The decline of parenting skills

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Nearly One-third Of US Parents Don’t Know What To Expect Of Infants

ScienceDaily (May 4, 2008) — Almost one-third of U.S. parents have a surprisingly low-level knowledge of typical infant development and unrealistic expectations for their child’s physical, social and emotional growth, according research from the University of Rochester. The new findings, which suggest that such false parenting assumptions can not only impair parent-child interactions, but also rob kids of much-needed cognitive stimulation […]

[…]once a baby is born, an astonishing number of parents are not only unsure of what to anticipate as their child develops, but are also uncertain of when, how or how much they are to help their babies reach various milestones, such as talking, grabbing, discerning right from wrong, or even potty-training.”

Moms and dads often misinterpret behaviors — some parents expect too much of babies too soon and grow frustrated; others underestimate their child’s abilities, preventing them from learning on their own.

The study points to a correlation between education level and lack of parenting knowledge, and suggest that paediatricians could do more to make parental expectations of infants, whether too positive or too negative, more realistic. But this is ignoring the elephant in the room of why so many people don’t know anything about infant norms, and frankly it’s giving too much credit to those who’ve managed to acquire some book-smarts. Books about early childhood are available and are useful resources that certainly can help fill knowledge gaps, but they’re no match for actual exposure to the company of young children as part of normal social interaction while one is growing up, and that’s what is lacking.

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For a moment here, I’m going to make some social conservative’s day – the problem is that there are too few children in most households, so that older children never share a house with infants and learn what is and is not normal. But, unlike the social conservatives, I don’t think that the answer is for couples to have larger families with the wife staying at home to raise the children all together. The answer is NOT for nuclear families to have more children, the answer is to get over the fetish for nuclear families altogether, and radically rethink the way that adults live in a community while they are parenting young children.

Nuclear families reinforce the model of the gendered division of labour. In almost all nuclear families, one parent ends up being the primary earner and the other ends up being the primary housekeeper and carer, and nearly always it is the traditional division of father earner, mother homemaker. Children in nuclear families see this gendered division of labour reinforced every hour of every day.

The idea that having your own separate home is the marker of true adulthood, and that anyone who is still living with their own parents when they themselves start having children is some sort of “loser”, has grown from a combination of hyper-individualism and toxic consumerism: own your own home and buy, buy, buy to fill it with items just for you and your own family.

You know, it’s really not that rational a way to live if you intend to raise children. Historically, extended family households were the norm, with plenty of adults to share both the labours of earning an income and the labours of keeping house and raising children. Even before women gained property rights and the vote, women in these extended family households often worked outside the home as seamstresses, laundresses, shop counter clerks, waitresses, barmaids etc., rostering their employment hours and their housework hours with the other adults in the home. Men worked set hours just as their wives did, and came home to pitch in, with fathers spending far more time interacting with their children back then than average fathers in the West do now. There was sufficient time for adults in these households to tend to herbs, vegetables, chickens and rabbits in the garden, with the children learning to help them. There were shared household appliances instead of every parenting couple having to have their own.

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Was there less privacy? Less independence? Certainly, and this was anathema to the individualist mantra. However, there were marked benefits for parents, particularly primary carer parents. Those at home caring for children had other adults around for conversation, advice, and respite when required, unlike the isolation of many new mothers in a nuclear family. It’s also much easier to socialise a child with more than just a couple of adults modelling social interactions: the more people interacting around a child the better they absorb social lessons. Such households offer children more than just age-stratified interaction with other children: older children offer different social lessons than parents and other adults, and allow younger children to gradually progress from constant parental monitoring to gradual increases in independence in a group rather than on their own.

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Is it possible for most people in the post-modern economy to return to the traditional extended family model? Probably not, given that the post-modern workforce is a mobile workforce. Good luck getting your parents and sibs to follow you wherever your particular career happens to take you, just to provide that special family support to make it easier to raise your kids.

