Why today's parents are simply the best

Are feckless adults to blame for delinquent teenagers? Actually, a new study says that modern parents are doing a much better job than previous generations
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Few and far between are the parents who do not worry about whether they are doing a good job of bringing up their children. Salacious headlines of teenagers running amok lead us to question each day whether we are better preparing the next generation for adulthood than our parents did.

Teenage anti-social behaviour is on the increase, but for how much of this should parents bear the blame? Latest research suggests that, rather than being disinterested and irresponsible, parents today are more conscientious than they were 20 years ago, spending more time with their offspring and paying more attention to where they are outside the home. In fact, they are so determined to be the perfect providers that they worry about it far more than their parents did.

Academics at Oxford University, who carried out a study of families for the Nuffield Foundation, a charitable trust, found there was "no evidence of a decline in parenting" over the past two decades. In order to understand the rise in anti-social behaviour among teenagers, we need to look outside of the home, they suggested. They did, however, conclude that today's parents are more stressed, with a 50 per cent increase in depression rates among those in the poorest families between 1986 and 2006.

So how has parenting changed? To start, the home is a different entity to what it was in the 1970s. Families tend to be smaller, women give birth later, more parents have chosen to cohabit rather than marry and the proportion of children living with just one parent has tripled from the early 1970s, to reach 24 per cent.

Behavioural problems occur across family types, so how has the relationship with our children changed?

Frances Gardner, a professor of child and family psychology at Oxford, led a team that looked at comparable data taken from the past 20 years and found a marked increase in many of the factors that suggest parents are far more involved in their children's lives than they used to be. They are, for example, spending more quality time together: 70 per cent of young people spent more time with their mothers in 2006, compared to 62 per cent in 1986. The figure has also risen for fathers, from 47 per cent to 52 per cent.

And rather than have little idea where their teenagers are at night, modern parents are more likely to monitor their children's movements. In 1986, 79 per cent of parents expected to know where their children were going; by 2006, that figure had risen to 85 per cent. The proportion of children who said they regularly told their parents where they would be also increased, from 78 per cent to 86 per cent.

Professor Gardner concludes there is no concrete link between overall parenting standards and the increase in problem behaviour among adolescents, saying: "This leads us to believe this factor does not generally explain the rise in problem behaviour."

But others are less convinced. Trudi Butler, a parenting coach who runs the Parent Guru agency in Edinburgh, said the report raised as many questions as it answered. "I certainly do believe modern parents spend more time with their children than they used to and they are extremely conscientious about how they bring up their kids," she said. "But when it comes to bad behaviour, I think parents perhaps should play a greater role in disciplining their children. Obviously I would not recommend a return to 1950s-style parenting but there must be some sort of middle ground."

Dr Pat Spungin, who founded the website Raisingkids.co.uk, said she believed parents needed to do more to prepare their children for the future, beyond making them feel good. "It depends on what your definition of parenting is, but I would argue that a key element is socialising a child so they are ready for the outside world," she said. "It is so much more than just making them feel good about themselves and spending time with them. It is about making sure a child is educated and socialised but also respects authority and is grounded enough for when they themselves become parents."

Additional reporting: Jennifer Morgan

Family fortunes: How life has changed

* Smaller families and later childbirth. In 1971, there were 84 births per 1,000 women aged between 15 and 44. That number has since dropped to 56 births, meaning British families are getting smaller.

* Fewer marriages and more cohabitation. Since 1972, the number of marriages per year has dropped from 480,000 to 306,000 and divorce has risen by a third over the same period, to 167,000 annulments per year.

* The average age at first marriage has also increased substantially, from the early 20s in the 1970s to 31 years for men and 29 years for women now. Over the same period, cohabitation for women tripled to about 31 per cent of 18- to 49-year-olds.

* Divorce peaked in the 1990s and has since come down, although about one in five British children still experience the permanent separation of their parents.

