When did parenting become a competitive trap?

By Suzanne McFadden

The way we raise our children has become a source of conflict and competition among today’s increasingly judgmental parents, writes Suzanne McFadden.

'War is being waged on us as parents - we are being targeted and bombarded in ways that make parenting today so much more difficult than parenting 20 or 40 years ago.' - Diane Levy. Photo / Thinkstock
'War is being waged on us as parents - we are being targeted and bombarded in ways that make parenting today so much more difficult than parenting 20 or 40 years ago.' - Diane Levy. Photo / Thinkstock

With both of my kids I went to great lengths to avoid baby coffee groups. In those crucial, formative first months as a parent, I couldn't handle the constant comparisons between my cherished baby boys and the other mothers' equally adored offspring.

I'm not dissing parenting groups; in fact, discovering a village playgroup a couple of years after the second arrival saved my sanity. But at that earlier point, still wrestling with sleep deprivation on a sea of pureed pumpkin, I didn't need the competition: "So, is your wee one crawling yet? My Sophie just took her first steps, has a vocabulary of 11 words and can play her tambourine in time to Usher. But we're really worried about which primary school to send her to ..."

I'll never forget the hurt when, outside a dressing room at a shopping mall, a woman of grandmotherly age looked at my bouncing baby and boomed: "Oh what a fattie! What do you feed him?" Or the guilt when, on my eldest son's first day at school, another mum asked what after-school activities I'd enrolled him in.

"None," I answered, eyes and voice lowered. "He'll come home after school and be a kid."

Why did I fear that other mums and dads might be judging me on the way I was bringing up my children?

They were healthy, happy kids - and still are, I think. But why is it that we are naturally on the defensive when anyone questions the way we feed, nurture, dress and educate our progeny; and what gives our generation of parents the right to voice their opinions of others so damn loud and free?

Like it or not, parenting wars are raging across the child-friendly cafes, play gyms, school carparks, sportsfield sidelines and shopping malls of New Zealand - and much of the rest of the world.

Online forums burst with parents' views on the modern-day dilemmas from breast versus bottle; to vaccinate or not; disposable versus cloth nappies; organic vegetables versus canned baby food; and the issues of smacking, mums working and mobile phones for kids. Parenting experts blog and get their own television shows espousing their advice on how to "raise our kids right". And we, the parents, fret over who to listen to, where to turn, and whether the kids are going to suffer if we make the wrong choice or hate us if we impose new, invisible boundaries around them.

When Piri Weepu was blasted last month for feeding his baby daughter with a bottle in an anti-smoking ad, pro-breastfeeding groups, in turn, were stiff-armed for their "anti-father sentiment". There was division on forums between mums who applauded a dad helping out and others who felt an All Black hero, holding such sway as an advocate for the nation's health, could have a negative influence on breastfeeding. Everyone had an opinion.

Family therapist and "parenting coach" Diane Levy remembers a time when a bottle-fed baby might incur a raised eyebrow from the neighbour.

"But now, like Weepu, we can get hammered so quickly from so many directions," she says. "Parents are bombarded by all media and online comments, some of them not even vetted for abuse.

"It makes parenting much more difficult than it has ever been. And good, earnest parents who really care are very vulnerable to this bombardment."

But Levy isn't convinced that the war isn't just parent versus parent. The antagonists, she says, are advertisers and social media and we are the guileless, commercial targets.

"War is being waged on us as parents - we are being targeted and bombarded in ways that make parenting today so much more difficult than parenting 20 or 40 years ago," she says.

"As in no other generation, we've become commercial targets, from the right oil to massage your stomach in pregnancy, to an after-school activity. The best way to get us to buy something - from an educational product to food or clothing - is through guilt, shame, fear and enhancing our feelings of inadequacy. And so, not surprisingly, we look around us and see if we are doing it the right or the wrong way."

Dr Louise Keown, senior lecturer from Auckland University's Faculty of Education, says philosophical debates formulated centuries ago continue to underlie many of today's debates about the best way to raise children. As studies in child development emerged in the early 20th century, a flood of research has become available to guide - and sometimes perplex - parents.

"I think a challenge for parents today is how to make sense of the large amount of parenting information available online and working out what is opinion and what is based on evidence," McKeown says. "Given this wealth of advice and opinions, some parents may feel unsure about the best choices to make about bringing up their children."

Levy agrees that the complexity of communication is both a boon and a burden: "Now I have the absolute pleasure of tracking my daughter's pregnancy in Jerusalem online. I can see exactly when the little one has eyelashes.

"It's great for the granny, I'm enchanted. But it's overload for a new mum. And it can be very difficult to weigh which opinion is important, and which isn't, and again we get the feelings of guilt, shame, fear and inadequacy."

A friend, Derek, and his wife were swamped with the "unsolicited advice" that came with the arrival of their first child - on everything from cloth nappies and organic baby rice, to devices claiming to teach your baby to read. It even stretched to labour pain relief, when a midwife told them an epidural could increase the risk of their child becoming a drug addict later in life.

So whatever happened to Mother Knows Best? With my first child, now in his 20s, I sought advice from my mum - who had raised two daughters without major drama - and one book, Penelope Leach's Baby & Child. For my second son, 10 years later, I trawled Google for remedies for colic and nappy rash (it's incredible what you can forget in a decade), before Mum reminded me what used to work best.

