Have you heard about the crisis in modern parenting?
The story goes like this: The kids have taken over the candy shop, and modern parents, cowed by their own wish to please and appease their spoiled offspring, have allowed it to happen. We are, according to a small army of self-proclaimed experts, a generation of parental pushovers, so desperate for validation from our own “special snowflakes” that we allow them to rule the roost, thus destabilizing their very sense of self, and sentencing them to a lifetime of anxiety and lack of impulse control. As Leonard Sax, psychologist and author of the recently published bestseller The Collapse of Modern Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups, writes: “Over the past 30 years, a major shift has occurred in our culture: the transfer of authority from parents to children. … Children today often choose what’s for supper; they choose which social media they will engage; they often choose their bedtime and sometimes even their school.”
These factors, Dr. Sax argues, have had a significantly deleterious influence on both family life and the younger generation itself. Emma Jenner, the British nanny who wrote a 2014 social-media post that went viral, 5 Reasons Modern-Day Parenting is in Crisis, backs him up: “The children we are raising,” she maintained, “will grow up to be entitled, selfish, impatient and rude adults. It won’t be their fault – it will be ours.”
Or as Dr. Sax puts it, our children are “less resilient, less physically fit, and more likely to become anxious or depressed – and far more fragile – compared with kids from the same demographic 30 years ago.”
Dr. Sax, along with many contemporary experts, is a critic of overscheduling – the notion that kids today are so hyper-itinerized that they have lost the ability to play freely and amuse themselves. It’s a common sentiment, and one echoed in many recent articles in the popular press. The concern, in general, boils down to this: As a generation of parents, our tendency to worry runs in inverse proportion to our ability to positively shape our kids. We are striving for excellence and failing as a result.
But what if I told you that, broadly speaking, Dr. Sax and every other expert who has made similarly sweeping condemnations of modern child-centred parenting in recent years (think of books like All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior or Drop the Worry Ball by Alex Russell and Tim Falconer) – are simply empirically wrong? There may be a general feeling of a “crisis” in modern parenting, but if you look at the numbers, across the board, there has simply never been a better time to be a middle-class child in Canada. And yet the notion that we are ruining our kids by giving them our time and attention persists. Take the popular notion of helicopter parenting and the idea that parents who are involved in their kids’ schooling end up damaging their academic outcomes. It’s simply not true. According to a 2012 report from the Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD), kids who reported that their parents were “always ready to help” with school-related projects tended to do better at school, and have much higher personal aspirations. Not surprisingly, kids with involved parents were also far more likely both to attend, and graduate from, a postsecondary institution.
Another apparent scourge in the so-called parenting crisis is the trend of children being “chronically overscheduled.” But statistically speaking, there is surprisingly little evidence to support this. According to the same report by the CCSD, middle-class kids at the beginning of this century did no more activities than did kids a decade earlier. Youth today participate in fewer unorganized sports, but rates of organized activities have stayed roughly the same.
The alarmists are right about one thing – over the past 30 years, there has been an enormous shift in the way kids are parented. Middle-class people with the time and resources to do so, tend to think much more carefully about how we bring up our children – and, over all, that has been an enormous social good. We are, by any standard, more committed to the project of “parenting” than any generation before us. We spend more time with our kids, and when we do, we talk to them more and take their concerns seriously. We shout less, and most of us refrain from hitting them altogether. Earlier this year the Liberal government announced it will repeal Canada’s controversial “spanking law,” allowing our nation to join the 48 other countries around the world in which corporal punishment for children is illegal.
We are, as the numbers show, a generation of parents more earnestly concerned with the issue of child welfare and development than any before us, and almost all major social indicators confirm the benefits of our increased levels of awareness. Over all, Canadian kids are safer, healthier, smarter, more likely to stay in school and less likely to become addicts or commit crimes than they were just a couple of generations ago. In short, we’re not perfect, but whatever we’re doing, it’s working.
