25 Years of Parenting: A Look Back and Ahead

We've come a long way since 1986! On our 25th anniversary in 2011, Metro Parent looked at how family philosophies, models, discipline trends, worries and more have evolved.

Robin Monterosso will never forget the day her son was escorted home by a police officer – at the age of 3. While she was taking a nap, the boy slipped out the door for a bike ride around the block. A neighbor called the police to bring the boy home. Monterosso, like other moms, says she misses the connectedness of knowing her neighbors personally, as was the case in years past.

“In one sense, you’re grateful somebody’s looking out for them,” she says, “but in another, it’s like you’re wondering, ‘How can you not know where this kid lives? Bring him home yourself.'”

Parenting has definitely changed over the past 25 years, and a sense of isolation – even in a world of growing technology and alleged “connectedness” – is only one of the differences. From kid-glove handling of kids’ egos to an increase in stranger danger fears to the shifting family paradigm, there’s been a significant sociological shift, too.

John Becker, a marriage and family therapist in Plymouth, says the very philosophy of parenting has changed in the past 25 years. While the main goal of parenting – to instill character and moral development in children – has remained unchanged, he says, the focus of how to do so is different.

In years past, parents were more concerned with raising non-self-centered, obedient children – whereas today, there’s a stronger emphasis on building a child’s autonomy, self-esteem and individuality. Back then, he says, children were expected to be at dinner at a certain time and to eat what was in front of them. Not doing so was a sign of disobedience.

“Nowadays, I think parents are more sensitive to kids’ individual needs: ‘Well, what if I don’t have a taste for something like that,’ or maybe if I’m hungry earlier?” he says. “It’s just going about it in a different manner.”

Part of this shift in parenting philosophy may be due to the changing structure of and roles within families, such as the rise of the dual-income family.

Changes in the family model

According to a 1993 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce, in 1980, 32.4 percent of both parents worked full- or part-time; in 1990, that number rose to 38.2 percent. From 2005 to 2009, 53.9 percent of married-couple families had both husband and wife in the workforce, notes a report from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Starting in the late ’70s and early ’80s, there’s more and more dual-income families out of necessity,” says Heather Dillaway, associate professor of sociology at Wayne State University, “because, basically, people just can’t really afford to just have one breadwinner in the family and survive on just one income.”

A tough economy in the past few years also has meant a shift from the traditional parenting roles of man as breadwinner and wife as homemaker. In 2009, 7 percent of married couples with kids had only the wife employed, up from 5 percent in 2007, according to the 2010 U.S. Census Report.

“Kids are expensive,” Dillaway says. “You see less and less of the stay-at-home parents, and you see more stay-at-home dads if people are staying home – and so there’s definitely some differences in that regard.”

Gone are the days of fathers sitting in hospital waiting rooms waiting for the nurse to tell them the gender of their new child. In the last 20 to 30 years, Dillaway says, fathers have started taking an active role in raising their child from the very beginning.

Monterosso says her mother was “completely shocked” by her husband’s involvement with their first child, such as changing diapers and making her comfortable while she nursed.

“He never missed a beat,” says the Dearborn mother of four. “(My mom) still to this day, I think if you brought it up, she would just be dumbfounded.”

The number of single-parent families has increased over the past 25 years, as well. In that department of commerce report, the percentage of children living with one parent increased from 18 percent in 1980 to 24 percent in 1990. As of 2007, the number’s up to 25.8 percent, according to a 2008 report from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Divorce is here to stay. There is a growing trend of people not getting married and having kids – and deciding they want kids even if they don’t have a partner they want to be with for the rest of their lives,” Dillaway says. “And so that trend is here to stay, as well.”

The number of gay families is also on the rise. According to a 2001 report by the Human Rights Campaign, 601,209 gay and lesbian families were reported by the 2000 U.S. Census report, up from 145,130 in 1990. That represents an approximate 314 percent increase over 10 years.

“The biggest thing that we can see is that there are a whole bunch of different kinds of families,” Dillaway says. “Marriage isn’t the end-all, be-all thing anymore. We don’t have to get married and have kids anymore. We don’t have to stay married when we’re unhappy.

“Not every family is heterosexual. Not every family has two parents – and definitely, most families are not staying at home with their kids when they’re little.

