By child psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer
Children and parenting are currently hot topics and the wealth of ‘how to’ guides for parents coupled with reports which state that children in Britain are at the bottom of the league table for emotional well-being suggest that something is not working.
Children learn by modelling. There are many often over-lapping areas of development and some are very difficult to ‘teach’. Therefore, the best thing parents can do for their children is provide happy, healthy role models for them to copy.
Each family is unique and children thrive when they feel comfortable in their environment and have ‘goodness of fit’. ‘How to’ guides on childrearing, especially those which are child-centred (most of the literature available today) ignore individual differences in family situations and result in feelings of failure, resentment and guilt by parents who are trying their hardest to raise happy, healthy children.
By understanding how parenting today differs from parenting in previous generations (dispersed families, working parents, increased single parent families, the internet, safety fears, expectations of parents and children etc), and recognising how these differences impact on family life, parents can assess their own family’s needs and make decisions which suit their lifestyle, and which are beneficial to the whole family.
Parent-Centred Parenting empowers parents to ask for help and to provide support for each other. This promotes positive messages of respect, tolerance and self-determination to our children and increases the chances they have of growing up into happy, healthy, responsible adults.
What are the problems with current models?
Child-centred approaches (those which place the needs of the child above the needs of other family members) to parenting were developed in the 1970s. Whilst young children are vulnerable and need protection against exploitation and abuse, I believe the pendulum has now swung too far, and individual children’s needs are often being prioritised over the needs of the other members of the family. This can create a no-win situation when two children have conflicting and mutually exclusive needs. Parents are left feeling inadequate, guilty and resentful. This is having a detrimental effect on everyone (even the child who is having all their needs met!), and producing a society which suffers from unprecedented levels of mental health issues both in adults and children.
Most of the popular approaches to parenting today are still ‘child-centred’, where parents are helped to understand their children’s needs and how to meet them. Whether it is baby’s sleep patterns, feeding times or cognitive development, there are books, courses and experts that will help new parents recognise their children’s needs and work out what they should be doing in order to do the best for their child. They focus on the needs of one child and therefore are not helpful for parents who are trying to meet the needs of a larger family. This can result in parents feeling that they are failing all their children if they are unable to meet the standards of care for subsequent children that they were able to give the first.
An additional, unintended consequence of this style of parenting is that it is often the child perceived to have the most ‘needs’ who dictates the family’s actions. This is clearly unfair on other children in the family, but also on the parents as it prevents them from ‘parenting’ the way they would like to.
The result of a child-centred approach can be an overwhelming sense of failure, guilt and inadequacy on the parts of the parents. By taking a more parent-centred approach, it is possible to redress the balance and end up with a system of parenting which balances the needs of all the members of a family.
Why is parenting different today?
In developing any model of parenting or childhood, it is important to acknowledge the effects of the environment that people are living in. Social norms change and so do the problems faced by the people in society. This is not to say that parenting models from the last century are not relevant today, but they can’t be expected to predict or understand the demands placed on parents by developments such as the internet, environmental concerns, and different working practices.
Expectations of parents have also changed over time. Parents in previous generations didn’t have the term ‘quality time’ in their vocabulary, nor did they worry about their children’s education until they were at least six. There was little expectation for women to do anything outside the home and families tended to live closer together, providing invaluable support networks for new parents. The closer knit communities meant that young adults were often around children (nieces, nephews etc) throughout their lives and the whole idea of raising children was less daunting because of this. Parents today tend to be older, and therefore more established in their career and social life, which can involve little interaction with young children and babies. It is increasingly common for a successful professional to have spent little or no time in the presence of babies until they have one themselves. It is no wonder, then that intelligent, capable people are being blind-sided by the changes that take place when a new baby arrives.
In today’s society, education is emphasised from an early age which means that parents no longer feel that their child is learning enough by being involved with or watching adults and older siblings, they must have their own activities – hence the plethora of baby toys and classes that have sprung up over the last decade. Previous generations of parents simply didn’t have the same pressure to educate their children.
