Is it harder to bring up children? It is an old refrain. But it may now be true. The task of successfully launching an adolescent into the world does seem to have become more complicated, whilst the surrounding support for the values associated with being a parent is dissolving.
In pre-modern societies children received scant attention. They were viewed as unfinished people-childhood was an unimportant transitional phase to adulthood. This was against a background of high infant mortality and a society where children still had a function as workers or heirs. Over the centuries, parents started to invest more in their children, but this was within a context of strong parental authority supported by religion.
Today most children in western society are conceived for their emotional value, not to inherit estates or toil in the fields. The child is the focus of immense parental effort-from getting their teeth straight to improving their maths or swimming. At the same time, over the past 50 years parental authority has been eroded, along with deference towards many other institutions and authority figures. So parents are still expected to do everything they can for their children, but now it is on the basis that everyone is more or less equal. In babyhood, this means Dr Spock’s demand feeding or co-sleeping. For young children it translates into providing every possible opportunity, from Game Boys to piano lessons.
Anthony Giddens in his book The Transformation of Intimacy delights in the “democratisation” of the personal sphere and says that as we enter into more equal relations between parent and child it is inadequate to label them “permissive.” In the tradition of Spock he urges us “to develop alternative child-rearing strategies to those of the past where the quality of the relationship comes to the fore with a stress upon intimacy replacing that of parental authoritativeness.” This is harder than it sounds as the rocky ground of adolescence approaches. Undisciplined young children are not a problem to anyone except their parents (or teachers) who might then be run ragged. With adolescence the stakes become higher and an out-of-control adolescent may be an anti-social hazard. British teenagers are now the worst behaved in Europe. A higher proportion of robbery convictions are made against under 18s in England and Wales than anywhere else in Europe. They take more drugs than their counterparts, they booze more than anyone (except the…