“It’s going to have an impact on how kids grow up and how parenting is done.”

The number of stay-at-home parents has decreased over the past several years. According to Census Bureau reports, in 2009, 22.6 percent of married-couple families with children had a stay-at-home mother, down from 23.7 percent in 2008 and nearly 25 percent in 2007.

Trenda Knezek of Livonia knows firsthand the difficulties of trying to balance work and parenting. She worked part-time running a company when her daughter was born nine years ago. “My head was spinning all the time. I couldn’t see straight. I had to call my husband on the phone at work because I didn’t know whether I should do this or that,” she says.

She decreased the number of hours spent at work as she had more children and now runs a photography business from home. Knezek says working, despite the “exhaustion factor,” was a necessity for her – something that’s true for a lot of moms of this generation.

“I needed the outside stimulation. I needed to use my brain a little bit. I needed to feel valued in a way other than making a really great peanut butter sandwich,” she says. “I don’t think I could have been any kind of quality mom had I not been getting out of the house on a somewhat-regular basis.”

Attention to quality time with kids

With more parents working, the question of who will watch the children comes into play. Some parents compensate by working opposite shifts, which sacrifices the parents’ time together but ensures someone is always home with the children. Others, if it is financially possible, turn to daycare – a service that has exponentially expanded in the past 25 years.

While parents may feel guilty about not being able to spend enough time with their children, surprising new statistics cited in an April 5, 2010 New York Times article by Tara Parker-Pope found that, due to shifts away from traditional parenting roles and sharing more responsibilities, working parents are actually spending more time than ever with their children.

Prior to 1995, moms spent about 12 hours a week looking after kids; by 2007, college-educated women were at 21.2 hours a week, and those with less education around 15.9 hours. The same holds true for fathers: College-educated men spent around 9.6 hours a week with their children, a dramatic increase from the 4.5 hours prior to 1995. Dads without a college degree also saw an increase from 3.7 hours a week to around 6.8 hours a week.

Despite this, today’s parents are more likely to feel guilty about not being able to spend enough time with their children. To fill this space, they may turn to extracurricular activities – music and art classes, sports, play groups – to make sure their young ones stay active and develop as they should.

This guilt may also lead parents to parent in a much more “intensive” way, Dillaway says. “It’s almost like a speed-up, like, ‘OK, I have two hours before they go to bed. What can I do to make dinner fun? … What can I do in the face of having very limited time – and how can I make sure I am a good parent in that time?'” she says.

Pumping up the praise

Trying to make up for a lack of time spent with the kids may lead to the “raised in praise” phenomenon, where kids get rewarded for everything – even if they don’t actually do anything praiseworthy.

In the most extreme cases, this leads parents to micromanage their children’s lives well into their teen and college years. “There is a whole generation of parents where the child’s safety and success was absolutely prominent, and they did everything to intervene to make sure that everything was OK for them,” says Alice Anne Pearce, mother, grandmother and leader of the Redford-based Mothers of Preschoolers support group. “But now, we see some young mothers coming into motherhood where they find it difficult to make decisions, because decisions were made for them.”

Says Dillaway, “It’s not really parents’ fault that this happens – at the end of the day, parents need money, they have to work, and so in place of people being able to completely provide every activity for their kids by themselves, this whole system of outside activities develops,”

The important point to take away, says Deanna Robb, director of Beaumont Health System’s parenting program and a mom of two grown children, is to communicate within the family to find what’s working and solve what’s not – and to not agonize over not being a perfect parent.

“We put way too much pressure on ourselves,” she says. “They’re doing the best that they can to be the best parent they can. … There’s not a perfect parent out there. It’s about being a good enough parent.”

Fears trump freedom

Lenore Skenzay, a columnist for The New York Sun, earned 15 minutes of infamy in 2008 when she wrote a column about letting her 9-year-old son take the subway and bus from the mall to their home – alone. She did so, she wrote, because she had confidence in her son’s ability to find his way, but parents and the media derided her decision as parental negligence.

“The fact that a child is literally 40 times more likely to die in a car accident than at a stranger’s hands makes no difference,” she wrote in a follow-up article.”Driving is seen as safe. Freedom – once a right of childhood – is seen as suicidal.”

