How has the Role of the Parent Changed? (Part 2)
Long hours, electronic devices and a lack of balance top Ian's list of things distracting parents today
...and how does parenting fit in with your work life balance?
My Family Care asks Ian Price: Juggling the ever busy lives of the 21st century is sometimes hard, especially when one of those responsibilities is parenting. How do you think the role of the parent has changed in the past century? How has the role of parent adapted to fit with a work life balance? What differences do you notice and how do you cope?
The nature of parenting has changed inexorably over the past century. In Edwardian times, only privileged families did not have both parents working to stave off hunger and the workhouse! It sounds dramatic but underneath the fantasy of Downton Abbey, life for most Britons one hundred years ago was immeasurably tougher than it is today.
Those with wealth contracted out the upbringing of their children to nannies and preparatory schools. The post-war boom in the middle of the last century witnessed the brief spell of the stay-at-home mum. My earliest school memory was the first day of infant school ("Reception" in new money) with a hall of mums, each with a four-year old on their lap listening to the headmistress; we all met our mums at the school gate at the end of the day with not an au pair or nanny in sight.
Two income families
The affluence of the late twentieth century and the inflation in house prices has meant that both parents are more likely to work today in order to afford the house of their dreams. The increase in the nominal wealth of house-owners has lead to us all being impoverished when it comes to time.
Children today are less likely to be lacking in the basics, food and clothing, than their Edwardian predecessors but lack of parental time can lead to poor discipline, diets and emotional guidance. This appears to be equally true of those below the poverty line, the "squeezed middle" and even the upper middle class. Clarissa Farr, First Mistress of St Paul’s Girls' recently offered parenting classes to the wealthy parents of her pupils that were neglecting their children due to the culture of "ultra-work."
For twentieth century families where both parents work, jobs are less likely to be constrained to nine-to-five boundaries than used to be the case even twenty years ago. Home life, during mid-week evenings, is likely to be peppered with frequent checking of work emails on BlackBerrys or smartphones and late evening conference calls with other parts of the world. The kids entertain themselves with the TV, computer games or other devices on their own.
The concept of "work-life balance" in the context of the first recession of the twenty-first century is a difficult one both for employers and parents. Working parents feel under pressure to sustain a visibly high work-rate and be seen to be on the case 24/7. Employers might play lip-service to being family friendly but feel threatened by the concept of the work-life relationship as a "balance".
For my part, I believe that thinking of it as a "balance" is part of the problem. It suggests a zero-sum relationship in which, as with a pair of scales, you can only get more on the "life" side of the equation by taking something off the "work" side.
Actually, if you optimise the relationship between the two, a win-win is possible. But this does need us to re-think our relationship with work: we need to let go of the twentieth century manufacturing mindset in which more is better; by plugging away at our emails late into the night we are not producing more output. We are simply squandering time and energy. We also need to examine the relationship between activity and status as it is all too easy to become infatuated with the idea that a state of "busy-ness" is in indicator of importance.
We all have our limits
Instead, particularly for those in "knowledge worker" roles - as most of us are - there needs to be a recognition that our productivity nose-dives after about 50 hours a week as our mental energy becomes depleted. It would be far better for our mental performance at work if we were able to recharge the batteries by devoting large chunks of quality time (by which I mean time untroubled by email) to activities that will enrich us spiritually and emotionally. For most of us with children, this is really simple - it means being with our kids.
Ian Price, Author of The Activity Illusion, Married Father of one