Could there be other ways to organise a household around a co-operative parenting model? Design housing around a shared parenting model for couples with young children? I would think so, wouldn’t you? They wouldn’t have to be hippy-commune situations unless that was the particular choice. Why not a development geared towards groups of 6-8 couples raising children? Townhouses built around a central courtyard with a playground, cubby house, seating area and BBQ area, with the kitchen/family rooms of all the townhouses opening up to it? Co-op rosters for organising working hours amongst the adults so that there would always be a few adults home at any given time to share child-care? One big workshop? One big hobby room? One big library?

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Other ideas?

Categories: culture wars, education, gender & feminism, relationships, work and family

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30 replies

  1. I do think that we need to have a more community based approach to child rearing, but I also think that here in the States it is no coincidence that lack of knowledge about what to expect from infants is a problem right now, at the same time we’ve been killing our sex/family education programs in the public schools. We are not talking to young people about raising children because abstinence-only advocates seem to think that young people learning about child care will lead to teen sex. I worked in a school that had a high rate of teen pregnancies and the administration flat refused to let one of our counselors lead a group to help pregnant teens figure out how to care for their infants and continue their educations. The rationale – we don’t want to send the message that we approve of what they’ve done (had sex). This prudish attitude is hurting many young girls, often from poor families, who would benefit from some honest, easily accessible information.

  2. Tigtog, I couldn’t agree more. As a parent of 5, with what was once called a ‘long family’ (eldest 20, youngest 4) I’ve seen the benefits to both older and younger children of having a range of siblings, and as a mother, I experenced the benefits of having teenagers round when I had new babies — just the luxury of being able to leave the baby being watched by someone else while you have a shower is not inconsiderable.
    Of course, not everyone wants to have a big family, and your suggestions are all excellent. One other thing I would point out is the assumption that children must be spaced at the optimum interval of 2 or 3 years — it’s seen as odd to have bigger gaps, or smaller ones, and yet spacings of 5 or more years can make childrearing much easier to combine with study or work.
    Another factor that you didn’t mention is the jackpotting of age stratification that happens when everyone associates mostly with their own cohort, they all have kids at the same time, and no one knows families with kids of other ages. Mothers groups, school friends all reinforce the idea that you need friends with kids the same age, when often what parents need are friends with older kids (so you can see that phases pass) or friends with younger kids (so you can remember how adorable your own were, once). I’ve seen my kids, both older and younger than the kids of most of my contemporaries, fulfil this function for my friends.
    Knowing old people, other than your own parents, is also important for communities to cohere, and doesn’t happen where people only make friends with their own contemporaries. How to make it happen, of course, is a different matter. Great post.

  3. I place a very high value on staying near my family and my partner’s family while our son is little, partly for the freebie childcare, but for the broader support that you can’t get from a childcare centre too. (He also goes to centre, I’m not knocking them)
    It is good to get to know other new mothers when you have a baby, it’s good to have other people around during the day when everyone else you know is at work, for example. It’s also been really helpful for me to have friends who don’t have children. They come for dinner and don’t mind bringing something, or holding the baby while I cook which my mother friends can’t. Because they are flat out with their own kids. I also can’t visit them if my kid has been up all night with a cold because no one wants their kid to catch it. Childless/free mates who are happy to take your kid to the zoo for the afternoon or otherwise broaden their experience of life (lessons like “not all households revolve around children”) are pretty much invaluable. People who know they’re going home to an uninterrupted night’s sleep can make excellent respite carers.
    Some of my fondest childhood memories are of time spent with my godmother, who loves kids but didn’t want any of her own. It’s fabulous now to watch her with my son, nephew and niece doing it all over again.
    So my tip to new mothers is to maintain links with your kid-free friends, so long as they understand that after 7.30pm you can only socialise at your house and you need to be in bed by 10ish. (Except when the Logies are on the telly, obviously)

  4. As you mentioned a few months ago, a big part of the isolation and lack of socialisation is also the mass “hysteria” over paedophilia – 30-40 years ago kids could go out more and weren’t watched like hawks. Then came Graham Thorne and the Beaumonts, Eloise Worledge and Mr Cruel.

