I watched an old episode of Bill Maher last night. He was interviewing Dave Barry the humorist, and discussing some of the content in his new book Live Right and Find Happiness Dave likes to reminisce that years ago parents used to send their kids out to play, and say, “Be back by September.” The implication is that we over-parent today and that both parents and kids were happier in years gone by. Of course Bill Maher, who does not have any children of his own, agreed and milked the premise for laughs. While I think Bill Maher is brilliant comedian and social commentator, as a childless unmarried man himself, he clearly lacks the credentials to analyze the American family or to make more than idle speculation about what is good for kids and parents.
Obviously, I have a different opinion on the whole subject of involved parenting. Here at GreatDad.com, we’ve been excited about how dads are more involved than ever and what that means for families and kids. I wholeheartedly disagree that kids necessarily had it better or the parents had it better for that matter, when dads were absent from the equation. There are a few things that both Dave and Bill get wrong in the misty-eyed retelling a family life past:
1. Both men nearing age 60 most likely had stay at home moms who were far more present then they can recall. To Dave Barry, it seems like the kids were always on their own, but I bet mom was there lurking and making family dinner, a luxury for many 2-income families today.
2. Just because your parents weren’t actively involved in your childhood, doesn’t make it better or make it a positive factor in your success. It’s like people who say,” my father beat me so it’ll be good for my son.” We survive despite, not because of, some things.
3. It takes a village. Kids today are no longer living in close communities or in large intergenerational families as they may have done when Bill and Dave were kids. Kids need support by people they know, love and trust. How is that truth lost on us as we get older?
4. Moms and dads of a generation (or 2) ago didn’t have the distractions we all do today, including micro-targeted media experiences. When I spent time with my mom or dad (separated and divorced by the time I was 4), they weren’t also sending email or watching TV no their phones. Today’s “over-parenting” moms and dads aren’t all doing as much as the media might suggest. The problem is more “under-parenting” by the many (for many reasons often tied to economics), rather than over-parenting by the few.
Bill Maher did trot out a study by the Journal of Marriage and Family showing there’s no relationship between the time spent by parents with kids ages 3-11 on their future success on a variety of measures. I do not know this study or the organization, but this seems a bit hard to believe. And I’m sure there are a few thousand psychologists and therapists who might want to chime in what percentage of the stories they hear are about feeling unloved by their parents.
Perhaps it’s not the quantity of time but the quality of time that is the issue. Even parents accused of over-doing parenting are often texting while driving while listening to their favorite playlist. Good parents fight a daily struggle to not succumb to the temptation of letting everyone play with an iPad in their corner and instead enjoy family game night. Were we all happier in Dave Barry’s day, supposedly all blissfully drinking with our pals and ignoring our kids? All families are different, but the ones that seem to function are the ones who develop strong ties of mutual trust, love, and respect, most often created because they genuinely like to spend time together. While our culture loves to focus on those world leaders who overcame diversity, the vast majority of us benefit more by secure childhoods that give us the strength to weather adversity when it’s thrown at us.