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WHAT EVERY 21st-CENTURY PARENT NEEDS TO KNOW Facing Today's Challenges with Wisdom and Heart
By Debra W. Haffner
Newmarket Press Copyright © 2008 Debra W. Haffner
All right reserved.
Chapter One New Challenges and New Solutions
There is no question that children today are growing up in a different world from the one you grew up in. Most of you had married parents and a mom who didn't work outside the home. Society still viewed divorce as unacceptable; churches debated it with the same fervor now reserved for same-sex marriage. Today the divorce rate is 4 times higher than it was in 1960, affecting one million children each year. Twenty million children are growing up with only one parent in the home. In the 1960s, only 1 in 4 children had two parents who worked full-time. Today, more than 3 in 4 do, and many children and adolescents are coming home after school to empty houses.
We are marrying later and having children later. The average age of marriage is now twenty-six for women and twenty-seven for men, nearly six years older than it was for our parents' generation. The average age a woman has her first baby is at an all-time high: twenty-seven. In 1970, when some of today's parents were born, the average first-time mom was just over twenty-one. And we are having fewer children. On average, a woman born between 1930 and1939 had three children; most of us are only having two. Men also begin parenthood later. Birth rates since 1980 have increased by 40 percent in men ages thirty-five to forty and decreased by 20 percent in men under age thirty. (Does maturity make us better parents or just more tired ones?)
Changing family patterns are not all that makes parenting in the twenty-first century a challenge. There is HIV/AIDS. Twenty-five sexually transmitted diseases. Date-rape drugs. Binge drinking. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Pressures to succeed unknown to earlier Americans. Ubiquitous sports leagues that start in preschool. Changing gender roles. Oral sex, "hooking up," and "friends with benefits." The Internet and MySpace Web pages. No wonder parents feel overwhelmed.
THE INFLUENCE OF TODAY'S MEDIA
One of the most dramatic differences between today's parenting landscape and the one you grew up in is the virtual explosion of exposure to media. When I was a child, there were three national channels on the television and a handful of local AM radio stations; today we have hundreds of cable TV and satellite radio programs, and seemingly limitless exposure to media. Today's early adolescents may have access to a cell phone, text messaging, e-mail, the Internet in their bedroom, televisions with more than a hundred channels, iPods, BlackBerries, and personal organizers. Often, the parents know much less about this technology than their children do. It's not uncommon for homes to have multiple computers, multiple television sets, and multiple private cell phones, and for family members to retreat to separate parts of the house to use them alone. I grew up in a house with one telephone line and one television set, which we watched together in the basement. How about you?
Nor did we have a news media feeding us the latest stories of child kidnappings, bombings, and natural disasters twenty-four hours a day. It's hard to remember that CNN's twenty-four-hour news coverage debuted in 1980 and was seen as a bold experiment.
I believe that this constant source of bad news contributes to the heightened anxiety we feel for our children. Today's parents seem to worry from the moment their children are born. Fears about SIDS become fears of child abductions by strangers, which become fears of AIDS, pregnancies, online predators, and school shootings. Yet, as we will see in coming chapters, kidnappings are not up, school shootings are rare, and teen pregnancies are near their lowest rates ever. The difference is that as parents we hear about them more; an Amber Alert about a missing child in Nevada shows up on my computer in Connecticut within minutes of being reported. In chapters 3 through 9, I will ask you to test your "fear factor." These short quizzes will help you determine which of your fears for your child are truly things to be concerned about and which are false fears created by media stories.
The tragedy of 9/11 has also left us feeling less secure about our children's future. Author Jodi Picoult wrote an essay about the impact of 9/11 on parenting her children in which she said: "Before 9/11, I had a much better handle on parenting. I knew what was safe and what was not ... I worried on my children's behalf about bullies and cliques and the day the cafeteria served fun fish shapes for lunch-not about anthrax and smallpox and wars half a world away. After 9/11, however, I got scared ... I found myself lying to my own children. I told them they were safe, when the truth was, I was not entirely sure." But neither were parents sure during World War II, the cold war, or the Vietnam War. There is a difference, though: those parents may have watched the evening news for a half hour in the early evening. Period. Today, most of us get news updates every time we check our e-mail.
My hope is that, after reading this book, the next time you see a news report that has bad news about children or teens-obesity, drug use, kidnappings, and so on-rather than panic, you will ask yourself how much of this is really true, how it may affect your family, and how you can use the news report to create a "teachable moment" to talk with your children about healthy behaviors.
