How do we know about good parenting?
"Raising children is not a high science"
Interview with David Anderegg
David Anderegg, Professor of Psychology at Benningto College in the United States and author of the book Worried All The Time - Rediscovering the Joy in Parenthood in an Age of Anxiety in conversation with Sabine Beppler-Spahl.
Mr. Anderegg, the starting point of your book is the thesis that today's generation of parents is more concerned than previous ones. How do you know?
It is very difficult to determine. We don't have data that goes over several years or decades, so long-term studies that address this question. One difficulty is that this level of parental custody is a relatively new phenomenon. But if you ask parents today whether they believe that raising children is more difficult than ever before, 78 percent confirm this, while only four percent believe that raising children is easier today. This also corresponds to the more anecdotal experiences from my own practice.
Upbringing is perceived as more difficult despite the many things that make parenting easier today?
Yes - it can be said that it is much easier, at least for the middle or upper middle class, to raise children today than it has ever been in human history. We have overcome teething troubles, we have enough food, we have good housing, etc. It is a paradox that the easier it actually becomes, the harder it seems.
Parenthood is no longer just a normal aspect of our lives. Today we can decide for ourselves whether we want children or not, and much more than in the past, how we want to raise them.
Raising children has changed: from a folk wisdom to a technique. In the past, you raised your children more or less the way you learned it from your own mother, who in turn learned it from their mother, etc. Nowadays child-rearing is technologized - at least that's how it can be called. This process began 100 years ago, but has accelerated significantly over the past 20 years. By the term “technologized” I mean that nowadays you ask experts about your education. Raising children seems too important to be able to rely on the advice of one's mother. The problem, however, is that there are more and more experts, and so the task seems more difficult and complex because you have to choose between experts.
Experts give you very contradicting advice at times. Take, for example, the question of whether or not to let your child scream at night. Some experts strongly advise against it, others believe that this is the right way to go. Does this make parents worry more?
That's how it is, that is what makes bringing up children today so difficult. Nowadays you have a whole spectrum of choices - from one extreme to the other. All of these educational choices are supposedly based on scientific research. I find it downright ridiculous that all of these educational experts should rely on scientific research that supposedly supports their point of view when they contradict each other completely.
This phenomenon is explained by the fact that we don't talk about science, but about values. Parents must orient themselves towards their own values when bringing up their children. The problem is that many parents shy away from it. They don't trust their own values and are therefore looking for someone to tell them what to do. The question of whether a child should scream itself to sleep is a good example: The idea that children should learn to sleep alone is linked to the value of independence. Parents who find this value particularly important may want to raise a child who does not feel lonely as easily as an adult. You imagine an adult who would also go abroad for career reasons, etc. However, if you have a child who practically sleeps in the parents' bed until it is ready to give it up on its own, then you may be expressing more family-oriented values like connectedness etc. It's about the question of how you imagine the future of your child and what family life you want for yourself. For some, "independence" is the most important goal, for others it is not so crucial. It has nothing to do with science, but with your own values.
Isn't it generally good that we have more freedom of choice these days?
Freedom of choice is good. But when it comes to expert advice for parents, it has a very negative impact. In the end, parents become completely entangled in their decisions and no longer know what to do. I have met numerous parents who spend all of their free time learning about parenting issues because they are desperate to make the right decisions for their children. They think they need to be kept up-to-date with the latest trends and information in parenting. The other thing is that parents often greatly overestimate the importance of certain decisions. Sometimes parents believe that one decision can affect the entire future life of their children. In the US, what college a child will go to is the best example of this. I have a good anecdote about this: every morning a mother stood in her child's kindergarten with a pad in her hand. She said she had to take notes about the facility and what was on offer for the children there to make sure that she had chosen the right kindergarten: after all, the quality of this first facility was an important guarantee that her Child could go to a good college later. This shows how much pressure there is on parents when they are constantly thinking about making the right decisions for their children.
What is the reason for this tendency to worry too much and constantly want to hedge against experts?
Well, there are many factors. This form of parental care goes hand in hand with ever smaller families. It makes sense to think that when you only have one or two children, you have to do everything perfectly. Parents with several children are usually a little more relaxed. Another factor, of course, is secularization. In the past, people didn't think that everything depended on them - after all, there was a well-meaning God who would help when in doubt. Then of course there is also the influence of media culture, which tends to dramatize everything. The isolation we often live in nowadays makes it especially important for parents to look for answers to their most pressing questions, e.g. the question: "Is my child still normal?" So you watch TV shows about other people's children. However, problems arise if the media is used as a source of normative data. The formula for a good “child-in-crisis TV program” looks like this: You collect some scary anecdotes, exaggerate a bit and pretend that this is all the norm - or at least almost the norm. This creates an exciting program. The consequence, however, is that viewers constantly overestimate the likelihood of a similar crisis in their environment.