  5. I’m not so sure about extended families in history – for example since the 1960s the Cambridge History Project has examined and catalogued hundreds of thousands of English church registers and matched them with tax documents etc to build up a picture of the range of households. It shows that two-generation homes (mostly tiny dwellings) were the norm from at least the 14th to 17th centuries and possibly earlier. Families were typically small (3-4 kids) due to late marriage, early menopause and high maternal and infant mortality. It was the Victorians who really were the first to commonly have more than two generations living together, and to have more than 4 babies typically surviving (due to improved public health from the end of the 1700s). I don’t know about other countries, though.
    You know, I’m not sure that this is a new problem. I remember it being discussed when I was having babies in the 1970s, and I’m not convinced that everyone in Western countries lived in ideally supportive neighbourhoods before that either. I’m not saying that your solutions won’t work, but I would suggest that many young parents these days participate in the global village of baby and parenting blogs, and get their information and support there. And what they learn there wouldn’t be much less accurate than some of the old married person’s tales that have always done the rounds in every community.

  6. M-H, in my first draft of this I mentioned that some of these extended family set-ups were actually multi-household, but that line got lost in the final edit. I probably should have polished it instead!
    Yes, often the generations had to live in multiple cottages, because the cottages could only accommodate a certain number of people, and especially in cold countries heating was made more practical by having smaller living spaces rather than larger ones. But most people lived in the same small neighborhoods as their relations, and often in the same street. The benefit of the mutual support was obvious to all, warts of family spats/feuds and scandals and all.
    And while I think the parenting blogs and forums are invaluable, they’re still not the same as having had actual experience sharing living space with infants at some time while growing up oneself.

  7. I’m (almost) 28 and I’ve *never* changed a nappy – and this scares me somewhat.
    I would actually put myself in that 1/3 of clueless parents (or would-be, as I’m not planning on trying for a year or two yet). I didn’t even do Caring for Children in high school, because at 16, babies were icky and I wanted to do computing instead.

  8. What a fascinating topic! This discussion is deperately needed in the mainstream media.

    ”(…)a combination of hyper-individualism and toxic consumerism: own your own home and buy, buy, buy(…)”

    This sounds particularly true, in my opinion.
    Mary Tracy9s last blog post..Something Stinks In Austria

  9. Given what’s being said, I suppose I was lucky as a teenager. Firstly, my mother was involved with a relinquishing mothers support group, and through that wound up acting as a temporary haven for a few young single mothers who were trying to figure out whether or not they could handle looking after their child on their own. This happened during my teenage years (roughly from when I was thirteen through fifteen) and I wound up helping out with things like keeping the babies amused, or doing babysitting duty now and then. In addition, the family next door to us and the family who lived across the road from us were both in the process of growing at the time (they each wound up with five children, all boys) and I wound up becoming friendly with the mothers in each of those cases. I figure these experiences helped to shape my own decision to remain child-free by choice – I learned I had very little empathy with children between the ages of twelve months and twelve years, and would probably be a lousy parent.
    I still hold to this decision, some twenty years later. Of course, now I can point to things like being over thirty-five (and thus into the “high-risk” period for genetic abnormalities) to support the decision as well, but my main argument is that I don’t have the right sort of temperament for a mother. I’m fine as a childless aunt – at least then I can hand the little blighters back again.
    I agree with the notion that we need to rethink what family means, and what a family can be. One of my ideas was a sort of “group household” – essentially, a mini-commune of four or more families sharing living quarters, and sharing child-rearing duties on a “whoever’s best suited” basis. In such a situation, I would have been prepared to have children, since I’d know they weren’t necessarily going to be raised by me.

  10. The cohousing model would be way to meet some of these coparenting (or at least parenting with support) needs. (; Essentially the idea is that several households live together. Each household has a self-contained dwelling but there are also common areas – a big kitchen and common room for shared meals, vegetable gardens, rooms for guests – and shared tools and other resources. Different groups have different objectives, but all the groups I’ve read about are trying to build some feeling of community, and mostly they try to have a range of ages – so it’s like a little village. I don’t want to have kids but I love being around them and I would really like to live in cohousing some day. There are quite a few groups where I live in the US Midwest, and there are some in Australia – the directory on lists them.

