Wednesday 22 November 2017

The competitive sport of modern parenting

Ailin Quinlan on the new challenges facing today's mums and dads

Parents spend a lot of time ferrying their children to and from activities
Parents spend a lot of time ferrying their children to and from activities
Stella O'Malley.

Ailin Quinlan

She'd probably be referred to a mandatory parenting course if she tried it these days, but on Saturdays my mother would regularly boot the five of us kids out the back door and lock it.

Her expectation? That the older ones would play, mind the smaller kids and only return in time for dinner, thus giving her time to catch up on the housework and feed the new baby.

That was in the 1970s, when families were large - according to the Central Statistics office some 16,000 families back then featured six or more offspring - children roamed freely and were mostly expected to amuse themselves.

Forty or 50 years ago, the expectations of parents were fairly simple: keeping a roof over their children's heads, putting dinner on the table and providing them with a decent education. Occasionally, parents might make a point of nurturing a child's exceptional talent at music or sports.

In return for their keep, kids were generally expected to make themselves useful by doing chores or minding the younger ones.

Fast forward to today. The big family is all but extinct; just 3,000 families have six or more children. The average family now has fewer than two children.

POLL: Parenting

So in families where there are no older siblings to play with a small child, guess who must step in? We may start off filled with a noble desire to be the best possible parent to our baby, but despite our best intentions, parenting rapidly becomes a competitive sport.

"People start asking if you're bringing your child to baby yoga or whether you've started baby sign-language, and the pressure is on," observes Stella O'Malley, a psychotherapist who has just published Cotton Wools Kids, a book on the culture of over-parenting.

This is a society of small families - the average number of children per family in Ireland at the moment is currently 1.4 - and significantly higher incomes because both parents are working.

According to CSO figures there are nearly 250,000 families in which both parents are out at work, compared to 235,000 in 2006. Because so many parents work fulltime outside the home, often with a long commute thrown in for good measure, more than one-third of children are looked after by carers other than parents, according to the Growing Up in Ireland Report which follows some 20,000 kids through their early years.

A large proportion of these - about 42pc - are minded by family members, often grandparents.

Grandparents often do school drops and pick-ups, and their interaction with the family, when positive and supportive, is hugely beneficial says Dr Patrick Ryan, Head of Psychology at the University of Limerick .

However, the big impact of both parents working, he cautions, is that children are looked after by a number of people. This brings its own problems: small children can be confused by the differing rules and attitudes of different carers.

"For some children this is distressing; for others it's not an issue," says Ryan.

But guilt about this lifestyle of early wake-ups and long days at a crèche may be affecting their child spurs many well-intentioned parents into overcompensating.

"Today," says Ryan, "parents feel they must nurture all the talents, ensure children suffer no sense of stress or unease, provide them with as many material things as possible - and all this while working long hours every day of the week without falling down in a heap of utter misery.

"This is where the competition comes in. Our child does five activities a week, but some other child does seven. We forget to look at what our child actually wants and needs," says Ryan.

Parents no longer expect children to contribute to the household chores. These kids are far too busy being ferried around from one after-school activity to another. Even 'fun' has to be scheduled, as the American culture of parent-organised 'playdates' takes hold.

Meanwhile, a blizzard of information from social media, the internet and TV creates exerts even more pressure on parents; to have an ultra-liberated mind-set, be relaxed about discipline, over-generous with their time, attention and money - and to take a back-seat to their children's needs.

The modern culture of encouraging parents to discuss parenting issues is positive, says Ryan, but he points out, it has also increased competition among them.

This is particularly evident in a whole new culture of 'pop' parenting styles. Are you a 'helicopter parent' who micro-manages and over-schedules a child's life? Are you rearing a 'cotton-Wool Kid' who lack resilience and are unable to make a single decision for themselves? Or are you a Tiger Mom, who demands A-grades, athletic excellence and prodigious musical achievements?

On a more positive note, Irish fathers these days tend to be more hands-on than the remote patriarchs of previous generations.

The sight of a dad pushing a buggy is no longer worthy of comment, and official statistics show there are in the region of 11,000 stay-at-home dads in the country.

However, the rise in the numbers of lone parents from 154,000 in 2002 to nearly 190,000 in 2011, and the predominance of families headed solely by mothers heralds another significant change. One in four families is a one-parent family, according to Census 2011.

Only about 13.5pc of these are headed by a father. Without a father who understands their need for rough and tumble, boisterous boys may be treated as being 'bold,' when in fact they're just being boys, O'Malley believes.

In another move away from the traditional family structure, and in what would have been almost unheard of in previous generations, many children are growing up in homes where their parents are not married.

There were 30,000 such couples in 2002 - nine years later this had doubled to 60,000. From a child's point of view, living in a family where the parents are co-habiting, would not make any difference - unless the parents separate or divorce.

Separation and divorce in this country is certainly on the increase. Figures rose by more than 22pc between 2006 and 2011.

So there's no doubt that the words 'parent' and 'parenting' apply across a more diverse range of Irish family units than ever before.

But it's possible to find reassurance in the words of Dr Ryan:

"Research tells us that when children are parented consistently, safely, securely and predictably, all will be well."

Irish Independent

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