all good children's stories from Little Women to Harry Potter, it's about children who don't have parents fussing round them.
The four boys in the film came from variously damaged homes, and were left to their own devices. As a foursome, they made their own fun and mistakes.
The story is told by one of them, looking back wistfully on his early life. It ends with the line: "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?"
Wiping away a sentimental tear, I wondered whether my son had wanted me to watch for a reason.