Sound and fury
Despite all this good news, no generation of parents has ever been more broadly scrutinized and publically criticized. The irony of the alarmists is that they are perpetuating exactly the sort of parental anxiety they purport to dispel. “You’re all doing it all wrong!” they shout, while pointing to the freewheeling 1970s and eighties as the golden age of childhood: a time before seatbelt laws, school-cafeteria nutritional guidelines, second-hand-smoking regulations or playground health and safety rules. But were kids happier, healthier and better off back in the old days?
Take the cultural debate that’s occurred over the subject of parenting and child safety over the past two or three decades in Canada. While many proponents of the notion of a parenting crisis would have you believe increased health and safety regulations combined with the rise of helicopter parenting is ruining our kids’ lives, the numbers don’t bear this out.
According to a report from the CCSD, in the decade that ended in 2004, the childhood-injury death rate in Canada dropped an astonishing 37 per cent, and hospitalization rates for accidental injuries dropped 34 per cent. In roughly the same period, pediatric playground hospitalization rates dropped dramatically as well (though since 2006 they’ve crept up slightly). These broad positive changes can, at least in part, be directly attributed to new guidelines adopted by the Canadian Standards Association governing car seats and playground equipment.
Looking at those figures, could any reasonable human being conclude that adopting new safety standards constituted a moral panic, or was a waste of public money? And yet, the chorus of those experts decrying all that our children have lost with the decline of “risky play” shows no sign of abating, even as we can point to the reality of fewer dead and injured kids.
Broadly speaking, our children have never been happier, healthier or safer.
Take a gander at most parenting magazines, or worse, the Internet, and you’d think our kids were on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown.
‘Kids today are far more emotionally open’
The trend toward happier and smarter kids has been a long time in the making. According to the CCSD, from 1993 to 2012 the nation’s children and youth did better in school and were more likely to enroll in university or postsecondary education than any generation before them. They committed fewer crimes, fewer violent crimes in particular, and were less likely to become addicted to alcohol or drugs. Teenagers were more likely to be active in community life, and less likely to tolerate being bullied or abused. In early childhood development, 70 per cent of children scored on the normal range of the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (a standardized test that measures verbal aptitude in children ages 4 and 5) and the proportion of those who scored as “advanced” grew while those who were “delayed” went down.
According to the most recent results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Canadian students tested significantly above average in almost all areas (reading, math and science), and our mean score in literacy was one of the highest in all 65 PISA participating countries.
Nora Spinks is chief executive officer of the Vanier Institute of the Family, a research organization founded over 50 years ago by Governor-General Georges Vanier and his wife, Pauline. Last year, she and her staff embarked on the National Families Listening Tour, in which they crossed the country and spoke to hundreds of parents and children on a range of issues. Ms. Spinks agrees that there has never been a better time to be a child or a parent in Canada. All the broad social indicators – childhood mortality, literacy, and juvenile crime rates – are better for children than they’ve ever been.
Not all the news is good. Our government’s declared intention to “eradicate” child poverty by the early part of this century was a failure, particularly in First Nations communities, and, as in most Western nations, the family-income gap is growing. Childhood obesity is up, although our rate is much lower than that of our neighbours directly to the south. And Ms. Spinks says that, from an economic perspective, the landscape has improved for poor kids, too. “The number of children living in abject poverty is significantly down from decades past.” She adds that the less parents are struggling financially, the more time they have to devote themselves to secondary or tertiary concerns, such as compassionate parenting.
Ms. Spinks explains that, in the past, early-childhood education was seen as glorified babysitting, whereas today it is the subject of rigorous academic and scientific debate. “In the eighties and nineties, we started to realize that there is actually some science behind this stuff,” she says. With the advent of early-childhood education came increased interest in parenting advice that was based on good science and solid numbers rather than what Spinks calls “moms talking over the backyard fence.”