The freedom parents give their young children has also reduced greatly over the last few decades. Many adults can remember being let out to play and told to be back for tea. This would give the parent time to cook, clean and have some time to themselves. Today’s children do not, normally, get the same level of freedom, and so are more demanding of parent’s time and energy. As a result, they also tend to be less able than previous generations to amuse themselves, resolve their own conflicts and communicate effectively. This all combines to make a parent’s job more stressful and tiring and can result in compromised ability to cope.
Recent reports of ‘Cotton Wool Childhoods’ (Ed Balls, BBC News, July 17th 2007) and books such as ‘No Fear’ by Tim Gill highlight the detrimental effects of over-supervision on children’s development, but there is little recognition of the added demands that reduced freedom and increased fear has on parents.
It’s not that there is anything wrong with taking a child to baby classes, quite the reverse, with one proviso – as long as it is not having a negative impact on the parent. If a parent enjoys the classes and sees them as an opportunity to meet with other adults then great, but sometimes the pressure of having to be somewhere at a certain time, when a young baby is not in a routine, or the appointment is eating into nap time, can lead to conflict and turn what is supposed to be a fun experience into a stressor. The effect that repeated stress can have on a family and on a child’s development is enormous.
Why is it important for parents to look after themselves?
To be clear, no one is advocating that parents neglect their children and it’s important to acknowledge that babies and young children do need a lot of time and help in order for them to thrive. It is the fact that children are so demanding, that makes it all the more important that the people looking after them are physically and emotionally able to provide the level of care that the children need.
Babies and young children are dependent on parents and rely on them to make decisions about food, sleep and activities. As babies do not come with an instruction manual, it is up to the parents to use their skills and abilities as parents to work out what the child needs and how best to provide it. Parents who are happy, confident and supported are much more likely to be able to respond to the child’s needs appropriately than a parent who is stressed, over-tired or depressed. When looked at like this, it becomes easier to see how a parent-centred approach may be more beneficial in helping parents be the best people they can be and ultimately, do what is best for their children.
Common issues faced by working mothers
Trying to balance the demands of children with those of a job can be incredibly challenging. Some mothers wish they could jack it all in and stay at home. Some may be feeling guilty that they ‘escape’ to work leaving the childcare to someone else. Others might be balancing a part time job with being at home for the children and feeling that they are not doing either as well as they would like. Hopefully, there are some who feel that they’ve got the balance right in their life.
Common problems reported by working mothers include:
- Feeling torn between work and family
- Having no time for their partner
- Wanting to make the most of every minute that the children are around
- Feeling that they are missing out
Parent-Centred Parenting shows that there is no universal right or wrong decision about work; getting the balance right means getting it right for each parent/family. Children benefit more from having healthy happy parents who work as much or as little as they want/need to than they do from having either the extra money that working longer would bring, or more time with a resentful mother who, enjoyed her job, but is staying at home because she feels obliged to. Again, the message of this model is that parents should feel able to meet their own physical and emotional needs, and know that in doing so they will be doing what’s best for their children.
Benefits for society of Parent-Centred Parenting.
If parents are able to be the people they want their children to become, the children will both respect their parents and value themselves, and later be the parents they want their children to become.
The benefits for society as a whole seem enormous and are predicted to include:
- Reduced cost of mental health issues such as post natal depression
- Reduced youth crime
- Increased social skills
- Increased respect
- Lower divorce rates
- Increased support for parents
- Increased understanding of child development issues
- Improved education outcomes
- Less abuse and neglect of children
- Less domestic violence
These are grand ambitions and it would be impossible to claim that Parent-Centred Parenting was solely responsible for any improvements in society, as there are many interventions which are being implemented at any one time and the efficacy of any one is difficult to gauge. However, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine how happy healthy role models for children will, in time, produce a society that is generally happier an healthier than the current one.