Has a change in parenting caused a change in childhood or is it the other way around? Paula Fass, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has written a book, “The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child,” in which she examines American childhood and parenting from the nation’s founding to the present day.
An overarching theme of this history as Fass describes it was the change of parenting practices informed by the goals of independence, self-definition, and individual success to the present era in which parental oversight threatens children’s competence and initiative. Clearly, changes in society, particularly the change from a pioneer and agricultural life to an industrial economy, brought changes in family organization and function, which in turn transformed the relationship between parents and children.
Many other factors were involved in changing parenting behavior, including new ideas about child development and education. Changes in the nature of society have an impact on the nature of what is required from its citizens. Parental attitudes and behavior do not exist in a vacuum. Child-rearing entails preparing children who can meet the requirements of, and be successful living in, a particular society. Parenting styles develop in response to the goals of the larger society.
There is no doubt that a change in parenting is then reflected in the way children develop. Unfortunately, when the outcome turns out to be not to our liking, parents end up being blamed. The cry goes up that parenting behavior has to change without any connection made to the way parenting has been shaped by the larger society and culture. What we see in children is a reflection of the values and goals of the larger world in which they are raised and live.
The idea that parents are micromanaging their children’s lives, that children have become overly dependent and have lost initiative is a pervasive theme these days. On the other hand, from the world of education comes a somewhat different picture. On the college level, students seem to be trying to take control of every aspect of their education. The word is that they come as consumers feeling very much in charge and press for rules and regulations to their liking, believing they are always right.
The balance of power between student and teacher has also changed. Students rate teachers whose high marks seem to depend on giving high grades. The evaluations of teachers then play a significant role in their own careers, which leads to a distortion in the educational process. This distortion is also apparent in the student demand for “trigger warnings,” meaning that students need to be alerted if there is anything in the material they will read or hear in class that might be an affront to certain sensitivities.
A recent article quotes one professor saying, “We’ve given students a sense that they’re in just as good a position to know what’s worth knowing as we are, and we’ve contributed to the weakening of student resilience, because we’re so willing to meet their needs that they never have to suffer.”
What emerges is the apparent attitude of students that they should be in charge while having all their needs met. Is this picture to be put at the doorstep of parenting? The breakdown of authority in the world of education seems to reflect the more general breakdown of authority in the larger society especially on the level of national government. The shift in the relationship between teacher and student also reflects the change in relationships between parents and children.
Somehow, the idea of giving children a voice turned into giving them the voice. Parents are now being challenged to rediscover how to stay in charge – the same challenge facing authority figures in the society at large. Parents themselves are in need of better models.