Of course, as she points out, there is an instinctive skepticism and conservative nostalgia for the “good old days” when it comes to how we view children and childhood. “Every subsequent generation thinks that their kids are far more badly behaved than they were, but that’s just because our only frame of reference is our own childhood. So, for instance, people often say, ‘I walked to school on my own, but I turned out okay!’ ”
Yet, the bigger picture is more complicated. According to the Vanier Institute’s research, kids today are far more emotionally open and connected to their parents. Families, says Ms. Spinks, are generally able to communicate better, which means we can identify problems instead of sweeping them under the carpet. “Anxiety disorders in children have gone up but, in a large part, that’s because kids are now able to communicate their anxiety,” she says.
“Health-care providers have learned so much about childhood mental health and vitality in recent years, it’s incredible.” Ms. Spinks points to strategies such as mindfulness and “calming classes” currently being used to help some of the potentially traumatized children of war refugees from Syria. “The fact that teachers are bringing that kind of brain science into the classroom is a huge change.”
The shift away from behaviourism
So, if our kids are improving, what is it that we, as modern parents, are doing better? It’s hard to pin down to any one specific thing, but if I, as the parent of small children, had to choose one, it would be this: We aren’t afraid to let our three-year-olds have tantrums in restaurants.
I know what you’re thinking. That’s insane. It’s just rude! Sometimes kids just need to be reined in, don’t they?
The answer, increasingly, for parents of my generation, is: Not exactly. And there are a number of good reasons for this.
There was a time, not long ago, when children who misbehaved in public were hissed at, threatened, shouted down, furtively smacked, and eventually thrown over adult shoulders and whisked out of the room. And, of course, that still happens. But more often than not, what I see in restaurants today (and parking lots and jam-packed airplanes and grocery stores) is parents attempting – with admirable levels of self-control and patience – to reason with their children. I understand this can be rather annoying to child-free people trying to eat their eggs Benedict in peace, and the public frustration shows. Last year, when Darla Neugebauer, owner of Marcy’s Diner in Portland, Me., shouted at a four-year-old who’d been crying for 40 minutes and the story went viral, the world applauded.
But most parents I know (including those of the four-year-old in question) did not. The truth is, what we gain as a society by not smacking, threatening or ostracizing our kids when they misbehave is worth the price of your peace and quiet. I’m not saying we should simply ignore bad behaviour in children: On the contrary, we need to meet it with compassion and reason and connection, even when what they’re giving us is full-on freakout. Modelling reasonable behaviour is the very minimum we can do as good parents. And sitting with your kid through a public tantrum is part of that.
It wasn’t always this way, of course.
Like most children born in the seventies, I was brought up by parents who believed (without actually knowing it) in behaviourism – the philosophy of infant- and child-rearing which essentially holds that the job of parents is to instill strong moral and behavioural boundaries and to train a child to adhere to them, usually through a strict system of punishment and reward. My parents didn’t have a name for what they did, of course; it was just what they knew to be right – a watered-down version of their own, 1950s upbringing. They weren’t particularly strict, but there were rules and, if we crossed the line or “acted out,” consequences were administered.
This included a lot of counting to 10, sending us to our rooms, and threats of being spanked with a wooden spoon (although I don’t remember anyone ever following through on that last one). My mum was a bit disorganized, and could easily be ground down to her breaking point, while my dad was one of those types with a long fuse who was calm until he suddenly wasn’t. Even now, I feel excited by how spectacular it was when he finally blew his lid, like watching a werewolf morph at the full moon.
Were my parents effective? Judging by the way my sister and I turned out, they did just fine. But the main thing was, they loved us – a fact they demonstrated explicitly and implicitly throughout our childhood in almost everything they did. It was this abundance of love – rather than the threat of the wooden spoon – that I know to be the determining factor in my sister’s and my turning out to be reasonably well-adjusted and high-functioning adults.
