Marianne Kavanagh writes about the perils of modern parenting, and the particular pressure there is on parents today to obsess about whether they are making the correct choices as they bring their children up. The art of muddling through has been replaced by the science of seeking perfection.
Should you let your eight year-old out to play, risking abduction and getting run over, or should you keep him safely at home and worry instead about square eyes and obesity? Should you rush your daughter from violin to ballet, exposing her to a wealth of opportunity, or should you stop being so pushy and let her daydream?
Breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding, staying at home versus going out to work – there’s argument and counter-argument and a feeling that you’re going around in circles. “The only thing you know for certain,” says one mother gloomily, “is that whatever you’re doing is wrong.”
There is a wonderful photo with the original article [not the photo now on the Telegraph web article] of an innocent toddler crouching beside a huge pile of parenting books. She is reaching for a book entitled What every parent needs to know, with the suggestion that she wants to invert the roles and educate her parents in the knowledge they need to bring her up well. But the real message is that she is about to be crushed under the weight of books when the tottering pile falls over.
Where has all this anxiety come from? “I always clean the lavatory before the health visitor comes,” says my friend Jane, “in case she thinks we’re slovenly.” We compare ourselves to other parents and find ourselves wanting. We see pictures of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and really, really hope that they too feed their children rubbish food. We panic in case our actions harm our children for life – “I hate football,” says the father of three small boys, “but I have to pretend I like it in case I’m being a pathetic role model” – and spend all our time worrying about additives, knife crime and omega 3. As Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the university of Kent, points out in his book Paranoid Parenting (Continuum, £10.99), we seem to have lost our nerve completely.
Maybe it is a big, bad world out there. But you have to wonder why our anxiety has reached such mammoth proportions. Perhaps it’s because we tend to have our children later in life these days – since 2004, women in Britain have been more likely to have babies in their thirties than their twenties – and so treat child-rearing like a job, with targets, multiskilling and 360-degree reviews. Or perhaps, with the pressure for both parents to work long hours, we’ve lost the art of muddling through. You could argue, after all, that routinely spending all your waking hours with a three year-old induces the kind of benign boredom that knocks anxiety on the head. Others believe that our growing insecurity comes from isolation. Few of us these days have aunts, cousins and grandmothers living nearby.
It doesn’t mean all the advice is unwelcome or unhelpful. I know parents who have found real wisdom in some of these books. But it makes you wish that all parents had the human support of friends and family to say to them: “You are doing OK! More than that – what you are doing is amazing!”
I remember a talk when I was studying at seminary about all the psychological problems that you can inherit from your parents. But at the end the speaker said: “But don’t worry. Most of our parents did good enough. And good enough is pretty good”.