I was recently asked to contribute insights for some research on modern family dynamics. I concluded that the modern parenting experience can be summed up by a simple equation:
Lack of time and energy + wanting to be a good parents = stress.
Modern parents are labouring under a double whammy. We are working more and parenting more. We are desperate to be good parents but with so many demands on our time and energy, many of us feel like we are running just to stand still.
The fact is that most parents in the UK now work. Our working days have got longer and we commute further to work. That is a huge demand on parents’ energy and mental resources and most of us are stressed and exhausted before we start the evening parenting shift.
Yet we are a generation of parents who believe that being a good parent really matters. We want to get it right. We want to be hands-on and engaged. And we want to be seen to be succeeding at parenting (even if we don’t feel that we are). In the past, being a good parent felt simpler. It meant giving basic things like love and shelter and food and warmth, making sure the kids went to school and telling them right from wrong.
Being a good parent doesn’t feel so simple these days. Children have become much more influential family members. Children’s opinions tend to be sought and decisions are explained to them much more now. (‘No, because I said so’ is not a fashionable parenting stance). We have a much more nuanced understanding of all the elements that go into raising a healthy and happy person.
With so many demands on our time, energy and brain space, something has to give. And, for many parents, it is our free time that is being jettisoned. Children have moved to the centre of family life. Weekend family time revolves around activities aimed at children (petting farms, trips to the zoo, theme parks, children’s sports – football, hockey, rugby – birthday parties) rather than around adult’s leisure activities. Every Sunday as a child, I traipsed around from one cricket ground to another following my dad’s hobby – now adults are much more likely to be tagging along to children’s sports.
Desperate to squeeze more into less time, we try to supercharge parenting. Parents buy specific toys and gadgets that claim to boost children’s physical and cognitive development. We buy apps that claim to enhance children’s brain power and get them ahead in their learning. Unable to take time out to recharge our own batteries, we short circuit ourselves into relaxation through wine and boxsets.
Who is this good for?
Not children, it seems. Children are physically less fit. They spend more time indoors or in organised activities and less time outdoors or in that wonderful imaginative free play which builds resilient brains. Families may be spending more time together physically but we are interacting less. Peek into many homes and what you will see is everyone on their own digital device (even when they are in the same room). Families are not talking to each other so much.
And parents are so shattered from trying to do it all that it’s impossible stick to our guns and make good parenting decisions. We’d love our child to eat porridge in the mornings – but having to fight over it would waste time we just don’t have (and make us late for work). Sending them hungry to school makes you a lousy parent. So, we say yes to the sugary cereal bar and compromise more and more.
We know we are overstretched, which makes us feel guilty and even more anxious. We want the world for our kids and hope to get there by removing all obstacles in their path. We want them to fit in and never be left out or be sad or upset (forgetting that character is formed out of these experiences). So we work even harder and longer to try and buy them the latest trendy phone/school bag/hoodie and pay for all the clubs and sports we have to take them to in our ‘free’ time.
And so we go round in circles, trying to work more and parent more in a finite number of hours. Are parents happier? Are kids happier? Or would we all be better off doing a little less?
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