What does it take to be a good parent?

Today I want to share some thoughts on how to be a good parent that I’ve been mulling over lately, just to get them down and out of my brain. I may take these further later on, but let me start with a study I read.

Ohio State University did a study on childhood obesity, and discovered three things that were most correlated to protecting your child from obesity (ie. they don’t get fat). They were:

  • eating dinner together as a family;
  • reducing the amount of time children spend watching TV;
  • and making sure they get regular and adequate sleep.

It was the last one that was mildly surprising; I guessed the first two off the bat, but I would have thought family exercise was more important than sleep. But no, sleep won out.

ForgottenMommy - Have We Forgotten How to Be a Mommy?

But then I began to think, what if these three things weren’t really the cause of less childhood obesity, but were instead the result of some other thing that they hadn’t measured?

What if it was actually that thing–that knowledge of how to be a good parent–that was the cause?

It seems to me that a family that eats dinner together regularly, that does not let their children watch a ton of TV, and that enforces bedtime is one that puts emphasis on order, on family life, and on parenting. And few families do that today. And the family that does that will also be one that makes sure their children do not develop unhealthy habits.

Here’s where my thoughts got really sad, though.

Think about those three measures of good parenting: eating dinner together, limiting TV time, enforcing bedtime.

Those are all rare today, but when I was a child, they were NORMAL.

They were normal even for families one wouldn’t consider that good.

I grew up in a lower middle class neighbourhood to a single mother. All around me were kids in similar situations, or kids whose parents were struggling to make ends meet. Many kids in my school lived in apartments, not in houses. And yet I remember one of the big topics of conversation in grade 3 was who had what bedtime. Everyone had a bedtime!

What makes a good parent? Parenting practices from the 1970s

My grade 3 class photo. I’m second from the right in the bottom row in the blue.

When I was 11, I distinctly remember preparing for a debate with my mother to extend my bedtime a half hour. It had been 8:30, but Little House on the Prairie had new episodes on Monday nights at 8, and I wanted to see the whole thing. So I thought I should now be allowed to stay up until 9. I spoke, she listened.

And we always ate dinner together; everybody did. Few people had televisions in the kitchen or dining room, and the TVs only got a few channels anyway, and at dinner it was all news. Nobody could afford restaurants very often, so we all ate at the table. It was normal.

It’s like when you read the Ramona books by Beverley Cleary, which were largely written in the 1970s. They focus on a very lower middle class family in a small house who is struggling to get by. But the main focus in their family life is family meals, allowances, chores, discipline, and sharing bedrooms–all the things that we would call part of good parenting.

We seem to have this idea in our society that only the “rich” have time to parent well, and everyone else is just in chaos, but it was not always that way, and there is absolutely no reason for it to be so.

But something happened from the 1970s until now, and we have forgotten how to be a good parent.

Few people do even those basics anymore. They don’t know how to discipline. They don’t enforce bedtime. They don’t eat together; few even cook! And then we have rapid increases in many childhood “diseases” like obesity, ADD, and defiant personality disorder.

I am not saying that life was perfect in the 1950s or the 1970s or that all moms were good moms; but I do think there was a cultural pull to parent appropriately, and everyone seemed to share an idea of what appropriate looked like.

It was really only the incredibly dysfunctional families who did not do bedtimes.

Today it is the norm. Few of the my children’s friends had bedtimes when they were 8, even the kids at church. Few have chores. Few work for allowances. All the semblances of what would have at one time been considered normal are gone.

My husband grew up in a very blue collar family. His parents had grown up in rural eastern Canada, in large farm families, with no education. Yet my husband and his three brothers had bedtimes, family meals, and rules about the television.

Although our generation grew up with that, we have not carried it on. We do not do it with our own kids, and what I want to know is, why? I have my theories, and here they are:

1. We parented well in the past as a residual of Christianity.

We didn’t have Christianity anymore, but it still impacted the culture. As religion has decreased in our society, so have these cultural factors.

2. Entertainment has taken over.

We don’t parent now because the purpose of life has changed. It is now to have fun and be entertained, and parents have bought into this. Parents spend just as much time trying to be entertained as children do.

3. Chaos is a factor in too many children’s lives.

When so many kids don’t grow up with two parents, it’s hard to carry on what is “normal” family life. And the fewer and fewer people do it, the more those who are in intact families also stop doing the basics, because they’re no longer seen as basic.

I’m sure there are other things, but that’s all I can think of right now. So let me ask you: what do you think happened? Why did these basic parenting skills become so comparatively rare? And what should we do about it? I’d love to know what you think, because I may write more on the subject, and I’m still mulling it around myself!