Our local parent ed organization has the slogan, “Take a class . . . because loving your child is instinctive, but parenting is learned.”
It seems to me that you don’t have to read very deeply to come across an article or even a whole book decrying the amount of thought people put into parenting these days. The basic idea behind the complaint is that people have been parenting for ages and not thinking about it, so we're doing it wrong if we dwell.
Truth is, the world is a pretty f'ed up place full of unreflective parents who think their kids will be fine no matter what they do. Abuse is far too common and horrifying and makes all of our lives a worse place to live. And yelling constantly at your kids, and thinking they'll be fine as long as you also hug them when it's over, is walking through the world not paying attention to how you impact those around you. There are plenty of people like that. I think they could do with a little more self-reflection.
When people talk about the good old days when people didn’t think about parenting, I think about how much the family structure has changed since then. It’s not so long ago that the family was a vertical chain of command, with husbands on top, wives below and children at rock bottom. That’s just not how we do it anymore. And the logic that put men on top and kids at the bottom was a pretty ugly philosophy that had broad reaching ugly consequences.
Parenting through fear, back when people put less thought into being a parent, was not the good old days. People unapologetically taking out their frustration on children was not the good old days. There is less acceptance of child abuse of all sorts today, and we are all better for it. From the impact on an individual abused child to the impact such violence has on society as a whole, we are better for it.
Studies have shown that—while child abuse continues to be an intractable problem we need to face together as parent communities—it is on a downward trend that can’t be explained away by any single factor. We are simply less tolerant of violence toward children than previous generations.
Domestic violence of all sorts is no longer a joke you can make in advertising, which has actually been true in the past. Spanking is still a highly charged debate that ignites from time to time, but I think there is less social acceptance of that, too. Just imagine watching someone spank a child in public. Not a lot of people will be standing by thinking, “Yup, that’s what we do with kids who step out of line.”
From yelling to spanking to ongoing verbal and physical and sexual abuse, the idea of a husband or a mother ruling their household by threatened or actual violence is no longer acceptable in our society. I'm sure there was something "easier" about scaring your kids—and probably your wife, too—into "behaving." Children afraid of physical and emotional violence may be easier to keep in line than children who need to be spoken to and reasoned with and convinced to cooperate.
Anyone in the current grandparent generation will tell you that the way we parent is a lot harder than it used to be. Parent wasn’t even a verb back then. Children were seen and not heard.
We do put more thought into it and do make it harder for ourselves. I think we do things the harder way—we have time-outs that don’t always work, time-ins where we’re not quite sure we’re saying the right thing, we bribe inconsistently, we try to talk it out, we have consequences. And I think the hard way, rocky road as it is, is a better way.
We work our butts off trying to do the right thing. Trying to be good parents. Trying not to yell. And sometimes, I can admit, when we are at the absolute end of our ropes, even trying not to spank or shove or grab with hands that are too strong and too tight. But we work hard to build up our parenting toolbox with all kinds of tricks so we don’t go to that bad place. And mostly, the place where we fail is with yelling. And we continue to work on that.
To build up this toolbox, of tools to pull out when things aren’t going right, you have to talk about parenting. Hitting when you’re mad is instinct. Yelling at your kids comes easily. Learning how to be a better parent? That requires thought.