At some point at the end of the last century, behaviourism began to be widely supplanted in child psychology circles with a new theory, commonly known as “attachment parenting.” Initially conceived by British psychologist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, and later popularized by American pediatrician William Sears, the attachment model is based on the precept that a sensitive and emotionally bonded parental relationship is the most important aspect in forming a child’s socio-emotional and developmental well-being.
While proponents of behaviourism believe that discipline should be administered externally – often through threats and punishment – proponents of attachment parenting propose another way: that by teaching our children empathy and self-regulation, we can encourage them to grapple with their emotions and have genuine respect for the feelings of others. Essentially, the debate between behaviourism and attachment parenting boils down to the age-old question of human nature: Are we essentially wicked (and consequently need to be tamed by outside authority) or essentially good (and thus primarily in need of love and connection)?
While the debate over behaviourism vs attachment parenting still rages in restaurants (even if most parents don’t call it that), for the most part the argument for compassionate, child-centred parenting has won out in diagnostic circles. We can see this most obviously when it comes to the shift in the way we care for infants.
Until the end of the last century, it was commonplace for newborns to be placed on strict feeding and nap schedules the moment they were born. But today, most new mothers in Canada are advised by doctors, nurses and midwives to try to breastfeed “on demand,” and not let their infants cry, in an effort to “train” them. We used to see it as our job to bend babies to our will; today we are encouraged to respond to their needs in a more open and fluid way.
While many of the more extreme aspects of attachment parenting (such as co-sleeping, all-day baby wearing, and extended breastfeeding into toddlerhood) continue to be controversial, most of the basic tenets of this philosophy have been widely accepted. This child-centred approach to infant care is part of a larger, widespread cultural shift that places children and children’s needs – rather than the needs of parents and society – at the centre of how we choose to bring up our kids. This is not say that our kids are the centre of our universe (although many critics would beg to differ) but that, in our effort to bring them up to be good citizens, we are, first and foremost, attempting to see the world from their point of view.
The compassionate brain
Which brings us to the subject of neuroscience. In the past several years, we have learned a great deal about the human brain – and by extension, the developing brain of the child. Science’s new understanding of how the brain evolves in early childhood (a process called neural plasticity) has radically changed the way many experts – and, by extension, parents – look at toddler behaviour and how best to regulate it. Many child psychologists and parenting coaches have incorporated this research – as evidenced in such books as The Whole Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids by Dr. Laura Markham and How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish – into their theories of how to raise kids in a more empathic and mindful way. One of the key pillars of this new research upends centuries of inherited notions of what works when “disciplining” a child: that systems of punishment and reward (as evidenced in the behaviourist model) are effective.
Vanessa Lapointe is a child psychologist based in Vancouver and an avid proponent of mindful parenting. Her latest book, Discipline Without Damage: How to Get Your Kids to Behave Without Messing Them Up, made waves recently with its recommendation that parents should chuck out their star charts and time outs, and instead try to shape their kids’ behaviour by simply being present, consistent and communicative. There are no rigid systems in mindful parenting, Dr. Lapointe explains, only opportunities to learn.
“One of the things about discipline is that it’s not solely about the behaviour of the child; it’s about our own behaviour and how that forms the child,” she told me in telephone interview. “Many people have imbued the behaviour of small children with this moral flavour. The judgment is that, when a child is 2 and having a tantrum, that child is being naughty or bad and, if the child is bad, then the parent is bad by extension. In reality, we now know that the frontal cortex is the last part of the brain to actually develop. And how we respond to our children in those situations has a serious impact on how their brains are formed.”
Dr. Lapointe references the work of American developmental psychologist Edward Tronick, and his landmark 1975 Still-Face Experiment, which found that infants responded in a negative and distressed manner when interacting with a mother who was expressionless or non-responsive. It is one of the most replicated findings in infant psychology, and it backs up the notion that parental facial expression – as well as tone and volume of voice – has a significant impact on the neuroplasticity of children’s developing brains. “If what you are trying to do as a parent is to bring up an adult who can manage their impulses, those neural pathways are being formed in the small child’s brain from day one. If every time they get fired up or angry or sad, that is met with compassion, you can literally see their stress levels go right back down again.”