THE GOOD NEWS FOR PARENTS TODAY
The landscape for twenty-first-century parents is undeniably challenging, but there is a lot of good news for parents today. For instance, relationships between most parents and children have changed for the better. Although we are working more hours than our own parents did, we are actually spending more time with our children-more time teaching, playing with, and caring for our children-than our parents did. Fathers today spend nearly triple the time on child care than their fathers did, and Gen X dads spend an average of one hour more a day with their children than boomer dads.
A more subtle positive change has been happening as well. Barbara Levi-Berliner, a social worker and parenting expert, calls it the "democraticization" of the American family. Remember the family of 1950s television? There was even a program called Father Knows Best. Ward Cleaver and Jim Anderson were the heads of their households. Their wives wore aprons and high heels and did not work outside the home. When Dad came home from work, the family welcomed him with kisses and dinner. A frequent reprimand from Mom was, "Wait until your father gets home." In some shows, like My Three Sons, Family Affair, and Full House, there was not even a need for Mom; she had died of some unspecified disease before we ever met the family.
Compare that to parents on today's shows, like Medium, The O. C., Seventh Heaven, Veronica Mars, and Gilmore Girls. These parents involve their children in decision making about important issues and struggle to maintain a balance between helping their children become independent and protecting them when necessary. For the best parenting on television, in my opinion, you'll need to turn to a two-decades-old sitcom on Nick at Nite. The Bill Cosby Show, featuring the Huxtable family, is one of the best fictional examples I know of healthy parenting and family styles. Both parents worked, family dinner was common, and parents negotiated important decisions and limit setting with their children.
We also have more tools and knowledge to face challenges than other generations of parents. Our children are healthier than any other generation of children in history. We have more than forty years of research on parenting showing us that finding the balance between nurturing our children's growing independence and setting limits and consequences for their behaviors, a style I call Affirming Parenthood, is most effective at raising responsible and healthy children and teenagers. We also have new sophisticated research on how the adolescent brain develops, which helps us know how to improve the chances that our tweens and teens will effectively cope with risk taking. We have insights from the social sciences, such as the pioneering work of Daniel Goleman, to help us understand the concept of "emotional intelligence." We have access to medications that when properly used and prescribed, can help some children with learning disabilities learn and cope more effectively.
And as a result of our improved parenting, our children and teenagers are behaving more responsibly than have recent generations of young people. In fact, on almost every indicator of risk-taking behavior, tweens and teens today behave much more conservatively than their older brothers and sisters. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has conducted an annual survey of risk-taking behaviors among middle school and high school-age youth since 1991. Although it's true that some youth are engaging in risky behavior that could compromise their future and their health, in comparing the behaviors of teens in 2005 (the latest year for which statistics are available) with teens in 1991 (the first year of the study),
Lifetime and current alcohol use are down, and binge drinking is down.
Cigarette and other tobacco use is down.
Teen pregnancy rates, teen birth rates, teen STD rates, and teen abortion rates are down. So are teen rates of sexual intercourse.
Teen condom use is at its highest rate ever.
High school dropout rates are down.
Rates of teens committing crimes-including homicide, rape, violent crime, and violent deaths-are all down. Fewer teens have even been in a physical fight compared to fifteen years ago.
Only marijuana use is up compared to 1991, and it has been decreasing since 1999. So has adolescent use of cocaine, Ecstasy, and hallucinogenic drugs.
According to sociologist Dr. Michael Males, who studies trends among young people, "teenage girls ... are far safer today than girls of twenty and thirty years ago. Teenage binge drinking has dropped 25% since 1970, smoking declined 20 to 50% depending on the measure, and drunken driving deaths are down 40%."
Today's children and youth offer new hope for the future. In their book, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, Nell Howe, William Strauss, and R. J. Matson named the generations of children born after 1982 as the Millennial Generation. Their research showed that compared to other generations of young people, these children, teens, and young adults are closer to their parents, more respectful of their parents' values, more likely to recognize the importance of education and community service, and more respectful of cultural norms. They are more likely to reject stereotypes by sex, race, gender, or sexual orientation.
Overall, today's children and youth feel good about themselves. In a study of children aged eight to eighteen in 2003 by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 88 percent of young people report that they have lots of friends and 75 percent say that they are happy at school. Only a quarter say that they get in trouble a lot, with fewer than 1 in 10 saying that sounds a lot like them.
