By Doni Joszef
My parents told me so. They warned me: “You’ll understand how hard it is when you become a parent.” And, while I hate to admit it, they were right.
One of the awkward symptoms of becoming an adult is acknowledging the many truths I conveniently denied as a child.
Parenting was never an easy task. The delicate dance between unconditional love and firm discipline is a tricky tango to perform.
It’s a deeply rewarding experience. But, like most deeply rewarding experiences, it’s a deeply challenging one, as well.
In my previous article, I explored some of the trials and tribulations of modern marriage. Here I’d like to extend this exploration to the domain of parenthood.
Is parenting different today than it was 30 years ago, and, if so, how?
Now, I’m pretty sure I know what you’re thinking—something to the effect of: “Of course parenting was different in those days! Before iPhones, iPads, Facebook, and Instagram, everything was different—especially parenting!”
And you’d be right to assume this. Because it’s true.
But it’s not the whole truth. In fact, it’s only a tiny slice of a bigger truth. And it’s that bigger picture which I’d like to sketch.
• • •
Let’s rewind the history tapes a bit . . .
Before parents began fearing their children, children (for the most part) feared their parents. The rod was seldom spared, so disobedience was seldom dared. Parents had an authoritative voice, and if children chose not to heed it, they’d have a painful price to pay. It may sound archaic, cruel, and abusive. But when the smack was delivered with a heart full of love, children often understood the message to be one of instruction rather than aggression. I’m not saying this was a better disciplinary approach, but it was certainly a simpler one.
What changed? Did parents unanimously drop their rods and begin using their words instead? Not exactly.
The rods were not dropped so much as they were confiscated. Parental practices fell under the scrutiny of courts and child services, granting children an equal and opposite voice of authority to combat the prevalence of domestic violence and child abuse. Sparing the rod became an enforceable expectation rather than a symptom of negligence. This left parents in a difficult position; parenting without a rod is like policing without handcuffs. Self-proclaimed “parenting experts” began cropping up in all directions, selling oversimplified solutions to this newfound problem.
But this shift was not merely a function of child advocacy and law enforcement. There was also a major shift in academic psychology, which gradually trickled down to the realm of modern parenting.
For a long time, behaviorism was the major theoretical framework through which psychologists studied human development. Behaviorists see learning as a stimulus-response process; if you want a behavior to stop, give the rat (or child) a spank. If you want the behavior to continue, give the rat (or child) a reward. From this perspective, hitting a child is not abusive, it’s simply a training technique. And, for most of human history, this technique was endorsed. If your child acted up, you didn’t need a psychological evaluation, you simply needed a stronger belt. The ends justified the means. Spank away.
But humans aren’t rats, and with time, new waves of psychologists began emphasizing emotions, thoughts, temperaments, and sensitivities. A child was no longer seen as a rat to be spanked or rewarded; a child has feelings to be nourished and thoughts to be guided. This obviously complicated things. For educators. For psychologists. And, of course, for parents.
So, parenting has become somewhat of an ambiguous, obscure, trial-and-error deal. Children intuitively sense our uncertainty, and they ingeniously capitalize on it. As a result, the inmates begin running the asylum. The child no longer tiptoes around the parent; the parent tiptoes around the child. How the tables have turned.
• • •
With this historical backdrop, modern parents find themselves in a challenging predicament. It’s very easy to condemn modern parents for their endless array of shortcomings. But it’s harder—and more important—to understand the nature of their dilemma. We love our children, we’re just figuring out how to raise them in a chaotic world of uncertainty and instability.
Our children may not fully appreciate the source of our anxieties, but they will when they become parents themselves. And we’ll gladly grin when they admit that we told them so. v
Doni Joszef, winner of the 2014 Cedarhurst “Best in Mental Health” award, works in private practice with individuals, couples, and families. Trained as a cognitive-behavioral therapist, he is completing his Ph.D. in media psychology. Doni presents innovative workshops at schools and organizations on a variety of psychosocial topics. For more information, visit DoniJoszef.com or e‑mail DJoszef@Gmail.com.