Have we gotten better at parenting?

Nearly a quarter of the August 2011 London rioters were under 18 years old.
Nearly a quarter of the August 2011 London rioters were under 18 years old.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

When four days of London rioting in August 2011 left behind $480 million (£300 million) in damaged property, government officials didn't blame just the looters for wrecking so many cars and buildings. In the wake of that mayhem, in which roughly 20 percent of the rabble-rousers arrested were under 18 years old, Prime Minister David Cameron also called out the roving teens' parents for failing to raise up law-abiding youth [source: Quilty-Harper et al]. And rather than just verbally slapping those mostly low-income mums and dads on the wrist, Cameron and the Children's Ministry spearheaded an $8-million (£5-million) test program of government-subsidized parenting classes to cover topics such as nutrition, reading and discipline [source: Richardson].

As of May 2012, vouchers for free parenting classes had been released to the public, but the save-the-kids plan also made some Brits wary. The notion of applying careful methodologies and detailed instruction to parenting is an American-born import that floated across the pond in the 1970s [source: Gentleman]. In the United States, a growing emphasis on "good parenting" in the 20th century spawned an entire industry of experts, self-help books and products that are supposed to help men and women bring up blue ribbon babies. Some in the U.K. feared that the parenting classes represented an unnecessary injection of American angst and stress into the tough-enough duty of childcare [source: Gentleman].

But when did parenthood, a word coined not so long ago in the mid-1800s, become something that required instruction manuals in the U.S. or abroad? For Americans, that occurred as a domestic ripple effect of the Industrial Revolution, which also delayed the age people got married, diminished the national fertility rate and ushered nuclear families from the fields to more urbanized areas. Before that, large families were the norm, meaning that siblings had to help raise each other, picking up parenting basics along the way [source: Lepore]. By 1926, when the publisher of Child, the first American magazine intent on delivering parenting how-tos, recognized a maternal market waiting to be served, new mothers unversed in baby-handling were desperate for step-by-step instructions on how to be adequate, if not superior, parents [source: Lepore]. Since then, that collective yearning for child rearing know-how has only grown, prompting the question of whether the reams of parenting advice Americans have gobbled up in the ensuing decades have made a positive impact on the kids.

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.

Author's Note

If there's anything that I've learned from researching modern parenthood, it's that being a mom or dad isn't easy these days. Sure, there's the stress of maintaining incredibly hectic schedules, despite the technological advancements that are supposed to make our lives easier. But for parents, there's also an unrealistic external pressure, particularly in the United States, to be parenting all-stars and raise exceptional children. Just consider the never-ending social debates about working versus non-working mothers and fathers, public versus private school educations, breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding, and so on. And somewhere, in the midst of all that in-fighting, people are expected to find joy in parenting, when in reality, rates of anxiety and depression among adults and adolescents alike have only risen.

So rather than attempting to quantitatively evaluate how good of a job today's parents are doing, I thought it would be more beneficial to touch on more qualitative issues. How much do modern moms and dads want to be good parents? A lot. How much time are they spending with their kids? On average, more than their own parents and grandparents spent with them. Is it time to banish societal expectations of perfect parenting? Absolutely.

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