Change is often a process of groping in the dark. Rarely are new solutions found ready-made. They have to be discovered, tested and confirmed, and this process is full of detours, about-faces and downright dead ends. There is no choice but to grapple with the unpleasantness of uncertainty and forge ahead.
Modern parenting fits this model perfectly. We have come to a place in time where a chasm of uncertainty underpins our roles as parents. The models of previous generations are increasingly difficult, indeed to many simply not tenable, to use as templates for our own parenting. Many new parents are re-evaluating their roles as parents from the bottom up, attempting to parent from a newly defined set of values instead of parental imitation or following societal norms.
In a recent Childhood Australia Foundation (ACF) report on ‘The Changing Face of Parenting’, it was found that “two thirds of parents (66%) believed that the way they were raised by their own parents was very influential in their parenting today”1. Although it is surprising, considering the wording, that this figure is not 100%, the only surety we can draw from the information is that our most influential source of information on how we should parent comes from our own childhood. It is also suggestive that many are simply choosing to parent in the same way they were brought up, but it does not say why. In reality, many parents find themselves clinging to their own parent’s ways of doing things simply because they know no other alternatives. The danger with this, as the report suggests is that, “a heavy reliance on parenting approaches used by our own parents, may leave contemporary parents ill-equipped to confront the complex array of challenges faced by children and families in today’s world.”2
Despite many parents yearning for the simplicity of a widely accepted parenting model, the fact remains that the world has simply moved on. No longer do we have a world where parents gather great support from the common knowledge of “what one should do”, and where societal norms are homogenous and widespread. Today, nothing is certain anymore, and whether we cling to old models or try to invent new ones, the support base for either model simply does not exist.
An increasingly common approach is to reject previous models of parenting. This should not be confused with the normal generational change in perspective. This is much larger than that. We can see this with the emergence of totally new parenting ideologies and movements, based on values not seen before in typical parental models. Instead of a crumbling support base, (as with conservative parenting) this approach is underpinned by a gulf of uncertainty and a lack of community support. But rather than hold on to what an increasing number of parents see as outdated methods of child rearing, many contemporary parents are slowly building a new model from the ground up. Some let instinct take over and trust that they can find the road by themselves. The vast majority of parents, typically mothers, go to the library, read a swag of parenting books, latch on to an idea and then use that as a starting point. Attachment parenting, conscious parenting, social parenting, natural discipline – a wealth of alternative theories have gained popularity in the last decade, but these are not complete functioning parental systems. They are works in progress.
In the end, the slow implosion of ‘the old models’ is positive change. It has forced us to re-evaluate our values base. The difficulty however is choosing where to draw our values from. In the ‘moral’ fifties, values were a lot clearer. As the Danish family therapist Jesper Juul notes, it was a time when “political party ideologies and the church still played an important role as the moral foundation of the community” 3. Today, the only clear values that stand out seem to be the amoral values of the market. It’s hard to find a difference between the various political parties’ ideologies and values, if one can find them at all. The church is a shadow of its former self, having been reduced in stature and importance as it labours to find a relevant position in a rapidly modernising world. The educational system is as confused as any. Struggling to keep pace with change, it seems to espouse old fashioned ‘English boarding school’ values on the one hand and the values of the market on the other.
Into the void, in the parental guidance market at least, a plethora of ‘experts’ have arrived, jostling amongst themselves to attract their fair share of followers. Both in print, in person and on the Internet, parenting has become big business. Various schools of thought ply their trade, helping parents solidify their value systems in relation to parenting and families, and these range from the extremely old fashioned to the ultimately new aged. Coupled with the social isolation many families now live in, these choices parents make are increasingly faced alone. It is no surprise that a movement for community parenting has arisen, as it sometimes seems we are living the antithesis of this approach in the modern consumer world. As far back as a decade ago, Australian studies found a trend towards failing community support for parents and families. It was argued that “child rearing is increasingly taking place in an unsupportive context in modern society, mirroring the dominant philosophy of private parenting responsibility”4. Society is simply leaving it all up to us as individual parents to figure out how to raise children. This might seem right and suitable, but it must be noted that it veers a long way from the historical norms.
Complicating this modern approach is that while parents are left to figure it all out, they still have to struggle to satisfy the expectations of an often unsympathetic society. In the Australian Childhood Foundation survey, it was reported that “the majority of parents (70%) feel a lot of community pressure to “get parenting right” 5. This hypocrisy isolates parents even further. A better approach would be to give parents a break, but society as an animal has never been known for being magnanimous. Clearly we, as a society, like to sit on the sidelines and watch the struggle, judging and being entertained at the same time. Hence the rise of television shows such as Supernanny. The appeal of such a show is understandable enough given our nature, but it is of little use to parents in the real world – particularly ones who have decided on moral grounds to treat their children with respect and love, instead of dominance and retribution.
Supernanny works simply because any approach can work. The trouble however, is that there is quite a long distance between effective and respectful. As Jesper Juul writes in ‘Life in the Family’, “physical violence is without doubt one of the most effective methods in child rearing, if effective means that the adults get what they want as quickly as possible”6. The price though, is destructive relationships between parents and children. Supernanny’s use of “naughty corners” is humiliating and degrading to the children involved, yet the majority clap her on the back because the method is “effective”. Particularly enlightening in relation to the Supernanny phenomenon was a one day forum on a metropolitan newspaper’s Internet site. There were a wide variety of views expressed, but the Supernanny supporters were vocal and out in force, and there was a tendency for them to taunt anyone who challenged their opinion. Such attacks are totally unwarranted and are yet another illustration of the difficulties facing parents seeking a new dialogue about the child parent relationship.
A final illuminating statistic from the ACF survey was that “78% of the parents interviewed wanted more information about how to improve their relationships with their children”7. This is evidence that parents are crying out for help. Parenting has never been an easy job, and parenting in our busy, consumer focussed, not-so-family friendly society, is anything but easy. The rug has been pulled from under our feet, and many are struggling alone. Despite this, there is an opportunity for real improvement if we muster the courage to reclaim our values and build communities that support more meaningful dialogue between ourselves and our children. There lays the hope to create relationships based on equal respect and love, rather than a dictatorial relationship based on fear and shame.
Parenting will never be perfect. It’s in the striving that real success can be found. In the journey between A and B, it is the journey itself that needs to be appreciated. That journey however, can be somewhat clearer with a map to guide the way.
Geoff Powell is a freelance writer and photographer. He and his Danish ‘doula / childbirth educator’ wife are both passionate about a new way of parenting with respect for children at its core. Geoff is currently translating a Danish parenting book into English.