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Parenting Trends Then & Now

Free-range parenting gives way to less permissive styles.

As a child of the ’80s, I can recall vividly several highlights of 1986: swooning at Tom Cruise’s Maverick in Top Gun, watching MTV videos from The Bangles and ZZ Top and playing Atari’s Centipede for hours on end. In summers, we added to that regimen endless bike rides, trips to the pool and adventures with neighborhood kids until dusk. And we did it all with little or no parental supervision.

Now as a parent some 30 years later, that latchkey-kid era is long gone, replaced by far less permissive parenting techniques. Why the dramatic change? “I think the biggest shift is that we all want to do better than our parents did,” says Susan Dockerill, CEO of Life Works Parenting Tools, international speaker and parenting educator. “The problem is we tend to go to the extreme.”

Experts say there are several reasons for the pendulum swing from the predominantly “free range” parenting of past decades to more involved, modern methods. Examples include helicopter parenting, a style defined by overprotectiveness or excessive interest in the life of the child, or attachment parenting, which focuses from birth on the nurturing connection between parent and child primarily through empathy, responsiveness and touch.

Why the Pendulum Swing?

One factor in that significant shift is a general fear of kids” harm spurred by broader media coverage, says David MacPhee, Ph.D., professor emeritus for the Department of Human & Family Studies at Colorado State University. “Abducted children first started appearing on milk cartons in 1979,” he says. “People tend to overestimate the odds of events that are widely publicized and horrific—think of mass shootings versus fatalities due to bee stings and car accidents—even if statistically they are very rare. So I think that this led many parents to fear for their children’s safety.”

Today’s parents also are more sensitive to their children’s feelings than in generations past. “I think parents these days are more emotionally attuned to their kids and are afraid of wounding their feelings,” MacPhee says. As a result, he says, “Parents are less inclined to use consequences than they were probably using a couple of generations ago.”

With the advent of reality television and social media, Dockerill says, today’s parents are also feeling more pressure than ever to churn out high-achieving kids. “There’s a lot about looking good,” she says. “You want your kid to be the best, and there’s a lot of competition.”

The single biggest challenge for today’s parents from 30 years ago is technology, says Charles Fay, Ph.D., author, speaker and CEO of the Love and Logic Institute in Golden. It’s not that it’s evil, he says, but accessible technology has created a whole new set of worries for parents: texting and driving, Internet bullying and technology addiction, to name a few. “The big difference is that these problems are coming out far faster than before, and the consequences for the kids are so much more dramatic than before,” he says.

Problems with Parent Involvement

In general, experts say, today’s parents are also more involved in every facet of their children’s lives than 30 years ago. Some say a little too involved. “We have an epidemic right now of over-parenting,” Dockerill says. “And kids are getting less resilient in a world that’s getting harder.”

Fay says easy access to technology means today’s kids often seek immediate gratification—i.e., “I can find something better with just the click of a mouse”—resulting in a general lack of contentment and “grit.” “There are lots of young people who are great but lack perseverance,” he says. “All great people have had that grit, that ability to stick with things, and go back to them over and over again until they find some solution.”

To offset that, Fay says, this generation of parents needs to be vigilant in teaching their kids to find contentment internally. “Allow them to be bored; allow them to not be entertained,” he says.

Good News For Today’s Parents

But it’s not all bad news for today’s parents. Despite an increase in the number of both parents working outside the home, a 2010 Journal of Marriage and Family study indicates parents today spend more hours per week with their kids than in 1985—about 21 hours compared to 11.5.

And while in decades past, fathers” roles focused on earning income, more than half of today’s fathers (57 percent) view parenting as a critical part of their identity, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey.

Even more good news? Fay says despite the challenges parents face in 2016, 30 years later the fundamentals of good parenting and kids” needs remain unchanged. “The basics of parenting haven’t changed; we”re still built the same way,” he says. Parents need to give themselves permission to “be a little old-fashioned,” Fay says, like asking kids to complete a homework assignment without a computer or simply go outside and play. “All we can do is dramatically increase the odds of a great outcome,” Fay says. “And parents need to hear that your kids are going to mess up, and you’re going to mess up. And you can’t control everything, and that’s O.K.”

Further, MacPhee says he believes the pendulum will swing back to more authoritative parenting as parents understand the importance of developing kids” executive-function and self-regulation skills, mental processes that help them plan, focus and make healthy decisions. “I think as we learn more about some of the fundamentals around self-regulation, parents will model and regulate that behavior,” he says.

Dockerill agrees: “It’s really about teaching life skills,” she says. It’s crucial for parents to let their kids fail and suffer consequences before the stakes are high. “You just have to be there with empathy when (kids) do fall,” she says. “The bumps and bruises are what’s going to keep them resilient.”

From the carefree days of 1986 to today’s media and technology inundation, its no wonder modern-day parents are over-involved and hyper-concerned. But with a little back-to-basics parenting—outlining firm expectations, offering unconditional love and allowing kids to fail—we”re sure to rear a generation that’s prepared for the next 30 years.

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