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parenting in today's world

The Solution to Today’s Hyper Parenting Isn’t the 1950s

John Rosemond, a family psychologist, recently published an oped in a little-known newspaper, encouraging parents to stop making their children the center of their worlds. He argued for a return to the parenting values of the 1950s, when children were seen and not heard, when children recognized their parents’ supremacy in the household, and when parents’ adult lives continued unabated despite the infiltration of offspring. His article quickly went viral. But the problem with his advice is parenting in today’s world is about preparing kids for the future — not the past.

Yet, clearly, Rosemond struck a chord — and it’s no wonder. Between the recent explosion of research into early childhood development, the increased academic pressure and competition families feel, not to mention the example of a quasi-adult millennial generation that seems barely able to manage mundane daily failures, parents of today are overwhelmed with all of the things they should be doing for their kids. It’s created an environment of hyper vigilance, bordering on obsessiveness. It’s a cultural phenomenon that has swept up affluent parents the world over, leaving them emotionally, financially, and aspirationally glutted.

But Rosemond’s piece is a reflection of a pendulum swung too far to the extreme. His is a reaction to the parents who spend all social engagements comparing notes about school admissions, who plan all family vacations around children’s activities, who curtail their own professional and personal ambitions so as to better service their children, who sacrifice so much of their adult identities at the altar of good parenting. And he’s right, in a way: That’s not working. It’s not good for us, as parents, and it’s not good for our kids, either.

The answer is not, however, to ride the pendulum back to the 50s, and emulate our grandparents’ parenting styles. The answer is not, as Rosemond suggests, to compare the family structure to that of an army, corporation, or classroom — institutions in which hierarchies are inherent and necessary. While that may have worked 60 years ago, it won’t work now. Here’s why.

Rosemond’s assumption that families should have ‘most important people’ – either children or, as he advocates, parents – is a false dichotomy. Why does the average nuclear family need such hierarchy? Ideally, a family is a community of equals, in which each member plays a role that is dynamic and ever-changing, integral and contributive in their own unique way. Children aren’t beholden to their parents’ gracious largesse, nor are parents sacrificed in the name of children’s whims or well-being. Rather, the family is an extension of a modern partnership – at one point, one member’s needs may take precedence; at another point, another member’s.

This can achieve what Rosemond’s hierarchical model aims for, but cannot bring about: independent, responsible, respectful children able to strengthen their communities. Social hierarchies, by their very nature, subjugate and infantalize their least important members — good strategies for creating quiet cogs in a machine, but not for raising thoughtful, proactive members of adult society.

The future we’re raising our kids to function in is one that rewards the latter, not the former. Our children’s generation will be faced with serious global problems with dire consequences; issues like climate change and income inequality will not be mitigated unless our children grow up thinking and acting like responsible, engaged citizens who value others and themselves. This starts in the home. We must treat children like members of a community – individuals who have a stake in their own development, their family and the wider world.

To be clear: This does not mean giving children all the privileges of an adult, or letting them run amok without discipline. Rather, the happiest medium lies in teaching them responsibility at an early age, teaching them that their actions have consequences for other members of their community, and teaching them to respect boundaries. In such a household, the needs of everyone in the community are important, and priorities for all members are considered (albeit with some weighted more heavily than others).

When the pendulum settles somewhere between the extremes of modern hyper parenting and overly authoritarian, old-fashioned parenting, we’ll be left in the healthiest middle ground – one where parents model appropriate behaviour and lead the family, but take into account the needs and desires of their children, within reason. And one where children are treated like individuals, with a stake in their own development, not just passive vessels to be either ignored or obsessively over-scheduled and doted upon. Only with this responsive, engaged, and tuned-in parenting approach will parents get what they ultimately want from their kids: Children who respect their parents’ time and wishes, who don’t interrupt while mom and dad have an adult conversation – and eventually, who join in with something intelligent to say.

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