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Stress : Has parenting it changed over 50 years?

Stress : Has parenting it changed over 50 years?


Modern parental stress

If you’ve recently watched your adult son or daughter – now a parent themselves – searching the internet for the latest advice on nappy rash or teething problems, it probably triggered memories of the new-parent panics you experienced when you were young.

Most of us have suffered moments of stress and insecurity and self-doubt about our parenting skills, so it may seem that little has changed over the last fifty years, but there is one very big difference. When you needed childcare advice in your younger days, it’s likely that you picked up the phone to ask your mum, dad or grandparents for advice.

Nowadays, when the internet is the go-to source on information on everything from breastfeeding to building a tree house, it’s rare – if not unheard of – for the older generation to be asked for advice about childcare. Some grandparents may feel a pang of nostalgia for those long-lost ‘Mother-knows-best’ days. With online information about childcare so readily available, the idea of asking the older generation for guidance is now as dead as that legendary extinct bird, the dodo.

So what else has changed over the past fifty years when it comes to bringing up a child? According to the magazine Psychology Today, “Anxiety has become the hallmark of contemporary parenting” and it affects every decision that parents make.

Healthcare stress

Advances in healthcare have made the process of giving birth much safer for both mothers and babies over the last half century. As soon as a pregnancy begins, everything from the baby’s growth to maternal blood pressure is tested and monitored. While this high level of care is reassuring in one way, it can also add to the stress experienced by new parents, opening up a range of questions such as ‘Is my baby ‘normal’? What kind of birth should I choose? Which method of pain relief is best?

Vaccination is another topic that has ratcheted up stress levels amongst new parents in recent years. There is no scientific proof that immunisation actually causes harm, but rumours that vaccines can lead to autism, brain damage and the ‘overloading’ of a child’s immune system have made some parents reluctant to take up recommended vaccination programmes. Currently, only 87% of children in England receive two doses of the MMR vaccine.

No more outdoors?

Many grandparents look back nostalgically to the time when they roamed parks, streets and open spaces, playing with other children without adult supervision, but these days youngsters are tempted to stay inside, lured by the attractions of computer games, TV and the internet.

While most parents appreciate the benefits of exercise, they are equally fearful about the consequences of letting their children play outside, citing concerns about road safety, ‘stranger danger’ and bullying by other children. However, Dr Michael Ungar, author of ‘Nurturing Resilience’, believes parents are too fearful of outdoor hazards. “Where the real dangers lie is indoors,” he writes in a blog published by Psychology Today. “Excessive screen time, often occurring while children snack on unhealthy foods, combined with low levels of activity and few opportunities to learn responsibility or social skills, leave children terribly unhealthy.”

Spare the rod

For anyone who experienced the kind of physical punishment that inspired the old maxim ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’, it must be good to know that today’s children are more likely to be sent to the naughty step than they are to be smacked.

Physical punishment may not have been frowned on in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s but after 1990, when the UK signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, it became less socially acceptable. While it’s illegal to use discipline that inflicts actual physical harm, current UK legislation stops short when it comes to hitting or slapping that doesn’t leave a lasting mark. However there is huge pressure to change the law: this year the Scottish government is leading the way with a new bill to outlaw any form of physical assault on a child.

Looking back over the past five decades, a mixed picture emerges: while parents may be more anxious than they were back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, attitudes towards children’s health and welfare are changing in a positive way, with plans to reduce childhood obesity and revise legislation on physical punishment. However, while laws and attitudes change, thankfully one thing remains the same: most parents just want their children to grow up to lead happy, healthy and productive lives.

By Kate McLelland



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