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How Parent-Child Relations Have Changed

The evolution of the parent-child bond.

In recent years, the relationship between parents and children has profoundly changed.

For one thing, the decision about whether or not to have children is voluntary. Electing not to have children is no longer stigmatized in the way it was. “Child-free” adults are no longer casually dismissed as shallow and self-absorbed.

As a result, for most adults, the decision to have a child is deliberate and purposeful. Having a child represents a self-conscious decision to become a mother or father and to assume the responsibilities that parenting entails.

Parenting itself has become problematic in a way that differs sharply from the past. In today’s society, it is impossible to raise a child unselfconsciously. Bombarded with conflicting advice about the relative merits of breastfeeding versus bottle feeding, crib sleeping and co-sleeping, early versus delayed toilet training, each parent must decide for her- or himself how best to rear a child. Labels abound: attachment parenting, natural parenting, positive parenting, slow parenting.

Lacking the clear and authoritative guidelines set by earlier childrearing experts like Dr. Benjamin Spock, moms and dads must decide whether to be strict or lenient, achievement and performance focused or indulgent, pushy or laid back. Today’s parents receive sharply conflicting messages about whether or not to prioritize academics and other accomplishments or, instead, give their children free time, freedom, and free range to explore their environment.

At the same time, parents have grown far more sensitive to the risks that their children face, both physical and psychological. Anxiety has become the hallmark of contemporary parenting. Even before their child is born, prenatal testing leads parents to worry about potential birth defects to an extent absent in the past. This is followed by a preoccupation with children’s safety.

Stoking parental fears are sensationalistic media accounts of the risks posed by pedophiles and the prevalence of stranger abduction of children, as well as reports about the potential perils posed by bullying, vaccines, additives, and various environmental hazards.

The result: The geography of childhood has contracted, indoor time has mounted, and adult supervision of children’s activities has greatly increased.

Equally important is a profound reversal in parental expectations. Early in time, parents expected their children to love them. Today, in stark contrast, parents seek to ensure that their children love them. To that end, many seek to ensure that their children are happy and never bored.

As mothers and fathers devote more time to work, a sense of guilt also colors parent-child relations. Even though recent research indicates that parents actually spend more face-to-face time with their children than did their 1950s counterparts, mothers and fathers worry that they are not able to provide the kind of safe, secure childhood they themselves enjoyed, involving a great deal of free unstructured play with neighborhood friends. Consequently, many overcompensate.

Underlying the shift in parent-child relationships are a raft of historic shifts. Delayed parenthood, better educated parents, and reduced birthrates all lead parents to increase their fixation upon individual children. In a society in which marital relationships have grown much more fragile, many parents look to their children as a source of permanent attachment and emotional fulfillment. The increase in single parenthood and two-earner households has also altered parent-child relations, since children in these settings must take on greater responsibility for self-care and for helping out than did those in homes with full-time mothers.

Perhaps the biggest force for change in parent-child relationships lies in parents’ worries about their ability to transmit their class status to their children. As the economy has grown more competitive and entrepreneurial, many parents seek to give their child a leg up, and as a result invest more time and resources in enrichment activities: reading to their children, conversing with them, and providing toys and activities aimed at enhancing their development.

Today, parenting does not end at 18 or 21. Most parents not only expect to contribute to their children’s college education, but to its aftermath: To supporting them during their 20s and helping them, later, in making a down payment on a house.

For all the disdainful talk about hovering, overinvolved, and overprotective helicopter parents, the fact is that parents today are, on average, closer to their adult children than in the past. Parent-child hierarchy has given way, to a remarkable extent, to a relationship that is closer, more intimate, and more egalitarian than ever existed in the past. If it has become harder for some children to cut the umbilical cord and establish an independent identity, and if it has become more difficult for some parents to let go and grant their kids a fully autonomous life, for most, the ongoing bond between child and parent proves to be a crucial source of meaning and personal happiness.

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