Has Parenting Advice Changed? These Old Magazine Articles Prove We’re Way Too Hard On Parents Today

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Parenting has changed a lot over the years. And yet, the end game remains the same. Raise well-adjusted, functioning independent adults who don’t live in your basement, eating all.the.snacks.

Sounds easy enough, right? Bahahahahahaha. WRONG.

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Because now, more than ever before, we are parenting through the societal lens that our kids are neither capable nor responsible enough to do things by themselves.

In fact, according to a recently published article in Psychology Today, the advice parents are given today is vastly different from what it was in yesteryears. 

And trust me when I say, not in a good way.

The author of the article, Dr. Peter Gray, is a research professor at Boston College who has written numerous articles on the decline of childhood independence and how it has negatively impacted our kids.

In his article “How Magazines’ Advice to Parents Has Changed Over a Century,” he references a book he recently came across, entitled Adult Supervision Required. It was written by Markella Rutherford, an associate professor of sociology at Wellesley College.

Rutherford analyzed 565 articles and advice columns on childrearing published in popular magazines over the past 100 years. 

What she discovered is disheartening. 

Here are the cliff notes of just some of her findings:

1946 – In an advice column in Parents magazine a mom of a “not yet two years old” child wanted to know how to encourage her child to play outside in the yard ALONE.  

Rather than raking her over the coals for her horrific parenting circa 2022, the mom was advised to lower the door latch so the child could come and go as she pleased.

Problem solved!

1956 – A mother’s choice to let her 5-year-old child walk four blocks alone to school was applauded in an article in Parents.

This is in sharp contrast to a mother in Illinois who was recently investigated by both police and the Department of Children and Family Services, for allowing her 8-year-old daughter to take the family dog for a walk around the block alone.

1966 – Good Housekeeping provided a set of guidelines for children’s public autonomy:

“A six- to eight-year-old can be expected to follow simple routes to school, be able to find a telephone or report to a policeman if he is lost, and to know he must call home if he is going to be late.

A nine- to eleven-year-old should be able to travel on public buses and streetcars, apply some simple first aid, and exercise reasonable judgment in many unfamiliar situations.”

vintage 1975 mom and son standing in dining room
Adobe Photostock

By the time 2006 rolled around, Good Housekeeping had drastically changed its tune.

They published an article entitled, “Are You a Good Mother?” The answer was “Yes” only IF you had eyes on your child at all times.

The modern-day messages we are receiving are clear: our kids should NOT be left to their own devices. 

And we have the possibility of criminal repercussions to prove it.

Rutherford wrote: 

“In depictions of children in advice texts from the first half of the twentieth century through the 1960s and 1970s, children are described as moving relatively unhindered through various public spaces.

For example, children walked unaccompanied to school, roamed around and played in neighborhoods alone and in groups, rode their bikes all over town, hitch-hiked around town, and ran errands for their parents, such as going to the corner store or post office.

These descriptions of freedoms to roam have disappeared from contemporary advice.

Instead, parents today are admonished to make sure that their children are adequately supervised by an adult at all times, whether at home or away from home.”

By the time my step-dad was 13, he had left an abusive home and was working and taking care of himself.

My father-in-law was 12-years-old when he left home and started working so he could send money home to his parents. 

Does this mean I want my 13-year-old daughter to head out and make her way in the world? NO.

However, contrary to the current parenting trends, our children are capable of so much more than we (and society) give them credit for.

Helicopter parenting is no longer a choice made by SOME OVER-PROTECTIVE PARENTS. It’s being thrust upon us by ridiculous precedents set by cases where good parents are being penalized for allowing their children some autonomy at appropriate ages in safe environments.

Not to mention, we are constantly being fed news that scares even the boldest among us.

Just last month, a 14-year-old walking alone at night was abducted in the city I live in. Thankfully, she was found.

And while the story has a happy ending, any thought on my part of letting my own nearly 14-year-old daughter wander the neighborhood at night was crushed.

I grew up in the magical age of the ’80s.

The wheelin’ dealin’ era of “Don’t come home until the lights come on!” and freedom.

It was also the time of photos of missing children staring back at me from the back of the milk carton while I ate my bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios.

And yet, somehow, my mother was STILL able to send me out into the world.

Dr. Gray’s article went on to compare how views have changed around chores, children’s autonomy at home, and the mixed messages we receive regarding children & responsibility.

He explained that Rutherford found that while there used to be a strong emphasis on kids pulling their weight around the house, this has been replaced with advice on supporting children’s homework and extracurricular activities.

Additionally, children in the past were responsible for their own homework (without the help of parents), getting themselves places, and looking after themselves while their parents were out.

Now, not so much.

It’s not all bad though. Advice to parents regarding their kids’ personal choices has shifted.

Kids nowadays have much more autonomy when it comes to bedtimes, picking out clothes, and speaking “not just when spoken to.” So at least there’s that.

The thing is, I don’t know of any parent who doesn’t want their kids to be independent. But in order for them to do things on their own, we have to get out of their way.

North American society needs to stop sending us messages that our kids aren’t ready or able to look out for themselves.  

Because they are more than capable – history tells us so.

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