“Tiger moms’, ‘helicopter parenting’; ‘authoritative parenting or authoritarian parenting’; ‘permissive parenting’ or ‘uninvolved parenting’… In the last decade or more there has been a lot of discussion and debate around ‘parenting styles’. In nuclear families with both working parents, and one or two children, there seems to be a situation where parents are overly conscious about “parenting” in order to give the “best of everything possible” to their children. Paradoxically, this is now beginning to show somewhat alarming outcomes.
I recently read a thought-provoking book titled The Coddling of the American Mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. The book’s primary intent is to understand the phenomenon of rising intolerance on college campuses in America. In order to do this the authors attempt to go back to the contemporary practices of child-raising that impact psyche and behaviour of these children as they reach adulthood. Although these premises are based on a study of trends and theories in the Unites States, it was surprising and disturbing that a lot of this applies also to some sections of parents in India.
One of the chapters in the book looks at the changes in parenting styles in America over the last five decades or so. Parents of children born in the nineteen fifties were strongly influenced by Dr Benjamin Spock who taught that “children should be permitted to develop at their own pace, not pushed to meet the schedules and rules of adult life.” Spock encouraged parents to relax and let children be children. Children growing up in the fifties, and through the sixties and seventies roamed freely around their neighbourhood and played without adult supervision. Unsupervised time had many positives in terms of child development—joy, independence, problem solving, and resilience.
But starting from the 1980s, and gaining strength in the 1990s, there was shift in thinking about child upbringing, moving away from Spock’s “permissive parenting” to a new model of “intensive parenting.” Which is what sociologist Annette Lareau describes as “concerted cultivation”. Parents using this style see their task as cultivating their children’s talents while stimulating the development of their cognitive and social skills. They fill their children’s calendars with adult-guided activities, lessons and experiences, and they closely monitor what happens in school. They talk with their children a great deal using reasoning and persuasion, and they hardly ever use physical force or physical punishment.
The main converts to this were educated middle class parents who were reading about new theories of ‘early stimulation’ (such as babies who listened to Mozart would become smarter) and who felt that they needed to give their children every possible advantage in the increasingly competitive race to get into a good college.
Cultivation of such conditions for children requires that parents make a concerted effort to plan their children’s time. Children have after school activities like music lessons, team sports, tutoring and other structured and supervised activities. Younger children have ‘playdates’. Children are overscheduled, over parented and over monitored.
The race for getting the child into a good college begins even before the child starts school. A telling example of the change in expectations are two checklists of reference indicators for parents to check whether their child is ready for first grade.
Checklist in 1979
–Will your child be six years six months or older when he begins first grade and starts receiving reading instruction?
–Does your child have two to five permanent or second teeth?
–Can your child tell, in such a way that his speech is understood by a school crossing guard or policeman where he lives?
–Can he draw and colour and stay within the lines of the design being covered?
–Can he stand on one foot with eyes closed for five or ten seconds?
–Can he tell his left hand from his right?
–Can he travel alone in the neighbourhood (four to eight blocks) to store, playground, or to a friend’s home?
–Can he be away from you all day without being upset?
–Can he repeat a simple eight or ten word sentence, if you say it once?
–Can he count eight to ten pennies correctly?
–Does your child try to write or copy letters or numbers?
A Checklist from a school, circa 2015, had about thirty items on it, mainly academic standards. This included the expectation that the six-year-old child should be able to:
–Identify and write numbers to100.
–Count by 10’s to 100, 2’s to 20 and 5’s to 100.
–Interpret and fill in data on a graph.
–Read all kindergarten-level sight words.
–be able to read books with five to ten words per page.
–Form complete sentences on paper using phonetic spelling (i.e. journal and story writing).
Kindergarten in the 1970s was devoted mostly to social interaction and self-directed play with some instruction in art, music, numbers and the alphabet. Kindergarten today is much more structured and sedentary with children receiving direct instruction to academic subjects—known as ‘drill and skill’ method of instruction.
In recent years, in addition to over parenting, protective parenting has grown into ‘paranoid’ parenting. Parents want to keep their children ‘safe’ from anything that they perceive might harm them—food, activities, people, words…This is creating a cult of safetyism, where children grow up believing that the world is full of danger.
The authors believe that such parenting, has adverse, rather than supportive effects on children. Overprotected children are also shielded from the small but necessary challenges and risks that they need to face on their own. The children grow up with a sense of fear, anxiety and distrust. They are denied the necessary opportunities to develop important ‘life skills’ such as self-directed learning, cooperation, negotiation, compromise, dispute resolution, decision making, and perspective taking.
Free outdoor play, a critical component of growing up that develops these skills is increasingly missing from children’s lives today. Studies in America have found that compared to previous generations, children growing up in the second decade of the 21st century are spending hardly any time in outdoor activities, especially free play; they spend less free time with friends and more time interacting with parents, and much more time interacting with screens.
This is perhaps almost as true now for most other parts of the world. Indeed, much more so in the last year and a half of the pandemic lockdowns. Even while the current conditions deny children many vital experiences and opportunities, it would be important to remember that even well-intentioned over parenting can harm rather than help our children. Children are naturally ‘antifragile’, their brains require a wide range of inputs from their environment in order to configure themselves for these environments. Like the immune system they must be exposed to challenges and stressors (within limits and appropriate to their age) to build resilience as they grow. Overprotection makes them weaker and less resilient later on. Given that risks and stresses are unavoidable parts of life, we may indeed be preparing our children better to cope with these, not by over-protecting them, but by helping them to develop their innate abilities to grow and learn from challenging experiences. As the authors write, you cannot teach your child antifragility directly but you can give your child the gift of multiple experiences they need to become resilient, autonomous adults.
Prepare your child for the road. Not the road for the child.