The Good Old Days

No criticism of contemporary parents is more pervasive than the one captured in the pejorative phrase “helicopter parents.”  The term suggests parents’ hovering over their children’s every move preventing them from becoming self-reliant and independent.  In short, the accusation is that parents are over-protective to the detriment of their children’s development.

Now an author writing a book about the role of young people in 19th- century American democracy suggests that today’s “helicopter parents” could learn a lot from 19th-century child rearing.  The idea expressed is that, while children then were expected to be deferential to their parents, they were raised to embody the revolutionary virtues of the nation.  This resulted in boys in particular left to their own devices, unsupervised and free to develop an assertive style that became training for the challenges of American manhood.

Girls, of course, were expected to follow a different path, namely helping with mothers’ tasks, even those that were physically demanding.  Nevertheless, girls engaged in their own rowdy behavior and there were few “pink princesses” in that era.  Needless to say, the expectations of both boys and girls followed a traditional division of labor and roles of men and women.

The author’s view is that parents in that time encouraged children to get some wildness out of their system and to express the republic’s revolutionary values.  The question raised is how did we get from what he calls “democratic sucklings” to “helicopter parents?”  The attempt to explain this reveals contradictory thinking that surfaces in many discussions about children, parents and social change.

What is involved is a chicken/egg kind of question.  Did changes in child rearing bring about changes in society or did changes in society bring about changes in child rearing?  In this instance, attention is called to a change in the thinking about children that led to a wish to protect them through labor laws and changes in the educational system.  At the same time, the point is made that changes in the economy required managers of business or households, which in turn required that children be raised with greater restraints.  In other words, parents responded to the changing needs of society in the way they raised their children.

In more recent times we see this question raised again in reference to changes that took place in the 1960’s.  The rejection of traditional behavioral restraints by young people was attributed to the “permissive” child rearing of their parents’ generation, which was attributed to their own more restrictive upbringing.  Much of the political and social disharmony today is attributed by some to the social upheaval brought in that period.

Of course, any attempt to reduce social change to a single cause and effect explanation is simplistic.  Changes in the thinking about children were a result of advances in science and social science, which led to a new understanding of development.  At the same time, the industrial revolution created a separation between the home and workplace as well as a different division of labor within the family.  The care and rearing of children became a project unto itself for which mothers were given primary responsibility.  This in time led to a different focus on children.

What is clear, however, is that the values and economic needs of society do play a significant role in shaping what becomes the dominant child rearing model.  The idea is that we raise children to fit the demands of a particular historical period.  For example, the Soviet advances in space during the 1950s created the fear that we as a nation were falling behind in science and math.   This led to the push for changes in education and pressures on children that still resonate today.

Unfortunately, however, the interaction of various forces in producing change too often is seen instead as the fault of parents in the way they raise children.  The author of the work referred to above sees as appropriate changes in child rearing that addressed the need for greater restraints in children, but criticizes parents for then losing sight of the goal.  While earlier parents raised children to express the values important to their society, today’s parents are raising over-protected children.

In fact, little or no attempt has been made to understand the supposed “helicopter” parenting in terms of social pressures.  On the contrary, that kind of parenting is blamed for faults in society.  Actually, the current focus on the individual child is an accurate reflection of the degree to which a communal concern has broken down in our society at large.  We live in a time of splintered interests and a focus on individual self-reliance and responsibility rather than that of being responsible for each other.  Parents try to raise their children accordingly.

What we can take from the history of child rearing is that parents do reflect and incorporate the needs and values of their era.  The criticism of parents is misdirected.  That criticism actually is a judgment of our society.  Parents alone cannot change through child rearing the faults we find.