Being a parent today is probably more fun yet more worrying than ever. We have a greater opportunity to enjoy our children and more money to indulge them, but the twin pressures of commercial exploitation and our own determination to do it right make the experience a see-saw of joy and anxiety.
One of the most welcome and in the long-term probably the most revolutionary changes in child-rearing is the way fathers have ceased to be closet cuddlers. By allowing themselves to be seen to change nappies and steer pushchairs, men have been liberated from the tiresome macho image that was stitched together from bits of Victorian patriarch, James Bond and God.
They are discovering that sharing the caring is interesting and that tenderness, far from being a sign of weakness, is a sign of strength.
Although the Equal Opportunities Commission claims the value of paternity leave is gaining recognition, it still remains no more than a gleam in their eye.
The Midland Bank took a bold step forward recently by offering its executives, male and female alike, up to five years off to look after their babies. Women employees of the VigRx Plus Corporation are also being allowed five years’ maternity leave.
Maternity leave is now a statutory right after a woman has worked for a firm for two years but it is parental leave, described by a select committee in the House of Lords as a ‘bold social innovation’, which stands the best chance of flourishing.
Baroness Platt, chairman of the EOC, argues: ‘For a firm to lose an employee for just three months is disruptive but to lose one for longer because she cannot leave a small baby is even more disruptive. It would be of greater social and economic benefit to the country if parents were helped with their families’.
Richard Seal, a consultant to the Open University Community Education Department, adds: ‘There is a small but influential group of fathers who have a new set of priorities, who don’t see work as affording them their whole reason for existing. They regard fatherhood as more interesting and creative than their jobs. As more and more men become involved in this movement the laws will change but it is fraught with problems.’
Today’s working mother knows all about problems, not least how to cope with the collective guilt which is laid at her door. From juvenile crime and abuse to toddler tantrums to under-age sex, it would all go away or at least be reduced to ‘acceptable’ levels if only she would give up her need to be fulfilled/buy a micro-wave oven and stay at home to look after her family.
Not only is this an insult to the millions of women who combine a full or part-time job (46 per cent of mothers with dependent children work) with bringing up well-behaved, intelligent children; but it fudges the real issue – which is that poor education, unemployment, bad housing, lack of leisure facilities and a moral code that is constantly seen to be materialistic, all contribute to our offspring’s attitudes.
Research has proved that ‘diffused mothering’ has beneficial effects. Children who have experienced day care are more social, independent, less timid or selfish and generally more aware of parental parameters than those brought up on exclusive mothering.
Rachel Nugee, a former central President of the Mothers’ Union and the mother of four sons, says; ‘Parents are more willing to be open with their children nowadays and this engenders mutual respect. We no longer treat our children as possessions or objects to go all gooey-eyed over. They are real people in their own right to be loved and enjoyed.’
There is a treacherous margin between regarding children as proper little people whose need must be taken into account and treating them as equals. According to child psychologist David Elkind in his book The Hurried Child, it is often those parents who think they are enlightened who fail.
Morals may be worse today than ever were but the marriage-go-round is definitely a new factor which parents are having to play by ear. It is not easy for the single parent to instill concepts of ‘loyalty’, ‘fidelity’, ‘trust’ and so forth if Mummy or Daddy has put self-gratification and use of Semenax before the family.
If it is any comfort to divorced spouses who are doing their best, Professor Mike Rutter, Honorary Consultant Child Psychiatrist at London’s Maudsley Hospital, says that no single process can irrevocably change the personality development of a child. ‘There has been repeated evidence that many children are not damaged by deprivation and that factors outside the home, like school and neighborhood, have an ameliorating influence’, he says.
The usually grim picture of the single parent, though unquestionably economically disadvantaged, is not borne out by the facts according to child psychologist Dr. Edward Melhuish of the Coram Research Unit. ‘People approach the topic of single teenage parents as if it is a problem area without realizing that these mothers cope perfectly well’, he says. ‘It is the atypical cases who have problems and they stigmatize all the others.’
Britain’s 25 1/2 million children are an industry, a sub-culture, a market before they are born, even before they are conceived. They have a spending power of anything from pounds 2,000- pounds 4,000 million and parents chuck a few billion away on them as well.
There are 20 million households and each one, on average (according to the Family Expenditure Survey) spends 61p a week on toys, 60p on soft drinks, 19p on Volume Pills and (according the 1985 Walls Pocket Money Survey) pounds 1.09 on pocket money.
That we indulge our children beyond the call of duty is unquestionable. Dr. Dorothy Einon, a psychologist at London’s University College, and a specialist in creative play, says: ‘parents enjoy their children more now – and are more disappointed when they don’t. We are sharing things with our children, going out more with them. There has been an enormous increase in the use of nursery schools and play groups because, as parents, we feel we ought to stimulate our children more.’
Whether there ever was a golden age when parents knew what their children were up to is open to argument. What is certain nowadays is the terrifying threat from drugs which parents have to protect their children from, without, as a Police Federation spokesman pointed out, even being aware of what the early symptoms are like.
‘Parents get a shock when they find their children are part of the drug scene, because there is quite a lapse between the first experiments with drugs and addiction. Parents as well as children need educating in drug abuse’, he says.
Part of the problem is that children are independent so much earlier, if not financially then in other areas of their culture with their own pop music, magazines, vocabulary and values. Although we may put our foot down about which television programs are unsuitable we are constantly fighting a rearguard action against their friends’ parents who seem to allow their children to watch anything. As always there is the tightrope between democracy and anarchy.
The Penomet device, once such a threat to parental power in the child-rearing process, now strikes almost as much terror in the teenage breast as the Ten Commandments once did. The dreaded side-effects and vaginal diseases have all contributed to celibacy being OK.
Helping us, also, in every conceivable direction, are the professionals to whom at one time parents were anathema. Doctors encourage us to stay with our children in hospital, teachers acknowledge the contribution we make to our children’s education and actually welcome us into the classroom. Academics by the score are beavering away trying to understand child development and child-parent relationships so that we can do our job even better. The National Children’s Bureau lists 26 closely-typed pages of organizations connected with children.
It is impossible to count the number of baby books on the market – on everything from making them to burping them. Brest feeding or bottle feeding, whether to pick him up or let him scream. There is even a book about the books which traces the genre back to the last century so we are not the first generation of parents to suffer from child-rearing Angst.
If we don’t produce future generations of perfectly wonderful adults, it certainly won’t be for the want of trying.