You differentiate between parental vigilance and parental concern. Can you briefly dwell on this difference?
Vigilance is useful and rational because it really makes a difference. Vigilance is paying attention to details that may have an actual positive or negative impact. Making sure a toddler doesn't get too close to an electrical outlet is an example of vigilance. Another would be to look at car safety tests before buying a new one. On the other hand, one worries when one cannot actually influence something. For example, if you've bought the car, it doesn't make sense to be constantly afraid of an accident - after all, you've done what you could. You have to live with the consequences of your own decision and accept that nothing more can be done now. The funny thing is, worrying too much doesn't help us make better decisions. Many people overreact when they have to make a decision while in a concerned state. People who are considered chronically concerned often make very impulsive and bad decisions because they can no longer stand the pressures of constant worry.
Have we lost the ability to correctly assess risks? What are the consequences of the desire to avoid risks as completely as possible?
Let's take the question of whether children should go to school alone. Some parents say, there is a one in a million risk of my child being kidnapped on the way to school, and why should we take that risk? While we're focusing on the risks, it's very hard to pinpoint the benefits. One advantage is, of course, that the parents have more time for other things. But there are also advantages for the children: freedom, a feeling of strength, etc. Personally, I believe that going to school is very positive for children alone. Children develop a certain self-confidence when they have to deal with problems on their own and also learn to deal with crises when they are still very young. However, these benefits are kind of mind-boggling and much harder for a concerned parent to see.
How vulnerable are our children really?
Of course, children are vulnerable. But the idea that we have to keep them above all makes no sense. Children have to learn to deal with adversity. There has been research over a few decades that shows that minor or major adversities that are overcome make children more resilient overall. That's one reason the self-esteem campaigns in the US were so absurd. Here it was assumed that children are too vulnerable to be able to cope with even the normal disappointments of life. Fortunately, the movement has passed its peak, and many psychologists have pointed out that real self-esteem is a consequence of actual performance and not of a class that repeatedly leads children into thinking how great they are.
However, the self-esteem campaign has influenced many parents. They worry about the psychological harm that feeling that they have failed could cause children. In my book I give the example of a boy who spent days at home practicing reciting a joke. When he was supposed to tell the joke in front of the class, no one laughed. The father then complained to the teacher because he said he should have made sure that the other children were laughing. Such a thing is of course completely absurd. If a joke isn't funny, nobody laughs. But it happens because parents have been told that their child can be permanently harmed by such trivial occurrences. They don't see the chance to practice dealing with adversity - let alone just teaching the child a funnier joke
Isn't it too easy to blame parents for being overconcerned when everyone - from the media to politics - is constantly talking about how vulnerable children are?
That's right. Parents only react to what they notice in everyday life and what is constantly being told to them. Politics certainly also contribute to this - as does advertising. I don't blame parents for taking their fears seriously. But I hold those who take advantage of these fears responsible. Here in the USA, for example, Baby Einstein products are a big hit. Baby Einstein is a company that advertises that children become stronger - and thus more successful in their lives - if, for example, you play certain music for them.
But politics is not innocent here either. Anyone who pretends to want to help children can always score points against their opponent. I can no longer hear the mantra "It's about the children". Parents' worries are a trump card for politicians. Because if something is supposed to serve child protection, then it is very difficult to argue against it. You can't say, “Oh, I'm against children.” It's very difficult for parents to withstand such pressure.
You said that no matter how concerned the parents are, most children will still do well in the end. But you speak of an impact on society. What do they look like?
That remains to be seen. We cannot yet say what will become of our overprotected children. But there are effects that can already be seen today. One of them is the increasing willingness to plagiarize. More and more parents believe they need to influence the truth for the benefit of their children. Some even cheat on behalf of their children. The world is considered so tough today that fraud is made a necessity. I have another anecdote about this: A teacher failed children who had cheated on a housework. The parents protested vehemently: the children deserved a punishment, but it was too hard to let them fail. They were, of course, concerned about their children's final grades and felt they shouldn't be punished for the rest of their lives. But we have to ask ourselves: How much is integrity worth to us? In pursuing such seemingly innocent motives as parents, like doing anything to help their child, parents are forgetting something else, much more constant: the observations their child makes of their own credibility. If we do everything we can to have a head start on the other family, we'll end up in a kind of mafia situation. We have to ask ourselves what this means for our society.
How do I get immune to too much worry?
First of all, one has to become aware of the mechanisms of “crisis reporting” and not take everything that the media presents to us so seriously. That would be a great help. I also believe that it is very important to know your own values and to trust yourself in this regard. You have to know that no expert or counselor can tell you how to raise your child. You have to know your own values. If you value independence and courage, then you will raise your child on the basis of these ideas. If, on the other hand, you are someone who values solidarity and trust, then you raise your child according to these principles. I suggest that we start thinking more about our own values again. And we should remember that parenting is not a high science.
Thank you for the interview.
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