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Have we gotten better at parenting?

Cut Parents Some Slack
Parenthood has gotten better -- and more stressful.
Parenthood has gotten better -- and more stressful.
Sean Justice/Getty Images

If London teens involved with the August 2011 riots were symbols of a deficiency in British parenting, then the fact that at least half of American 18-year-olds tote around some sort of psychological diagnosis can't bode well for the state of U.S. parenting, either. Critics of modern parenting complain that adults have become too laid back toward their kids. They also claim that conveniences, such as infant formula and cell phones, have detrimentally altered parent-child bonds, as evidenced by one 2010 study out of the University of Notre Dame, which found that today's kids grow up less compassionate than those raised in foraging hunter-gatherer societies of the past [source: United Press International]. Yet for every negative research finding, there's a brighter one to balance it out. For instance, an Oxford University study published a year earlier uncovered no signs that British parenting practices are in a downward spiral [source: Oxford University].

The Oxford team initiated the study to investigate an uptick in behavioral and emotional problems among adolescents; lackluster parenting, the results indicated, likely wasn't the root cause of the internal distress. On the contrary, modern British teens and parents are actually more invested in each other's lives, spending more time together and keeping in touch more regularly than families in the 1980s [source: Oxford University]. Similarly, a separate 2000 time-use analysis among American parents found that moms and dads devote more of their daily schedules to childcare than they did in the 1960s, despite a widespread assumption to the opposite [source: Sayer, Bianchi and Robinson]. Twenty-first century fathers in particular have come a long way in becoming equal partners in parenting, far exceeding their own dads and granddads in their everyday interactions with sons and daughters [source: Konigsberg]. According to 2011 data from the Pew Research Center, married dads spend 6.5 hours each week taking care of the kids, compared to 1960s dads, who put in just 2.6 childcare hours each week [source: Yen].

Societal pressure to be gold-star moms and dads likely has contributed to the trend of more time-intensive parenting in the United States, but surveys also suggest a complementary, positive internal motivation as well. Survey data gathered in 2010 showed that the top priority of millennials between 18 and 29 years old was "being a good parent" [source: Pew Research Center]. Fifty-two percent of respondents ranked solid parenting as the most important thing in their lives, taking precedence over happy marriages, religion and high-paying jobs.

What's changed remarkably in the past 50 years isn't people's devotion to good parenting, but the stress associated with managing a family. Working mothers are more likely to feel rushed during their days than non-working mothers [source: Parker]. Bread-winning fathers report work-family balance as a primary source of anxiety and stress -- even more so than employed moms [source: Harrington, Deusen and Humberd]. And, as the Oxford University researchers noted in 2009, parents are significantly more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression and clinical anxiety compared to their predecessors in the 1980s, particularly single and low-income caregivers [source: Oxford University]. With so much angst permeating the average household, parenting critiques and evaluations may benefit ultimately from focusing less on checklists of parenting must-do's. Instead, they might pay closer attention to how a century of parenthood instruction has potentially diminished the joy of simply being a mom or dad.

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