Commentary: The many judgmental traps of modern-day parenting
Parenting can be a multi-headed hydra, with pressures to conform to a “right” type, says Cherie Tseng.
SINGAPORE: A decade-old photo of my firstborn floated up on Facebook the other day courtesy of their Memories function: My chubby little dumpling sprawled asleep on the large sofa.
It was a morning that followed a particularly hard night of relentless fussing and colic and I had just managed to soothe the proverbial savage beast sufficiently that he deigned to finally fall asleep. “His royal highness has fallen asleep! Yay!” I had written.
I scrolled down the comment section and amidst the expected parenting high-fives there were a few who reminded me that leaving a baby unattended could result in him rolling off and cracking open his skull.
It didn’t matter that my less than a month-old son was yet incapable of even turning his own head, much less roll over.
Perhaps I should have qualified that daddy was right out of frame, but I doubt it would have kept the judgment at bay.
THE RELENTLESSNESS OF MODERN PARENTING
Parenting, in and of itself is a stressful endeavour - it always has been. But a survey done by the Institute for Family Studies in 2014, unsurprisingly turned in a six-to-one result with parents saying modern-day parenting is more difficult than parenting in the past. A 2018 poll by Motherly had 88 per cent of parents saying likewise.
Indisputably, social media has disrupted the traditional contexts of parenting. Our lives are on display, as are how we parent.
While the Internet has given us reams of valuable, ready-made advice, it has also trapped us into a race we didn’t sign up for but are somehow in full running mode.
Ross Douthat writing for the New York Times suggests that it isn’t that family life has changed that dramatically in the last few generations, for much as remained the same in crucial ways in the internal domestic sphere – babies and children still need what they need.
Instead, it is the expansion of opportunities, a proliferation of choices, entertainment (like video-on-demand) and immediately available gratifications that make parenthood seem more complex by comparison.
Throw in dual-income families who need to juggle work and children, the pervasiveness of social media and the availability of all manner of parenting resource, and now, the pandemic - and we have the perfect tempest.
A Pew Research Center survey reveals that working parents feel stressed, tired, rushed and short of quality time with their children, friends, partners and hobbies.
But perhaps we should look at expectations first. Modern-day parents are expected to learn from everyone, read all the books and study all the how-to guides.
They must take part in all manner of preparatory endeavours, stay abreast of the latest research, and be an involved parent.
Just don’t do that at the expense of your spouse. And all while eating healthy, staying fit, balancing a job and somehow maintaining a social life.
PARENTING IN THE AGE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Social media photos can earn so much judgment. But can we really blame people who cast judgmental eyes when we make it a point to post every single step our children take? So, we do the next best thing. We become disclaimer parents.
Posting a photo of your baby drinking from a bottle? Better hashtag #Fedisbest in a bid to starve off the #breastisbest army that may take issue with you.
Uploading something about your kid eating ice cream? Best to remind the greater world that, really, this isn’t the usual diet, and that you are capable of feeding your child a proper, non-sugar charged meal.
According to parenting organisation, Zero to Three, nearly nine in 10 parents feel judged (90 per cent moms and 85 per cent dads), and almost half report that they feel judged all the time or nearly all the time (46 per cent moms; 45 per cent dads).
With all this judgment going back and forth, it seems then, there must be some model-answer parenting we all should strive towards right?
WHAT IS YOUR PARENTING TYPE?
Parenting back when policemen wore shorts was perhaps less conforming to any one grand theory or ethos. Our parents simply got on with the job – there were no “styles” or “types” to learn about or conform to – it was just mum and dad making sure stuff was done.
Today, as couples become not just more educated but also much more involved, especially since they are likely to have only one or two children, we reach out to see what is an ideal type that we could emulate. So we turn to theory.
READ: Commentary: When parenthood comes knocking, life's never the same again no matter what route got you there
Originally conceptualised by Professor Diana Baumrind then later expanded by Professors E E Maccoby and J A Martin, the quadrant parenting theory suggests that parents are usually either authoritative, authoritarian, permissive or neglectful.
Three ought to be frowned upon, with authoritative parenting coming out on top since its consistently linked to the most positive outcomes in studies.
Authoritative parents, the model tells us, are parents who are neither too strict or too involved. They have rules but use reason and a “democratic” process of family norm setting to get their kids to buy in. Essentially, they are the proverbial just-right bowl of porridge from which Goldilocks would like to eat.
It is small wonder why Asian parents, many of us with our inner Tiger-parent guiltily drumming along, struggle to feel like we are parenting well.
REALITY ISN’T ROOTED IN THEORY
Studies do bear out that overly strict or overly permissive parents do cause long term harm in their children.
But in seeking to parent the “right way” we not only put pressure on ourselves but we forget that everyone’s realities are vastly different. For one, even among couples, you may have very different parenting styles – with one being more or less strict when it comes to school work, for instance.
Second, you may adopt a no-nonsense approach to one aspect of a child’s behaviour but provide allowances for another aspect – it all boils down to what values matter greatly to you.
A 2011 study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology suggests that parents should tailor parenting styles to fit a child’s personality as it is better for their overall well-being.
While it hardly comes out of left field that what works with one child does not work with another, this study seems to point directly to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting.
Perhaps the only real answer to modern day parenting is that there isn’t a 10-year-series answer. Yes, we can take a cue from research and along the way, maybe even a fistful of well-intentioned, well-researched feedback to adjust the way we parent our children.
But the quick and dirty answer might simply for us to accept that just because someone else’s path is askew from ours does not make their journey any less right or ours any better.
And not having to follow a parenting style might be the best thing for your child.
Cherie Tseng is Chief Operations Officer at a local fintech company, a mother of three and editor with The Birthday Collective.