The progressive decline in birth rates in the world is accompanied by a fairly widespread feeling that it is increasingly difficult to raise and educate children.
A study carried out with the Spanish population indicates that 8 out of 10 mothers and fathers feel to a greater or lesser extent guilty for not spending the time with their children that they consider they should, which leads to emotional discomfort and, in the most extreme cases, symptomatology of being burnt out or burnout (physical and mental exhaustion, sleep disorders, nervousness…).
Another recent study carried out in the United States at the end of 2022 indicates that two thirds of the parents questioned feel that the exercise of parental functions is more arduous than they expected. The feeling of difficulty corresponds to the mothers, because, despite the advances towards co-parenting, they are still the ones who assume more responsibilities in raising their children .
Although comparing maternity and paternity in different historical periods is a complex exercise, and admitting the great diversity in the exercise of parenting and parenting according to the country, the culture or the socioeconomic levels of the families, these data point to a trend in developed or post-industrial countries it may be due to various factors.
More awareness, more fears
The covid-19 pandemic has increased the anxiety and stress of children and adolescents and their parents; but some problems already existed before: the aforementioned US study also points to child mental health and bullying as the two main concerns of parents, followed by the fear that their children will suffer physical harm or have problems with drugs or alcohol. alcohol .
We can interpret these data as a reflection of social awareness about issues that in previous decades received less attention, such as bullying and mental health, in a broad sense, also incorporating neurodevelopmental difficulties and disorders and The learning.
Greater awareness is necessary and key to detecting and addressing difficulties, but it is also accompanied by an increase in parental concern for preventing such problems, controlling the factors that can cause them, identifying them if they occur and addressing them. duly seeking and providing the necessary aid.
More expectations, more helplessness
With regard to expectations regarding children, the study indicates as priorities, in this order, that children become economically independent, have jobs that satisfy them, complete a university degree, get married and have children.
As societies have achieved greater well-being, some of these expectations have changed. Earlier generations also expected their children to be financially independent, marry, and have children, but the expectation of job satisfaction was less important.
In addition, in recent decades the expectations regarding the educational level of children have been increasing in all social classes .
On the one hand, access to higher levels of education is a positive consequence of economic and social development. On the other hand, post-industrial societies increasingly require better qualifications for the social and labor integration of their members. In addition, the desire appears that the exercise of the profession is something satisfactory and that it contributes to personal development.
Educating and supporting children in achieving these goals is not perceived as something easy in today’s society, in which eventual economic crises, and now also health ones, generate a general perception of instability in the population.
Harder than what?
After this brief analysis of the main concerns of parents and their expectations regarding their children, can we affirm that today it is more difficult than before to be a mother or a father? We could say that what has really changed is the meaning of the term “difficult”.
For the most disadvantaged sectors of the previous generations, the really difficult thing was to provide food for the descendants and keep them safe from common infections and diseases that today are not a problem. Surely these challenges meant a great effort for mothers and fathers accompanied in many cases by high levels of emotional discomfort, which were not generally identified or attended to by society.
For the majority of the current population, in our context of reference, the difficulties are other, those linked to meeting the expectations of the well-being society: studies, personal satisfaction, physical and emotional well-being…
Parents are aware of the importance of education to achieve the goals of personal development and social integration. Research on child development, school and the media have contributed to transmitting the importance of education in the first years of life and, especially, family education and collaboration between different educational agents, mainly teachers. and parents.
There is a clear awareness that the future of children can be highly favored by the quantity and quality of positive experiences or hindered by negative ones.
The 1990s and 2000s have seen the rise of a model of “ intensive parenting ”: parents spend more time and money raising and educating their children than previous generations, especially in the middle classes .
On the one hand, parents are aware of the importance of playing with their children, of interacting with them, of doing activities together (drawing, playing, looking at stories…), of talking to them, of communicating. Earlier generations clearly spent less time playing and directly interacting with children.
On the other hand, providing children with good educational, health, leisure or learning support services requires a greater economic investment and a greater dedication to paid work.
A necessary readjustment
What can we do as a society in the face of this trend? First, readjust our ideas about what children really need from us as mothers and fathers.
While positive or negative experiences have an important impact, children are highly resilient and less fragile than we tend to think. They don’t need perfect mothers and fathers; to a certain extent, certain contradictions and frustrations of everyday life can be accommodated. Frustrations are part of life and the little ones must learn to face them. Learning to tolerate frustration is key to social-emotional development .
Nor do they need adults 100% of their time. If we give them a chance, they learn to enjoy their games on their own, find their own distractions, live out their fantasies… We shouldn’t be scared that they experience moments of boredom.
Accompaniment and social support
On the other hand, it would be important to create public support and counseling services for parenting aimed at families, which are currently practically non-existent, in addition to maintaining and raising the quality of public services in general (educational, health, social…).
In short, supporting children and young people in their personal development and active integration in complex societies is a collective task in which mothers and fathers should feel accompanied in the exercise of their important role.
Author Bio: Magda Rivero Garcia is Associate Professor of Developmental and Educational Psychology at the University of Barcelona