So what we are trying to teach our kids, in other words, is not simply “Behave this way, or else,” but that there are ways to self-regulate emotions without repressing them, and that learning this skill will allow them to exist harmoniously with the other humans they meet. “As a parent, you want to think of yourself as your child’s ‘external co-regulator,’ ” she explains. The long-term gain is that your children will have the neural architecture to deal with what life is going to throw at them, rather than a rigid sense of good and bad that may or may not translate in the real world.
Unfortunately, when your toddler is freaking out in public and you are patiently encouraging her or him to breathe deeply and “name the feeling,” anyone unfamiliar with the practice of mindful parenting is going to look at you as if you are a pushover at best and a simpleton at worst. Ineffective and potentially damaging as we now know it to be, stern talk, shouting and immediate threats are still seen by many people as the best way to bring small unruly children into line. Dr. Lapointe isn’t saying there shouldn’t be consequences for kids’ behaviour – just that we’d be wise to consider what these consequences should be: Are they real moral and emotional learning experiences, or are they simply gratifying our own impulse to dominate and punish kids for ruining everyone’s brunch?
Rules that help parents rather than kids
There is no easy trick to mindful parenting. It simply involves consistently connecting with your children and trying to encourage them to understand, reflect upon and take responsibility for their actions in an empathetic and conscious way. If it sounds time-consuming and difficult, it is. But according to Andrea Nair, a psychotherapist and parenting educator based in London, Ont., there is mounting research to show that it also works. “I always tell parents there is no magic, four-step process to bring up good kids. You can’t put human behaviour in a box that way.”
Like many advocates of non-authoritarian methods, she is quick to emphasize that compassionate parenting is not about having no boundaries, or about letting kids simply do whatever they want. “It’s mainly about teaching them that freaking out is not an effective communication method.” Compassionate parents aren’t afraid to let their kids cry and melt down in the face of a firm “No.” The main thing is that parents shouldn’t melt down or freak out themselves (which is often where shouting or spanking come in) and that kids understand that they have permission to have emotions, even if those emotions are negative. Ms. Nair talks about the importance of “naming the feeling” and having a “calm-down plan” so that your small child can try to self-regulate their frustration, sadness or aggression rather than simply be punished for it – which incurs only resentment and more frustration.
She acknowledges that this new form of engaged or “conscious” parenting may appear to older generations (or a behaviourist like Leonard Sax) to be overly permissive or lacking in boundaries, even if, in fact, it’s anything but. Consistency and firmness are possible to administer without time outs or shouting. “Our generation of parents needs to have an honest conversation with our own parents, and say, ‘My parenting looks a lot different than your parenting, but I need you to trust me not be to a doormat, okay?’ ”
The sad irony of the so-called crisis in modern parenting that it is built of the very thing it purports to attack: middle-class anxiety. To say that our kids are suffering from their privilege, when in fact they largely are succeeding because of it, seems the most wildly entitled position of all. If we should be worrying about any kids in Canadian society, it should not be the children of mindful parents – let alone the offspring of tiger moms and helicopter dads. By any logical predictor, those kids are going to do just fine.
It’s the poor kids who are being tended to by parents who are truly struggling and stretched – parents who simply don’t have time to agonize over their kids’ music lessons and fine motor skills because they are too busy trying to pay the rent – that we should be worried about. As family-income inequality in Canada grows, so does the achievement gap, and it’s the kids at the bottom end who deserve our concern, not the lucky children of the parents who have the luxury of “trying too hard.” By any standard, all that trying is paying off.
Leah McLaren is a columnist with The Globe and Mail.
Finally getting the message on spanking
Where did the shift away from authoritarian parenting to a more holistic and compassionate view of child rearing actually come from? In many ways, it arose out of a philosophical change in the way we view children.
