Saturday, March 12, 2016

The kids are probably alright after all

Amid all the doom and gloom in recent years about how modern parenting styles are spoiling children, leaving them unprepared for the contemporary world and open to all manner of mental illnesses, it is refreshing to read an article putting some of these claims into context, and concluding that actually we're not doing too badly after all.
According to recent bestselling books like Leonard Sax's The Collapse of Modern Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat The Like Grown-Ups, Jennifer Senior's All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood and Alex Russell's Drop the Worry Ball, as well as viral social media posts like Emma Jenner's 5 Reasons Modern Day Parenting is in Crisis, we are failing our kids. It seems that by giving our kids so much time and attention, we are allowing them to grow up to be "entitled, selfish, impatient and rude adults", damning them to an existence in which they are "less resilient, less physically fit, and more likely to become anxious or depressed - and far more fragile - compared with kids from the same demographic 30 years ago".
It sounds like a hopeless case, but, as Leah McLaren's article points out, the empirical evidence just does not always back up these claims. In fact, this may be the best time ever to be a middle-class kid in Canada.
The Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD) has produced many reports on childhood and parenting trends. One such report from 2012 concludes that children with engaged and involved parents tend to do much better at school, have higher personal aspirations, and are more likely attend and graduate from a post-secondary institution. This only makes intuitive sense, and is not necessarily counter to what they doomsayers are claiming.
Another common misperception is that modern children are chronically over-scheduled. CCSD reports that, in fact, 21st century middle-class kids are involved in no more activities than their equivalents a decade earlier. Indeed, they participate in fewer organized sports, and rates of other organized activities have remained more or less stable.
Certainly, it is the case that modern parents put more thought, commitment, time and resources into bringing up their children. They shout less, and are much less likely to hit their kids. We also now have seat belt laws, nutritional guidelines, rules about second-hand smoke, and playground safety regulations. As a result, various different studies show that modern Canadian kids are safer, healthier, smarter, more literate, more likely to stay in school, and less likely to become drug or alcohol addicts, or to commit crimes than ever before. Modern parenting is much more based on good science and solid numbers than it ever was in the past.
Not all the news has been good. Child obesity is up, despite the availability of nutritional guidelines, and child poverty is not yet quite a thing of the past (even if the number of children living in "abject poverty" has improved some). But in general, things are good for kids today. Behaviourists like Leonard Sax, though, might say: "Are they happier? Are they as well-adjusted as kids were in 'the good old days?' "
The reputable Vanier Institute of the Family suggests that this generation of children are much more emotionally open and connected to their parents and, crucially, they are generally better able to communicate. This is one reason posited for the apparent increase in childhood anxiety: today's kids are more likely to communicate their anxiety.
Part of the recent change in our approach to parenting is a movement away from old-style behaviourism, which generally involves the administration of consequences (time-outs, withdrawal of privileges or attention, threats of violence if not violence itself) for perceived bad behaviour. In the last 20 years or so, behaviourism has largely been supplanted, certainly in diagnostic circles, by more compassionate and child-centred "attachment parenting", which aims to teach children empathy and self-regulation. It is a philosophy backed up by modern advances in neuroscience and the understanding of brain plasticity, the development of the frontal cortex, and infant cortisol levels. Thus, modern mothers are encouraged to breast-feed on demand, not by the clock, and to avoid unnecessary crying and bad feelings. It might involve allowing a child to have a tantrum in a store or a restaurant, and merely explaining that this is not an effective method of protest. Some of the more extreme forms of attachment parenting (like co-sleeping, constant carrying, extended breast-feeding, etc) are outliers of this approach, and not necessarily to be recommended.
I'm not sure I am 100% behind this approach, personally. My childhood was very much behaviourism-based (complete with some actual violence!), and my own parenting was at least partially informed by that approach, maybe a kind of hybrid. But I still can't imagine asking a howling toddler to "name the feeling", or letting it scream at all hours of the night.
My daughter (20 years old now, and blasting through university) seems well-adjusted and happy enough, although she claims to have periods of depression, and clearly does have some anxiety issues which she is gradually dealing with herself more and more effectively. Was I happier and/or better-adjusted at her age? I have no idea. The childhood and teenage years are a trial for all kids, but most of us get through them one way or another, and learn to live in the real world and make our own contributions to society.

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