* Though starting to fall, rates of child poverty rose markedly between the mid-1970s and the early 2000s. Inequality in household incomes grew in the 1980s and stabilised in the 1990s. More mothers now work, with 80 per cent of those with children aged 11 or over employed in either full-time or part-time work.

'Perhaps we just worry too much'

Andy McSmith, a child of the Sixties, has four children, including Imogen, 18, who is awaiting her A-level results

Andy says: To some of us parents, these findings say only what we already know. When we were young, children amused themselves, especially on sunny days. There was less traffic, the word 'paedophile' had not entered the language; and people were not afraid to let their children out of sight for hours. I also remember my surprise on learning that my uncle read books to my cousins, but heaven knows how many hours I have spent reading JK Rowling, JRR Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain etc, aloud, because that is what fathers now do. All the parents I know pile more structured activity into their children's lives than their parents did. Perhaps we just worry too much."

Imogen says: I was sure all my friends were given a lot more quality time with their televisions than I was, though now I can almost sympathise with my mum's disapproval of the telly. Reading was the big thing in our house. Usually one of my parents would read to me every night, and I was enlisted in quite a few extracurricular activities – ballet, Brownies, French etc – so my parents would often shepherd me and my two siblings (and another one, a bit later) back and forth. We were rarely given homework at primary school so I suppose these endeavours were to occupy our ever-expanding minds. My parents were around me a lot but, saying that, they weren't ridiculously over-protective. Compared to some of my friends' parents they were really laid back – though that didn't stop me feeling envious of some of my peers who claimed they could do whatever they wanted."

'I've given them more freedom – and a mobile'

Amanda Morgan, 49, and her husband live in Loughborough, Leicestershire, with their son Charlie, 18, who is about to take a gap year before university

Amanda says: My parents were fairly full-on when it came to school work and behaviour, but on the other hand, myself and my three siblings had an enormous amount of freedom for outdoor activities. We were expected to keep ourselves occupied and to rely on each other for company rather than on gangs of friends. There were some pretty strict curfews, though perhaps less so for the younger siblings. I have made a conscious effort to bring up my teenagers differently. I have been far more accepting of contacts from outside the home, allowing my children to develop a social circle of their choosing. And I have always insisted on regular mobile phone updates on their whereabouts at all times. My husband has certainly spent more time with the children than my father did with us. He has always tried not to let his work get in the way of his parenting."

Charlie says: I'm the youngest child and I think, by the time she got to me, mum had become a bit more complacent. For example, I'm allowed to watch TV shows that my elder brother was banned from, and the curfews are less strict. In fact, mum actively encourages me to go out! She does, however, always want to know where I'm going and who with. I think the main difference for parents and teenagers now is the technology – my grandparents were probably worried sick about what my mum was up to – they just didn't have the option of checking up on her. Mobile phones have changed all that."

'I had to be back by teatime'

Deirdre Hughes, 48, is vice-president of the Institute of Career Guidance. She says that while her upbringing was different to that of her daughter Gemma, the values she wants to pass on are the same. Gemma Hughes, 23, is a marketing resources assistant. She says one of the most important lessons she learned from her parents is how to look after herself

Deirdre says: "I remember having fewer restrictions when I was a girl: I could go out all day and nobody asked any questions as long as I was back by teatime. But when I was older, I was not allowed out as much as my daughter was. Still, I used to leave a pillow in my bed, shin down the drainpipe and go out with my friends. I wanted to teach Gemma that she has to work hard, to be independent but also that I will always be there for her."

Deirdre waved Gemma off to live in Barcelona for a year at the age of 20. The family found it hard but felt it was an important part of her upbringing.

Gemma says: "When I was younger, my parents did not wrap me up in cotton wool. By the time I was in secondary school, I could cook for myself and would sometimes make meals for the family. My family is close, but we do not live in each others' pockets."

Would she bring her children up the same way? "Absolutely, I learned valuable lessons from my parents. There was nothing wrong with my upbringing and I think: 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'."

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