We must be doing something right. Indeed, a Public Agenda 1999 survey found that three-quarters of teens trust their parents to be there for them, and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 86 percent of teens said that they get along well with their parents. Some of us may have grown up at a time when there was a saying, "Don't trust anyone over thirty," but that is not a slogan that resonates with our children. In a study of high school students, more than three-quarters said that having a close family relationship was important. My own twenty-two-year-old daughter and I share much more than I did with my mother when I was twenty-two. She's never heard of the saying, and doesn't relate to it at all. Today's adolescents and young adults value their parents, their teachers and professors, and their older friends.
WHAT WE CAN DO BETTER
The research bears out that we are doing many things right as parents today, and our children are benefiting. But as I talk to parents around the country, I have found that along with our increased involvement in our children's lives come some perhaps unintended consequences, in particular three that may compromise effective parenting. Here are some things we can do better:
1. Be parents first, friends second.
Many of today's parents want to be friends with their children, almost at any cost. They worry about setting limits and being unpopular with their children. They worry that their children are not popular enough. A woman called me recently, concerned about the amount of drinking at teenage parties. I asked whether the parties were chaperoned, and she said that they often weren't or that the parents stayed in another part of the house. When I suggested to her that her teenage children only be allowed to attend parties where she had verified that an adult would be home, she said her son would be mortified if she made such a call. She went on to say that teens don't think it's a party if there are chaperones present. Exactly. But she was unwilling to risk making her fifteen-year-old son unhappy. Ironically, some of these same parents who permit their middle school and high school teens to go to unchaperoned parties worry that their children will experiment with alcohol, drugs, and sex too early.
Often mothers have said to me proudly, "My daughter is my best friend." I am delighted that Alyssa and I are close and connected now that she is a young adult, but she certainly did not consider me her best friend in high school. She often complained that I was the "strictest progressive parent" among all her friends. It was very clear in our home that her dad and I were her parents first, her friends second. I did not enjoy making her sad or angry when I told her "no" when she wanted to do something I didn't think she was ready for or thought was inappropriate, but I could tolerate her not liking me for the moment-or even for a few days. I can't begin to count the number of times I said something like, "It's okay that you're angry with me right now. Sometimes I need to make decisions that you won't like but that will keep you safe. That's my job as your mom. We can be friends when you are grown up."
There was a woman at one of my talks who epitomized for me the parent who wanted her child to think she was cool. This mom asked me what to do about her seven-year-old daughter who wanted to wear midriff tops and low-rise jeans. I started to explain about the importance of helping her daughter understand that certain clothes were for grownups only, and that she could offer her daughter a choice of clothes from appropriate stores or mail-order catalogs, then she interrupted me. "But I don't want to destroy her fashion sense," she said, "and I don't want her to be mad at me."
I keep coming into contact with parents who are afraid to set limits, afraid to seem "uncool," afraid to make their children unhappy with them, even temporarily. But you will see that children do better when we are willing to act like their parents, to set limits, and to follow through on consequences. They want us involved in their lives, and they want to know our values.
2. Treat your children's accomplishments as theirs-not yours.
This may be the first generation of parents who look to their children to validate their own accomplishments. In fact, many of today's parents view their children's accomplishments somehow as being their own, with the grand prize being admission to a prestigious college or university.
Garrison Keillor's radio program A Prairie Home Companion describes Lake Wobegon as a place where "all the children are above average." For many parents, that phrase might be "all the children are extraordinary." A woman in a well-to-do suburb outside Boston confided in me, "We joke about the fact that we want our children to have straight As: they should all be Attractive, Academic, Artistic, and Athletic." I am struck by how many parents tell me that their children are "gifted"; how hard it seems to be for parents to accept that their children might just be average and that that's okay.
Perhaps this increased emphasis on our children's achievements is because many people are having children later in life and having fewer children than their parents did. As a result, they tend to treat their children with a sense of greater preciousness and importance. There was a woman in my new mother's group in her early forties who had just had her first child. When we were introducing ourselves and our babies, she said, "This is Hannah, but I should call her 'Basket.' We looked at her, puzzled. She explained: "Because I had her so late, we're putting all our eggs in her." We laughed, but I wonder whether that might not be true for many thirtysomething parents, too.
Excerpted from WHAT EVERY 21st-CENTURY PARENT NEEDS TO KNOW by Debra W. Haffner Copyright © 2008 by Debra W. Haffner. Excerpted by permission.
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