  11. I think in the past kids spent more time with their parents, and the idea of being a parent rubbed off. As time has gone by kids have spent more and more time with secondary caregivers. This has created a lack of parenting role models they can use to raise their children. Each generation seems to get farther removed, eventually we will have nothing left except those super nannies like on the tv shows.
    [Moderator note: SEO person, you’ve turned up a few times with different names and URLs. The URLs will not be published while you are so obviously splogging, but your comments have so far been pertinent and substantive (and with a consistent email address), so I will publish your words. Please rethink your SEO strategy, and anytime you wish to just be a normal commentor here you will be welcome ~tigtog]

  12. The article doesn’t specify which parents don’t know what. But since childcare is heavily gendered in our society, isn’t it likely that far more mothers than fathers have spent time babysitting?
    I’m in favor of truly integrated lives, in all the different forms that may take. The Spouse was an only child of an only child, and had no experience of babies before the birth of our first. Of course, the Baby’s First Year Books aren’t marketed to the fathers, are they?
    Kaethes last blog post..On Books, and Not Reading Them

  13. The point that a few of you have raised of how people who are childfree by choice but who still enjoy being part of a community where they interact with children at times is a good one. Having a few “aunties” and “uncles” around who have a totally different social dynamic than the house arranged around childrearing is a very useful experience, definitely. In particular, it allows for the many same-sex couples who do not want children of their own but who enjoy aunting and uncleing to be included rather than segregated.

  14. A couple of things struck me here.
    First, there’s an assumption that the medical community or experts do know what to expect – ‘typical’ is kind of difficult, I think, because it rarely actually applies to any one child. I think it also points to a way of looking at kids that just wasn’t around in earlier times, a standardisation of development that I’m sure our grandparents or great-grandparents wouldn’t have been able to articulate. I don’t disagree that there are milestones kids reach at average ages but I’m not sure that a parent’s lack of understanding of the particular scientific or medical framework is a direct reflection of their parenting abilities.
    But the point about the absence of children in our lives and the isolation of families is well taken. I’m not sure that helping care for siblings or others’ children will help people to say ‘this is when the kid should being to crawl/ touch their nose/ walk/ lie/ but I guess it gives us a sense of what babies and kids are in more general terms. It might also halt some of the on-going judgement about ‘inappropriate’ children’s behaviour in public, by sensitising people to the idea that kids do tantrum/ are loud/ whine a lot and this isn’t a reflection on parenting practices and not something to be pushed back into the home where it belongs. Thus, we might not feel so unwelcome in public places, which could prevent some of the isolation we feel as parents.

  15. Purrdance, changing nappies isn’t particularly difficult, and if you find yourself in a position where you need to do it you’ll figure it out. It’s also something you could ask a midwife to show you if you give birth some day.
    The hard stuff of parenting is the relentlessness. It’s having no time for yourself, not even really when you’re alone briefly, because you are always responsible for them, you keep an eye on the time, you listen out for them. It takes a lot of getting used to. It’s not something you can pick up from a baby book, or a class, or even by having lots of experience with other people’s babies.
    I have lots of experience of other people’s babies. I have 19 cousins, most of them younger than me, I had a sister 8 years younger than me, I had nephews and neices before I had my own kid. I babysat every kid in the neighbourhood. I still would have failed a test of expected milestones. I would still fail a test of expected milestones other than the ones my kid is up to right now or expected to meet soon. They’re just not that interesting to remember and I’m not a maternal and child health nurse.
    What I do have is a general understanding of the diversity of children. That they don’t meet milestones “at six months” but will get there at some stage around then, some earlier, some later. I know that my kid is hard work, but that all the other kids are too. Not always in the same way, or at the same time, but they are all hard work. I know that while my kid doesn’t fit neatly onto the growth chart, he’s still normal and healthy, because he’s just like all the other babies in our family and it gave me the confidence to ignore the Dire Warnings of the health centre nurse.
    Kris, my friend had twins and her parents in law (both pediatricians) came to stay. Neither of them was particularly useful though, because they only know about sick babies, not normal healthy ones (other than their own grown up ones).

