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 Danes) and teenage girls are more likely to give birth than in any other west European country.
Teenagers today have a sense of entitlement. They answer back more readily, they withstand parental authority more effectively. For better or worse many of the boundaries that existed a generation ago have gradually disappeared. Hence the sense of confusion which parents, and teenagers themselves, so often describe.
At the same time as children are battling against authority within the family, there are powerful forces from outside which further destabilise traditional patterns of parenting. The market is one important factor. There are ranges of make up and CDs aimed at the eight to 12s. Once you reach the age of 13, groups like Westlife, Atomic Kitten and S Club 7 are passe. Manufacturers seem to have decided that clothing for girls should stop at age eight. The over eights are offered scaled-down versions of the tight skirts, skimpy tops or platform heels that their older sisters are wearing. Clothing retailers who have promoted this shift charmingly refer to it as the “tartlet” market. But if the eight to 12s are becoming pseudo-teens is it surprising that by 13, adolescents are experimenting with more adult possibilities?
Moreover, the teenager can now operate in a continual state of connectivity to the outside world, having obtained the appropriate technology from mobile phones, to televisions (in their bedrooms) and computers (connected to e-mail and the internet). That outside world is increasingly tempting them with instant gratification-whether through the lyrics of the rap singers, the images of sexual allure or the ready availability of drugs and drink. The parent urging you to defer gratification and concentrate on your GCSE course work faces a harder battle than ever.
There is much public concern about the pressures on modern parents, the juggling act of childcare and the effort to balance work and family. These are now familiar slogans embraced by almost all mainstream politicians. But there is another aspect of parenting which is beyond the tax and benefit system. Parents find it harder to sustain and transmit values like diligence or self-discipline to their adolescents. The minority that live in tight knit communities or according to religious principles might still be able to do so, but for the rest it feels as though they are parenting in a moral vacuum.
This sounds like familiar conservative rhetoric. It is, in fact, another expression of that familiar irony: that liberal-market conservative economics has undermined traditional values with far more effectiveness than the political left. Parents are left trying to protect their children from this cultural contradiction of capitalism.
Teenagers who are confident and self-disciplined and have a sense that there is more to life than just feeling as good as you can, are less likely to get pulled along by the crowd. Families can use all kinds of value systems beyond religion to transmit this kind of discipline. Previously some of this socialisation might have happened in the scouts or girl guides but this kind of group activity has sharply declined.
One further twist is that successful parents who have achieved their own goals through hard work and dedication may be less available to their children to transmit those values. According to the relationship charity One plus One, “In very busy homes, parents and their children aren’t actually talking at an age when the child becomes more difficult to penetrate and when peer groups become more important.”
Teenagers today also confront everything at a younger age. Within the span of one generation, the age at which regular alcohol consumption, pre-marital sex and drug taking begins has fallen sharply. Today’s parents may well have taken part in some or all of these activities themselves-but only at a later stage in their teens, perhaps even when they were already living away from their own parents. Take drinking habits. Around one third of children aged 15 and 16 claim to have been drunk at least 20 times, and the average amount consumed by 11 to 15 year olds has doubled in the last decade to 1.6 units a week. It is not uncommon for 12 and 13 year olds to end up in casualty after drinking too many alcopops (drinks developed and marketed especially for youngsters). Teenagers are also having sex much younger. According to the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles 1999-2001 which questioned 11,000 people, the average age for first sex is now 16. But 30 per cent of boys and 26 per cent of girls do not wait that long. Most teenagers feel that sex is a normal part of their lives and that they have a right to have it-look at the problem pages of Bliss or Sugar, where young girls agonise about their sexual experiences. One of the outcomes is a worrying rise in sexually transmitted diseases amongst young women-which can lead to infertility. There is also the continuing high rate of teenage pregnancies. In the year 2000, of the nearly 100,000 teenagers who became pregnant, 8,000 were under 16 and 2,200 under 14.
Another difficulty for parents of adolescents is that informal support groups fall away. When children are young there is a sense of shared experience between parents-interminable discussions about broken nights or weaning. Even at primary school there is a community of parents in the playground or between schoolfriends’ families. By adolescence all this changes. The problems may have become more worrying: anorexia, promiscuity, hard drugs or even suicide. Yet parents are more isolated in dealing with the situation and they may in any case be ashamed or embarrassed to discuss these matters with others.
Parents are also likely to know their children’s peer group less well or the parents of the friends that their children regularly hang around with. Teenagers will drift off to all kinds of parties or ask to sleep over in the homes of people to whom their parents are complete strangers. It is very hard then to gauge assumptions about curfews, drug use, general supervision, which may be quite contrary to the parents’ own inclinations.
There are all sorts of social, psychological and even chemical reasons why teenagers and parents will always fight. But teenagers who battle to dismantle their parents’ authority can now find themselves all too successful. One hundred thousand children ran away from home last year in Britain. Some of them are escaping abuse but others leave comparatively loving homes and for much less obvious reasons. There has also been a well publicised growth in suicide amongst young men. Britain now records an average of just over two suicides a day by young people-nearly a threefold rise in the last 30 years. Four-fifths of these are young men. Meanwhile, in 1998 there were an estimated 24,000 episodes of self-harm amongst 15-19 year olds. In the figures for attempted suicide and self-harm, girls outnumber boys by three to two.
Finally, although parents may feel that the outside world is conspiring against them, the role they play for their adolescents is more vital than ever. In our less ordered societies and economies the intimacy and security of a good home life provides the confidence to deal with uncertainty. And although children allegedly grow up earlier they remain dependent for longer. In other words they may reach adolescence sooner but they stay there for much longer. Past generations would have anticipated settling into a job or career path and marriage by the start of their twenties.
Today’s children are part of a world where you don’t simply grow up, get a job, have a family and grow old. Now, at least if you are middle class, you leave school, maybe have a gap year, go to university and then see what happens and this phase may last several years, well beyond the end of higher education. More men in their twenties and thirties than ever before are living at home with their parents. So not only is parenting becoming harder, it also lasts much longer.
Some politicians are all too aware of the implications of declining parental authority. Tony Blair and Jack Straw (along with Prince Charles) have all experienced brushes with teenage misdemeanours. They know that parents are raising children in a more hostile environment, but the best they have offered to date is warm words and parenting courses for those with youngsters who transgress routinely.