Indeed, the amount of freedom parents allow their children to have has plummeted. The percentage of kids walking or biking to school has dropped from 41 percent in 1969 to a mere 13 percent in 2001, according to a Nov. 20, 2009 Time magazine article.

“I think parents have to be more vigilant in what their kids are doing,” says Southgate mom Kim Nader. She wouldn’t allow her son Brandon, now 26, to bike around the block by himself when he was young, she says, but now she’s even more hesitant with her grandchildren and daughter Samantha, 14.

“Nowadays, I don’t even like to let the kids outside by themselves,” she says. “A lot has changed, and I think it makes people more leery about letting their kids go to the park.”

Compared to 25 years ago, children growing up today have far more scheduled activities and play dates than they used to. Gone seem to be the days of leaving the house early in the morning, playing with children from around the neighborhood and returning when the streetlights came on. The reason? Parents perceive the world to be more dangerous than it used to be.

In an age where anyone can watch 24/7 news channels that follow every detail of horrific murders or abductions of children such as Caylee Anthony or Elizabeth Smart, danger seems to lurk behind every bush. TV shows like CSI or Law & Order add to that, as well.

“We definitely have much more of a culture of fear around what’s going to happen to kids these days than we used to,” Dillaway says.

However, these fears may not be entirely groundless, she says. The increase in dual-income families means there aren’t as many adults in the neighborhoods looking out for kids anymore, drugs are more widely available than they used to be, and pop culture is more highly sexualized than it’s ever been. And through the Internet and watching TV, children can be exposed to all of it much more easily.

For many parents, limiting their children’s freedom is an unfortunate but necessary part of keeping them safe.

“It bugs me. I hate that I can’t let my kids run off down the street and call them when it’s time to come home three hours later,” Knezek says. She’s just starting to let her 9-year-old daughter ride her bike around the block to her friend’s house if she calls her when she gets there.

With the standardization of seatbelts, child safety seats and bike helmets, society has become more safety-conscious as a whole since 25 years ago, Pearce says. And society has become more vocal in judging those who choose not to take those precautions.

“There’s tremendous peer pressure of what other parents will say if you let your child ride a bike without a helmet or walk to school or ride their bike around the block by themselves when they’re 6,” Livonia mom Heather Lombardo says.

What results is a cycle of fear, motivated by real safety concerns, media coverage and societal pressure.

“We probably are much more scared than we should be,” Dillaway says. “It probably is OK to let your kid walk around the block if you know your neighborhood and you’ve lived there for a while. But, on the other hand, we’re told that’s not OK anymore, and we buy into it.”

A dialing down of discipline

The structure and control in children’s lives today, however, only seems to extend to a certain point. When it comes to discipline, parents and experts agree that society has put fewer expectations and responsibilities on children than there were 25 years ago.

“Too often, I think, we’re a little bit too light on our kids nowadays,” Becker says. “We’re telling them, ‘You shouldn’t do this. This will have adverse effects,’ but then we let them off the hook and they don’t experience the adverse effects.”

Nader says, “I think they need to set standards again. They have to do things around the house that need to be done before they can go out and play, especially when they’re older. I think they have to have responsibilities.”

She says her preferred method of discipline is using groundings or taking away privileges such as computer time. “It probably works now (with Samantha) more than it did with Brandon, because he didn’t have the Game Boy, he didn’t have the computer and the cell phone and all of that. His was taking away a favorite toy or grounding him from the TV.

“But nowadays, it’s a little different with modern technology. Things are bigger, and they get them taken away, and they realize (the consequences of their actions).”

Spanking as a form of discipline was more accepted 25 years ago. But as society became more concerned about children’s sense of self-worth and rights over their own bodies, the method became less popular. Instead, “time-outs” became the go-to method of correcting kids’ behavior, and – along with grounding and privilege restrictions – is still in vogue today, Robb says.

Becker, however, would like to see parents practice a different approach to discipline. He advocates that parents follow up an act of disobedience with logical consequences.

“The purpose of discipline is to instruct,” he says. Taking away something as a punishment for misbehavior, he says, doesn’t always achieve that. “If I’m late for work, I lose my job. If I’m late for work, it’s not that I don’t get lunch,” he says.