  16. Well then, we need to start farming out our male and female teens for babysitting duty. I’ve already started sending mine next door for brief supervisions of the 2 and 4 year old there while their mum heads to the grocery store. I think it is a great way to learn about kids so that they will know what they are getting into if they choose to become daddies some day.

  17. “changing nappies isn’t particularly difficult, and if you find yourself in a position where you need to do it you’ll figure it out. It’s also something you could ask a midwife to show you if you give birth some day.”
    Kate – we used cloth until the washing and leakage wore us out. We asked the midwives at the hospital to show us how to fold and fit and they didn’t know. Thank goodness for google.
    Also, my Mum, bless her, couldn’t figure out how to use use disposables after fours kids in cloth; she didn’t twig that there were sticky bits to hold it together.
    kriss last blog post..Wordy

  18. most people are very dumb
    especially in the US
    When I had my first child 40 years ago I was teased and ridiculed by the other new mothers when they saw me reading
    Dr.Spock’s Guide To Babies.
    I had never ever even held a baby of any kind until I held my own.
    That 40-year-old is still alive and hasn’t been arrested yet.
    But I recall feeling incompetent about mothering.
    What a boon Guugle must be for nervous new mothers.

  19. I love this idea! The townhouses might be the only way to sell it in the suburbs, but I think I’d actually like the community to be based in an apartment complex with shared playground/daycare/laundry/rec room facilities. It comes with the same benefits, but it also allows for the community to more readily expand to include childless helpers like grandparents, aunts and uncles. Plus, I think it’s a bit more environmentally friendly, it allows more ready access to public transit, and may encourage carpooling and car sharing.
    Colleens last blog post..It’s easier to see the movie without your head up your ass

  20. Great post TT.

    My lady friend and I recently bought one half of a duplex in North Carlton with my little sister upstairs in the other half. Shared parenting duties was one of the long-term considerations that made buying together so attractive (the others being that we all get on so well and the place is a deco dream across a quiet road from a lovely park!).

    However, the big problem with any large-scale practice of this sort would be insurance and liability.

  21. ” Of course, the Baby’s First Year Books aren’t marketed to the fathers, are they?”
    Actually, they used to be – well into the 18th century almost all child care manuals were addressed to fathers. Of course this may have had quite a bit to do with a gender imbalance in literacy rates, but the father was seen as the primary parent – and the work women did with children, like nursing and changing nappies – wouldn’t have had to have been taught, as they would have watched other women do it all their lives.

  22. kris: Our midwife gave the Bloke a refresher course on cloth, maybe that’s a hippy birth centre thing. Our Nappy Wash deliveries also came with a set of helpful diagrams. This resulted in visitors coming to meet the baby and staying to fold nappies. Mates who had younger siblings had flashbacks.
    I meant only that learning to stick a nappy on doesn’t take that long, and once you’ve learned it you’re done. Except of course that the little buggers start moving around and running round the house half naked while you chase after them trying to catch up before they wee on the carpet.

  23. I completely agree with your blog and ideas about the needs to change our parenting ways. We certainly have some challenges to overcome if we want to get back to some sort of basics in bringing up our children.

  24. This goes straight to my heart Tigtog. So much of what you’ve written is just so spot on, but your idea about the mobile workforce is what rings especially true for me and my family. We have a master plan of returning to our home city and living in two houses on one block with my parents- to create this exact sort of communal living set-up with a vegie garden and four pairs of adult eyes to watch the children (and dog) as they go about their learning and growing. For me, being the SAHM we are daily reiterating the gender roles. Daddy goes out early and returns after dark while Mummy is home cooking and wiping bums. We’re a happy clan, but knowing life could be so much more pulls at the heart strings- I feel the kids’ world view could be so much more varied. If only life were different eh? If my feller could find fulfilling work in a small city, if his brother and family were there too. Career choices made in early adulthood can have these life-changing ramifications for years down the track. Our culture needs to talk about this more so that people can make their decisions in an informed way- to be encouraged to stay put rather than to roam the globe in persuit of career goals. Family goals deserve to be held as at least equally important.
    And, Ms Kate- sending your older kids over to watch your neighbor’s littlies is just brilliant grass roots community building- hurrah for you!!!


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