As we emerge from the torrent of weather storms this winter, I can't help but take note that many of us parents have been caught up in a bigger, perhaps more destructive storm -- that of modern day parenting.
Parenting has always been stormy. I'm sure the ancient Greek parents flew into panic when their teenagers showed more bare shoulder under their togas than they liked. Yet, I believe parenting is more complex now than ever before (or at least we have made it more complex). Of course, raising kids during tumultuous times such as the Great Depression or the World Wars was very difficult -- because life itself was difficult.
So why then, is parenting now so hard? Why are we seeing such overwhelmed and stressed parents -- including those among the most affluent and educated groups? Why are we seeing the most privileged group of youth suffering from higher rates of depression, anxiety, and substance use? Why are we seeing the highest student suicide rate in recorded history? The answer lies in understanding the collision of several intense factors that have produced a rare, complex, and dangerous storm of 21st century parenting.
Here are the ingredients of the modern day parenting storm.
A Warm Core
Heat is nature's most powerful element and it is at the center of every storm. All storms begin with a "warm core" and the modern day parenting storm is no different. For parents, our warm core is created from the heat of our intense love and worry for our children. We love our children (Even when we sometimes don't like them, we still love them). And we also worry about them -- a lot. Without this love and worry, there would be nothing for the other factors to build upon. This explains how the parenting storm is similar across many countries and cultures. The love and worry for our children is universal and it squarely places parents all over the world in the center of a storm.
High Pressure Systems
Modern day parenting pressures build up and press down hard on parents and children alike. Although pressures are inevitable and a fact of life, today's parents are not equipped for how "things have changed" over time. The globalization of people, technology, and education has led to more competition for young people than ever before. Employers and educational institutions are now looking worldwide for candidates and many parents are correct when they think "wow I wouldn't get into university now." GPAs, standardized test scores, and quality of extracurricular activities needed for University acceptance have steadily risen over the last 100 years. And if that is not enough, the Great Recession brought on unstable job markets and increased youth unemployment, all leading to intense pressure for parents and youth alike.
Low Pressure Systems
Storms move over low pressure systems which allow them to build. For our modern day parenting storm, the low pressure system comes from our parental fears that make us "over-pave the way" for our kids. No one wants their child to fall behind in this globally competitive and fast paced world so parents step in too soon and too often. Parenting responses such as hovering, over-instructing, micromanaging, not allowing children to fail, swooping in for the rescue, and fighting every battle intensify parent-child stress and prevent the development of resiliency and the ability to adapt.
Such behaviors lead to parental dependence and are partly to blame for "adult-escents" and "generation boomerang". Sure our kids may become highly skilled at math, piano, or a sport, but how will they deal with real world problems like a difficult boss, a sudden illness, or juggling work and home responsibilities without us? Without real world trial and error, mistakes, and failure, our children will not learn how to deal with uncertainty, "figure things out" on their own, and bounce back from adversity. These are all important life skills needed to adapt and thrive in our ever-changing world.
The mix of an intense warm core, high pressure, and low pressure systems has led to the storm of modern day parenting. Across the world, we are seeing the downpour of parental stress, exhaustion, and anxiety spreading out of control. But understanding the storm is not enough, we parents must survive through it. If managed poorly, we can contribute to the danger by adding pressure (tiger parents) or weakening defenses (helicopter and bubble wrap parents). Some parents will deny its presence (uninvolved and permissive parents), leaving themselves and their children vulnerable.
Our 21st century world is marked by unprecedented pressures AND unprecedented opportunities for parents. Of course, parents are keenly aware of insecure job markets, fear global competition, hold the guilt of not enough time, and are stressed by rising GPAs and standardized test scores. However, we sometimes forget the vast potential of opportunity for our children in a world marked by barrier breaking technology, the explosion of access to knowledge, and global connectedness. Parents would be wise to adapt to an ever-changing world while still maintaining the strength of our values. This is the only way we will weather the 21st century parenting storm.