The results of an action need to directly correlate with the action that caused them. For example, he says, if the child wakes up on time, the parent will drive him or her to school. If the child doesn’t wake up on time, he or she will have to take the bus.

“I think consequences work best when they’re logically connected,” he says.

Technology’s pros and cons

Perhaps the most obvious changes between today and 25 years ago are the technological advances made, particularly in fields of communication. What a quarter of a century ago had to be done by mail or telephone can now be done in the blink of an eye by email, text and social networking.

These revolutionary breakthroughs do have their good points. It’s now easier to keep in touch with teachers, your children and family members who live far away. Using a cell phone, parents can also easily contact their children anywhere at anytime; with the right equipment, parents can even track young drivers’ locations and speeds.

“It’s a good thing, because I know who (my kids are) with, and I can text them and double-check it,” Livonia mom Sarah Lavery says.

With the increases in fast, convenient communication, however, come some negatives. Nasty rumors, threats and hateful words from peers no longer stop at the front door like they did in years past; now, children can be cyberbullied from their computers inside their homes. A decrease in face-to-face communication, something that many parents regret, is another casualty of modern technology.

“A lot of women feel isolated now,” Pearce says. “We text, we email in our air-conditioned homes, and we’re not sitting out on the front veranda the way they used to years ago – so there’s a need for women to bond together. That does transcend all the generations. That need hasn’t gone away.”

Knezek agrees.

“Mothering preschoolers can be one of the most lonely jobs you ever had,” she says. “We think we have this friendliness with Facebook and all that stuff, and there’s no depth to it, really. It’s just kind of superficial.”

Knezek, who does not allow electronic gaming systems in her house, says she’s seen children who have difficulty holding a conversation with people because they’re too used to texting and gaming without in-person conversations.

Another positive about the gains in technology is that more information is more easily accessible to parents than ever before. Moms needing information have turned “from the front porch mom-to-mom talks” to “a more research-based information center” online, Robb says. But there is also such a thing as being inundated with too much of it, she says, and info-seekers must be wary of whom they trust online. The number of viewpoints about parenting found online is “overwhelming,” Pearce says.

Often, parents may not even realize how glued to their computers, cell phones and TVs they are, Becker says. So one way to combat that is to unplug and spend one day doing non-electronic activities as a family.

“There’s no substitute for sitting down and connecting emotionally and talking with your children,” he says.

The future of parenting

The past 25 years have brought numerous changes in parenting styles – some positive and some negative. As far as what’s ahead in the next 25, no one can say for sure, but many parents are afraid of what’s to come.

“Twenty years from now, I can’t even imagine. You’ll probably be standing next to someone texting to them instead of talking to their face. That seems a little scary to me,” Knezek says.

Some hope their children will be able to gain more independence.

“I’m hoping and praying that it’s kind of moderating from this having to live for your children to letting them live for themselves a little again,” Monterosso says.

These concerns, however, are probably not unique to this generation of parents.

“When my children go out there, I’m much more concerned than I was 10 years ago when I first had kids,” says Amy Dillon, a mother of four from Redford. “It was all rosy, but now, it’s … perplexing at the challenges that lie ahead for our children.

“And I think probably every generation says that – that fear that ‘How is the world going to be treating my child? What’s going to be left for them?'”

In the end, though, the goal of parenting has remained steady: to help children learn, grow and take on a productive role in society.

And, says Becker, parents are still the biggest influence on their kids – even if it doesn’t feel like it.

Although peers are important, he says, “too often, that’s overemphasized, and parents really need to understand that they are, and always will be, the most influential people for their children.” Even when children are teens and spend less time with their parents, their power and opinion is felt, if not always acknowledged. Technology and the times we live in haven’t overshadowed the value of a mindful parent.

“I cannot control what the rest of the world is doing,” Monterosso says. “But am I producing the kind of people that are going to make a difference? That’s the bottom line. They can be as weird or whatever as they are, but are they going to be people that have a servant’s heart? Are they going to be people that aren’t afraid of the world, that are going to go out and make a positive impact?

“That is my job, and that is what I can do. There’s no more that I can do, and there’s no less I should do.”

This post was originally published in 2011. It is lightly updated on occasion but primarily reflects a snapshot of parenting at that point in time.


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