I was walking along my street the other morning when I saw an extraordinary sight: a toddler, scooting along on his scooter without a helmet or any protective gear cushioning his knees or elbows.* Then, in his enthusiasm, he over-scooted, tumbled sideways onto the sidewalk and began to wail. "Oh, bad luck," his mother cried, from some distance behind him. She didn't rush to pick him up. She didn't even sound upset. "Up you get. Give your knee a rub. There you go. OK now?" And off he went.
Is it just me, or is the parenting paradigm starting to shift?
Because there seems to be something new in the air, something still as subtle and elusive as the first breath of spring, that hints that change is coming. It may not come soon, and it may not come in ways we imagine, but there are definitely signs that it is on its way.
Schools, for example, have started to talk less about grades and a lot more about "grit" -- the importance of children learning to be resilient, persistent and determined. At the same time studies are casting doubt on whether close parental involvement in their children's lives brings any tangible benefits. Some seem to point to just the opposite. That too much input from parents makes students soft and unable to cope with college. Voices are calling for more adventure playgrounds , more freedom to let teens roam freely online.
And the wider world is changing, too. Many families are increasingly strapped for time and cash, which makes it hard to be the same kind of attentive and indulgent parents we might have been in the past, and at the same time we see that our children are growing up into a world of deep economic and environmental instability. We have no idea what jobs they will do or how they will live when they grow up, but we are increasingly aware that we need to kit them out with the toughness, flexibility and coping skills they will need to deal with flux and uncertainty.
So, here's my guess about five key things that will slowly start to happen to parenting over the next few years:
1. We'll back off more because we'll know that, by letting our children feel the consequences of lost kit and neglected homework, we are helping them learn responsibility for their actions.
2. We'll hover less and not feel we have to put so much time into helping with homework projects and college applications because we've learned this doesn't help and maybe hinders them from growing and learning.
3. We'll loosen the reins. This may take more time to happen, but as we come to realize just how much children need to push out their boundaries and enjoy unsupervised play and exploration in order to learn independence and self-reliance, we'll cautiously start to allow our children to regain some lost autonomy. It seems unthinkable now, but as parents start to move together on this, things will look different.
4. We'll watch less. Somehow, we've come to believe that we must be attentive to our children's needs at every waking moment. This wasn't done in the past, and won't be done in the future when we wake up to how much our children need more time and space to be themselves -- and how much we need the same space to live our own adult lives.
5. We'll be less anxious. At the moment, we tend to see our children as our projects who must be kept safe at all times -- "don't run, it's dangerous" -- and whose skills must be nurtured, honed and perfected at every opportunity. But economic and other changes will both force and encourage us to have a more robust view of our children and see them as independent people. They are under our care and protection, but nevertheless growing up as best they can -- just as everyone has to.
In short, I believe the pendulum will swing away from parenting as the neurotic, over-attentive art that it is often today, towards something much more normal and knockabout. We'll remember that bringing up children is something that generations of adults have done before us without too much fuss or bother and we'll rediscover that kids, when left alone, have amazing abilities to learn and grow.
And lots of us will -- no doubt at all -- breathe a sigh of relief that being a good-enough parent will once more be considered a good-enough job.
*This post does not condone helmet-free scooting -- it only observes it!