Landon Pearson – a senator, eminent children’s rights activist and a mother of five – was a pioneer in facilitating this change in Canada. Born in 1930, the year after women officially became “persons” under Canadian law, she was married to the late Geoffrey Pearson, diplomat son of pioneering Liberal prime minister Lester B. Pearson.
In an interview, she told me her first “aha” moment came after her eldest child, Hilary, was born. “I looked down at her and thought, ‘You’re not me!’ ” she recalled. “Did I come to that instinctively, or was it because the culture around me was beginning to say, ‘Let’s look at babies as persons rather than objects’? I suppose it was a mixture of both. The truth is, it took a long time for our society to come to this realization and, in many ways, it’s still a growing awareness. For a very, very long time, most parents thought of children as possessions or projections of their own wants and needs.”
She began to research child psychology and attachment theory while the stay-at-home wife of a diplomat in pre-glasnost Moscow (“It was the only thing the Communist authorities didn’t find suspicious.”) She became fascinated by the correlation of trust and reciprocity in parenting, or as she explains it, “how a good parent creates a zone of lovingness around a child in order to bring them along.” Many people, she noticed, seemed to think children grew organically, almost of their own accord, but from her point of view that wasn’t true. “Their development is, in fact, the result of series of millions and millions of tiny interactions.”
She realized the concept of what she calls “authoritative but not authoritarian” parenting, in which the child is treated compassionately as an autonomous being, could have broader social and legal implications for the way children are treated in society as a whole.
In 1979, she served as vice-chairperson of the Canadian Commission for the International Year of the Child, and edited its report, For Canada’s Children: National Agenda for Action. Among her many successful recommendations were increased financial support for battered women’s shelters and car-seat laws for infants. She co-founded Children Learning for Living, a prevention program in children’s mental health, and sat on boards and advisory committees for children’s organizations across the country.
Just over a decade after her report, Canada was one of the first signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty that sets out, in detail, the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children under 18.
Like many activists I spoke to for this story, she is disappointed that Canada has failed to meet its targets for eradicating child poverty (which is going down, but progress is slow), although she is jubilant that one recent recommendation finally came to fruition after many years of campaigning: spanking.
In 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld Section 43 of the Criminal Code, which maintains that parents are entitled to discipline their children using physical force, so long as it’s “reasonable.”
Since then, many children’s-rights groups have campaigned tirelessly to have the law struck off the books, but it was only late last year that any progress was made.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), created to find ways to redress the systematic abuse of indigenous children perpetrated at residential schools, made repealing Section 43 one of its 94 recommendations, and the new Liberal government vowed to enact them all.
Canada is severely behind the times on this issue. Forty-eight other countries have already banned spanking (Sweden did so as early as 1979) and there is good reason for this. Not one major study has shown that the practice has any benefits for children, behavioural or otherwise. On the contrary, decades of sociological studies have confirmed that spanking actually increases the likelihood of aggression, violence and even criminal behaviour in children.
Spanking on its own (in the absence of other abuse) has been linked to problems as wide-ranging as depression, suicide, anxiety and addiction later in life. Kids who are spanked are, not surprisingly, much more likely to suffer from other forms of escalating abuse or neglect, as well as heart problems, arthritis and obesity.
With this startling body of research, why did it take the TRC to force the issue?
According to Kathy Lynn, chair of Corinne’s Quest, an advocacy group devoted to repealing section 43, it’s because “until very recently in our history, children were seen as property.”
With a lobbyist’s zeal, she rattles off the incredible history of laws governing corporal punishment in North America. “Historically we have had laws forbidding the hitting of slaves, servants, apprentices and wives,” she says. “Until recently we even debated about whether the hitting of dogs should be permissible. The only people in society we argue about when it comes to this issue is children.”
The government has said it plans to keep its promise, so the issue will soon be put to rest – legally speaking, at least.
– Leah McLaren