Mother-of-four Jan Pryor has watched her pregnant daughter-in-law sitting "surrounded by three open books, each telling her something different ... and here I am sitting there, saying nothing but thinking, 'you poor thing'." "I was completely horrified to hear that in Britain some antenatal classes actually suggest not to listen to your mothers, because they don't know anything anymore. Hey, babies don't actually change all that much," says Pryor, director of Victoria University's Roy McKenzie Centre for the Study of Families.

"Maybe it's because our mothers were around back then; they weren't off travelling on cruise ships or still working or living half a world away."

Parenting wars are, most likely, a middle-class phenomenon, Pryor believes. At the lowest end of the socio-economic spectrum are parents who often don't have - or don't want - the resources to parent well.

She has also seen some of those suffering worst from the parenting paranoia are women who have had successful careers and suddenly found themselves in a situation where they don't have control.

"Back when I had babies, most of us weren't running an office or working as a lawyer. I see these very competent young people used to being in control of their lives, being completely out of control with babies," she says. "Along with the anxiety of not having control, the pressure also comes from the anxiety of whether your baby will be okay."
No one wants to be known as a helicopter parent, that 21st century breed of mums and dads who hover over their kids trying to keep them clear of misfortune and solving their troubles. In Scandinavia, they're known as curling parents, sweeping obstacles out of their children's way.

Pryor remembers asking another mother at school how her day was. "She said 'we are so anxious, because we have our flute exam tomorrow'. It wasn't her flute exam. But there's this kind of living through you child instead of your own life, and it's not healthy," she says.

We all know a parent or three like that. My friend Hannah finds it hard to watch her kids play sport on Saturdays, when there is more competition on the sideline than on the field. "I come home feeling bruised and battered, because there are parents who are either promoting their kid as next the All Black, or paying no attention to the game and talking about how well little Tristram is doing in maths. I'm driven to standing on the opposite side of the field."

Rochelle Gribble, editor of the Kiwi Families website and mother of two girls, accepts there is something inherent about wanting our kids to be seen to be doing well.

"We all want our kids to be the brightest, fastest and prettiest, don't we? Even if we try to pretend we don't," she laughs. "But I guess our kids are the thing we are most vulnerable about. Hearing someone criticise your child is worse than someone criticising you.

"What I don't understand is why, when it comes to raising children, people will speak out about trivial things like 'are you feeding them with a bottle' but are still so reticent to say 'I think my neighbours are bashing their kids'."

Gribble's site, kiwifamilies.co.nz - created to give practical parenting advice from pregnancy through to "helping your child find a job" - has bloggers including Levy and "Super Mum", Dame Susan Devoy. The parenting forum touches on everything from fighting nits and potty training woes, to heart-wrenching custody battles and child abuse.

Questions on schooling pour into the site: "Parents really worry about getting the best for kids - the best school, the best approach. I guess it's slightly competitive, that we want our kids to do well and get a job," says Gribble.

"We get a lot of emails and messages from people in tough situations, how do they balance blended families, absent parents and working life. Dads usually make contact when they are really desperate.

One stay-at-home dad told us how isolating it is trying to find a network of people to talk to, because everyone looks at him funny. Mums find support networks more naturally."

Rarely are the forum comments judgmental or critical, she says.

"We don't get very much nasty stuff. By and large it's supportive and encouraging - it's healthy to express different opinions and ideas."

She advises parents searching the web for answers to be wary of "crazy URLs" and to start by looking at New Zealand sites.

And to look for advice that is repeated, not just the latest opinion, and to seek "experts who know what they are talking about, not just other parents," she says.

The Parenting Place, in Auckland's Greenlane, is housed within cool concrete, glass and steel and is abuzz - women juggle babies on hips as they wait in the coffee queue, toddlers wrangle a rocking horse while mums browse through the library of good-parenting books. Coffee groups meet, and family seminars are run at this haven set up by Parents Inc founders Ian and Mary Grant.

A brochure called "Feeling Guilty?" points out there will never be a shortage of relatives, neighbours and people at the supermarket to tell you what you're doing wrong as a parent. "There are so many different ways to approach the challenges of parenting that you can simply never please everyone, so it's best not to try," it says.

Gill Williams, who co-ordinates Toolbox parenting courses for the Parenting Place, tells the story of a mum struggling to get her daughter to eat from her lunchbox at kindy. Despite the fruit, carrot and sandwiches, the girl ate only the chips and biscuit. A course facilitator suggested she could remove the treats - an action that triggered a tantrum from the child the next day and prompted another kindy mum to phone her, chastising her for not providing "an adequate lunch".

"Our respect for one another has changed. Good manners seem to have broken down," says Williams, herself a mum of three.

The Toolbox philosophy is to sit down parents with other parents, talk through their worries, and provide skills and strategies on setting boundaries, discipline and communicating with kids. The six-session courses are open to all parents but, in addition, last year the Government gave a $2.4 million contract to Parents Inc to run courses for caregivers of vulnerable children. Some are even run in prisons.

"We have parents who say [parenting] is much harder than we thought it would be," Williams says. "We tell them it's a no-guilt zone, a no-judgment zone, where they can spew out the issues they're facing - cellphones, internet, computer time, piercings and tattoos." While Toolbox might suggest placing boundaries or help set limits on the children's behaviour, "we won't tell them that their choice is good or bad. That's not our position."

Levy concedes it's a "jolly difficult" time to be a parent. "We need to band together and look after each other. We need to think of ourselves as fighting quite a difficult war against judgment and overload," she says.

"My favourite bumper sticker is 'a mother's place is in the wrong'. It's tapestried on my heart."

- NZ Herald

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