Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario. This week’s was based on a blog post I wrote a few weeks ago (many of them are!). So sorry if it’s repetitive for my regular readers. I’m working on a really long post on parenting right now, which I hope to have up tomorrow. It’s just busy around here with editing my book! Anyway, here’s the column!
Ohio State University recently conducted a study on childhood obesity, and found three things that were most correlated to preventing it: 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 to me; I would have thought family exercise was more important than sleep. But no; sleep won out.
Then I began to think, what if there were some other factor at play, behind the scenes, that was actually the more important one? It seems to me that a family that eats together, that limits TV, and that enforces bedtime is one that puts emphasis on order, on family life, and on parenting. And few families do that today. Families that do will also be the ones that make sure children do not develop unhealthy habits.
Once I started thinking in this direction, though, I grew rather melancholy. After all, eating dinner together, limiting TV time, and enforcing bedtime may be rare today, but when I was a child, they were considered normal parenting behaviour. 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 whose parents were struggling to make ends meet. And yet I remember one of the big topics of conversation in third grade was who had the latest bedtime.
When I turned eleven, I took that opportunity to debate with my mother about moving my bedtime back half an 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. I talked strategy with my friends, who were all trying to extend their bedtimes, too, because everybody had a bedtime.
We seem to believe that only the “rich” have time to parent well, but it was not always that way. I am not saying that life was perfect in the 1970s; just think Saturday Night Fever and bellbottoms. But I do think there was this 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 or mealtimes.
Today that dysfunction has become the norm. Few of my children’s childhood friends had bedtimes, even those in families one would have considered ideal. Few today have chores. All the semblances of what would have been considered normal are gone.
Perhaps we don’t parent well now as a society because the purpose of life has changed. While it once was to be responsible and support yourself, it is now to have fun and be entertained. We turn to technology instead of to each other.
Chaos is also much more of a factor in too many children’s lives. When so many children don’t grow up with two parents, it’s hard to carry on “normal” family life. And with so many families struggling to deal with conflicting schedules with both parents working opposite shifts, eating together, or performing family rituals, takes a back burner to just getting through another day. Those old basic family rituals become rare.
Parenting isn’t rocket science. Our parents, even those with little education, knew how to do it. We have more education and we’ve forgotten. Provide structure. Provide love. Provide stability by loving your spouse. Care for your children’s bodies by feeding them and putting them to bed. Not only will that help prevent obesity; it may also help us remember that real purpose and joy in life comes from investing in relationships and responsibilities, not in stressing our own happiness above all. I’m glad my mother understood that.
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