I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said to my kids, “If I’d have done that when I was your age…” and then trailed off, hit by the unwelcome realisation that I was starting to turn into my dad. Apparently, I'm in the minority in mimicking my own parents' example – at least I am according to a new survey by Aptamil Follow On Milk*, which reveals that 73% of millennial mums have a far different parenting style than their own mums and dads employed on them.
You’d think that parenting would be a pretty standard affair; that it doesn’t change much through the generations – have children, feed, water and clean them, send them off to school, praise them when they’re good and punish them when they’re bad, then release them into the world as adults with a set of values that will ensure they have happy, fulfilling, productive lives. But the devil is in the detail of just how we get our kids from birth through childhood and to the point where they only darken our doors again when they fancy a home-cooked Sunday roast, need to borrow a few quid or require babysitters.
It seems natural that we would inherit our parenting style – we consider that we turned out OK, so our parents must have been doing something right. But, evidently, we don’t actually do that, preferring to make our own rules. Perhaps that’s because we have a far wider store of knowledge to draw upon.
I’d imagine my own mum’s parenting standards were drawn partly from her own mother and from her circle of fellow mums. Today, parents have instant access, through social media and online parental forums, to instant advice on why your baby’s crying, when you should discuss the birds and the bees, and what to do about that photo of Boris Johnson you’ve found under your teenager’s pillow.
But more technology for mums and dads means more for kids as well. Hands up who hasn’t, at a frazzled moment, let CBeebies or some bright colours and jolly music on an iPad take the heat off from hands-on parenting for half an hour?
Good parenting should be invisible; the less we notice it, the more efficiently it’s working. And it has to be adaptable – we live in a different world than our parents did
We’re often told that today’s children are mollycoddled and wrapped in cotton wool, that we’re bringing up a generation that is whiny, entitled and lacking the resilience to prepare for the big, bad world. However, the Aptamil Follow On Milk survey* seems to suggest otherwise, as 61% of respondents say their own mothers were more over-protective of them than they are with their own children now. And of the almost three-quarters who said their parenting style differs from what they grew up with, 40% said that their own parents were much stricter with them than they are. So it seems accusations of cotton-wool-ing our children don't hold as much weight as we thought.
I suspect that when we change our parenting styles drastically from our own mums and dads’ on purpose, we’re responding to something we feel particularly strongly did not work for us, or which we resented.
Take punishment, for example. Back when I was a kid, friends would routinely feel the back of their father’s hand for getting into trouble. I suppose I considered myself lucky that I didn’t get punished in this way. For most of us, smacking children is abhorrent these days. Maybe, like me, it didn’t happen, so we’ve no need to do it ourselves. Maybe some of us were smacked, and we’ve vowed to not do it to our own kids. Either way, that seems to be one of those things that’s left in the past, and good riddance to it.
For our children, we used time-outs and the naughty step (or, when steps were lacking, a naughty tree). One memorable – for all the wrong reasons – holiday in Greece, when the children were just 18 months and six months old, our eldest would routinely play up, his favourite trick being to throw salt shakes, ashtrays — anything breakable, really — off a taverna table and in the chaos make a run for the harbour edge. For want of a naughty step, we placed him cross-legged under an olive tree near the pool for a time-out. He howled like a wolf, but it seemed to work. It’s no wonder that when we recently bought a young olive tree for our own garden our son, now 15, went slightly pale without really knowing why.
They used to say that children should be seen and not heard, but I believe that it’s good parenting that should be invisible; the less we notice it, the more efficiently it’s working. And it has to be adaptable – we live in a different world than our parents did.
So, not everything our parents did was right, and not all of it was wrong. We’ve probably subconsciously cherry-picked the good bits and gone all out to not make the same mistakes. Which is probably what our own children will do if they become parents themselves.
I can just see a glimpse of the future with my adult son chastising his own children with a terse, “If I’d have done that when I was your age… I’d have ended up under an olive tree.”
IMPORTANT NOTICE: Breastfeeding is best for your baby. Follow on Milk should only be used as part of a mixed diet and not as a breastmilk substitute before six months. Use on the advice of a healthcare professional
*Research conducted by One Poll on behalf of Aptamil Follow On Milk in June 2018, surveying 1,000 mothers between the ages of 25 and 38