Is parenting really getting harder? Or just more confusing? How can anyone hope to get it right?
With recent reports that 10% of 12–13 year-olds fear they’re addicted to pornography, and that 20% of 14–17 year-olds have tried e-cigarettes, and that kids’ screen consumption has doubled since 1995, the question is being increasingly asked in one form or another: Do we live in a dark age for parenting?
The simple answer is no. Each generation has its strengths, failures, fears and challenges. It was a shade worse for kids when they were taken out of school and forced to labor in fields and factories for little to no pay. Were the 1950s a “dark age” for kids when parents were right just because they were older and they “said so”? Or by contrast was it a golden age of simpler times when kids knew their place and understood proper hierarchical dynamics? If we’re getting at all systematic about it, there’s probably a direct correlation to a civilization’s overall quality of life and that of the children’s. In general and on the whole, our children are flourishing.
What we are living in is an age of parenting anxiety. And while there are many positive social evolutions to our kid raising, there are similarly plenty of critiques. So what’s different today? What should we praise ourselves for? What should we tread in fear of?
What’s different? Parenting itself has become fetishized and commodified. We exalt parenthood now to ridiculous extremes. It’s as if the childless are somehow inferior for not having progeny. In fact, many people who don’t have kids are heroes compared to the ones who have no business bringing other humans into the world, but choose to anyway.
In general, though, the result of praising parents is positive. It’s hard work raising a kid, and it seems like a progressive stride in our collective intelligence to value the labor rather than hide it away or diminish it. We celebrate our kids like never before, and therefore we celebrate parenthood. We form public identities around being a parent, and view it increasingly as another profession. Men and women are sharing in domestic responsibilities more than ever. And while we may not have any more success in getting our kids to eat brussel sprouts than previous generations, at least we’re not force-feeding, screaming, or requiring them to sit at the dinner table for hours until they do (I’m speaking in generalities here, we all have our moments).
And even if we don’t use the information available to us about how to connect with our children in meaningful and (emotionally) supportive ways, at least the information is there. A good place to start, for what it’s worth, is Martin Seligman’s five measurable contributors to well-being: “positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment.”
What we’re getting wrong. Okay, but while we may not snap at them to sit down and shut up, or admonish them for being too big for their britches, we may tread in fear of harming their self-esteem if we so much as ask them twice to pick up their iPad so no one steps on it by the door. And that’s just it. We’re scared as hell by all that we don’t know, even while not employing all that we do (or should if we weren’t so busy meeting the daily demands). We’re anxious about getting it all right, or having it all, and constantly guilty because we know we’re not — all those self-celebratory Facebook posts with 100+ Likes notwithstanding. Yes, we create and generate fears. We know more, but we don’t necessarily know what to do with all the information.
What should we be afraid of? There’s a great deal we don’t know — that would be very useful to know — and only time will bring it to bear. What are the repercussions of our children spending on average six and a half hours a day (for boys it’s eight) on a screen of one kind or another? Well, we don’t exactly know. Clinical psychologist and Harvard Medical School instructor Catherine Steiner-Adair’s The Big Disconnect, certainly takes us a step further. We do know that especially during the first five years of their lives the neural pathways are forming emotional attachments that technology cannot substitute. We know that not as many neural pathways are at work when a teenager is “socializing” on Instagram as when he or she is in real-life (or analog) situations. We know that more and more kids are multi-screening, which just adds to the litany of problems associated with distractibility.
But mostly, we are only on the threshold of understanding the implications, good and bad. And even if we did know, what are we prepared to do about it? We are only in the “dark ages” by virtue of entering into a whole new world of technology. We are pioneers. There’s gold in them thar hills. There’s a lot of social and cultural capital to be made. There’s also a lot of danger.
How much screen time is too much? How much of growing up is about taking risks and experimenting? How much time should parents spend monitoring the brains of our offspring looking for dings and bright spots on their frontal cortexes to tell us whether they’re hitting an addiction center or an age-appropriate stimulation zone? How hard is parenting? Do you need to ask?
But that doesn’t make it a dark age. It just means there’s still a lot for us all to learn.