The changing face of parenting

Ms K Belbin, School Counsellor
Word art image of parenting theories
From ‘attachment parenting’ to ‘uninvolved parenting’, the theories about ‘how best to parent’ abound

There is something disturbing happening regarding parenting. Parents are turning on parents in an all-out battle over parenting style supremacy. Parenting ‘experts’ are churning out books to meet the supposed unquenchable thirst for guidance and direction that parents have regarding how to be the best parent and produce the ‘best’ child. Not everyone is a parent, but everyone has been parented which means everyone can, if they desire, make a claim regarding the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to parent. And everyone, it seems, has a parenting book in them. A quick search on Amazon for ‘parenting’ books gave 140,223 result s last week; this week that number increased to 140,729.

The saying that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ recognises that everyone involved in a child’s life has a part to play and responsibility towards the child’s physical, emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual development. The twenty-first century parenting ‘industry’, however, has a vested interest in placing this responsibility on parents alone (parents buy books; villages do not). The contrasting, indeed competing beliefs and expectations about what parents ‘should’ or ‘should not’ do can lead parents to feel overwhelmed and anxious about their child-rearing performance. Children watch their parents closely and pick up on parental anxieties, so it is helpful to reflect on the stresses involved in parenting today, particularly the pressure to get it ‘right’. If we can understand and defuse these, we may remove one stress from parents’ lives and, in doing so, remove one from the lives of our girls.

Controversy now surrounds every facet of parenting. Whether and when to become parents; whether to breastfeed, control cry, vaccinate, circumcise, return to work or stay at home; how to discipline, socialise, feed and teach your child; which school, sport, music you choose; their results, accomplishments, friends, choices, jobs and age of leaving home — everything is open to scrutiny and everyone has an opinion. Talking about parenting in polite society has become as fraught, and dangerous, as talking about religion, money or politics.

Discussions around parenting have shifted from the nature/nurture debate to a preoccupation with parenting style. There is much at stake when choosing a parenting style, because your choice says a lot (everything) about you — or at least that is the belief. Frank Ferudi (2007), Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent and author of Paranoid Parenting, explains:

Powerful cultural forces encourage parents, particularly mothers, to live their lives through their children. One important way in which the parenting industry has promoted its dogma is to incite mothers to gain identity through their childrearing style. Parenting has turned into a lifestyle in which women — and, increasingly, men — make statements about themselves via the tactics and techniques they use to bring up their infants. This issue is not about a childrearing technique but a moral statement about a way of life. That is why arguments about parenting have acquired such a vitriolic dimension.

Choice is no longer a personal matter, it is also political. Ferudi suggests two ways that parents can counter the trend to politicise childrearing: ‘Ignore the experts, and don’t turn childrearing into a statement about yourself’ (2007).

The polarisation of the debate may reflect an unprecedented level of parental insecurity and anxiety. Parenting is not an activity where you can muddle along in an unselfconscious kind of way anymore. Parents reach for expert advice and help; but parenting books, which are expected to reassure, can undermine parents’ confidence, especially when they make categorical but contradictory claims about the best way to raise children. For parents who cannot tolerate differences over parenting, and are anxious to get it ‘right’, the question of who is right and who is wrong becomes an important issue. Parents who are wedded to a particular style interpret claims made by proponents of competing styles as an attack on them — their identity, values, commitment and, therefore, worth as parents. Inevitably, the belief becomes: if you are not for me, you must be against me.

With so much emotional investment, parents can become preoccupied with how their performance is being judged in private and in public. According to novelist Milan Kundera (1986), it is part of the human condition to judge: ‘Man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, for he has an innate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands.’ Parenting, with its uncertain dynamics and continually unfolding processes, and ‘cast’ of different personalities, is a supremely difficult process to understand. There is a lot in parenting that is ‘not known’, leading to feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty. However, so much is expected of parents by society that having to bear ‘not knowing’ can make the job feel too hard. Understandably then, parents turn to the ‘experts’, seeking comfort and reassurance — the promise of a clear and successful way forward.

What is sometimes forgotten in this process of prescriptive parenting is that all children are different — no one theory fits all. The seventeenth-century nobleman and poet John Wilmot said: ‘Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children. Now I have six children and no theories’ (qtd. in Prochnow, 1958). Simplified recommendations cannot accommodate children’s individual requirements. Most people recognise that parenting requires a repertoire of approaches, depending on the disposition and needs of the child, the age and stage of the child, the family values and beliefs, the circumstances and the culture in which the family lives and the events that occur within the family and society. Requiring parents to pin down their parenting to one method, or philosophy, denies the influence of the rich and varied experience of family life, with its rhythm, its unique pattern of development, its needs, its fears and exhilarations, and its muddles and triumphs. More worryingly, selecting one philosophy over another encourages a culture of competition and rivalry between parents, at the very time when parental support and understanding of each other is most needed.

A society that cultivates competition about social issues such as parenting, rather than collaboration, can lead its members to feel despair and isolation. In those circumstances, even if you are winning, you do not feel looked after, appreciated, or connected to those around you. An ethos of competitive parenting eats away at parental confidence. According to reports commissioned by The Australian Childhood Foundation in 2004 and 2005 (Tucci, Mitchell, & Goddard), parental confidence is dropping. The 2004 report found that fifty-six per cent of parents were concerned about their level of confidence as parents; the following year this number had increased to sixty-three per cent. The 2005 report showed that seventy per cent of parents feel community pressure to ‘get parenting right’. And in 2012, Galaxy Research conducted an online survey of 1006 mothers who had children aged 16 years or younger (Procter & Gamble, 2012). Eighty-seven per cent of mothers reported experiencing feelings of isolation, with thirty-six per cent feeling isolated on most days.

Being a parent is hard work. Parenting is an unfolding and continually developing process, requiring understanding and encouragement from inside as well as outside the family. Withstanding criticism, feeling judged and isolated, or being under pressure to ‘get parenting right’ do not help. In Exploring Parenthood (1994), child psychotherapist Ruth Schmidt Neven describes parenting as one of the ‘great dynamic journeys of life [where] both parent and children undergo a transformation through a relationship which is hopefully a positive and reciprocal one’ (p. xxi). As Jane Shilling writes in New Statesman (2013): ‘Raising a child involves a circuitous journey of many branching routes that may lead, if parents and children are lucky, loving and tolerant, to a destination that everyone involved finds bearable.’

Perhaps, instead of criticism or advice, parents need an environment that supports and fosters them as they undertake their life’s work. A place that understands the pressures, facilitates their development, and builds their capacity to think carefully about what is best for their family as they travel their particular and unique path. A place where parenting is honoured, valued and respected as both a life’s task, spanning successive generations, as well as a community task. A place where parents can take solace in the reality that the parenting responsibility is shared with many other trusted adults, each of whom is as devoted to the child’s wellbeing as the parents are. A place where the stress and pressure of parenting is diluted to a ‘bearable’ degree. They need, of course, a village — of supporters.

At Brisbane Girls Grammar School, the village that surrounds and supports each family is made up of parents and students, teachers and other staff members, coaches and volunteers, alumnae and friends, neighbours and all members of our larger connected School community. Parents are the chiefs of their family in our village; the other villagers assist each parent to withstand the invasion of the ‘experts’, so that parents can get on with their important work and make their own decisions about what is best for their families.


Ferudi, F. (2007, October 8). The mother of all child-rearing battles. The Times.

Kundera, M. (1986). The art of the novel. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Prochnow, H. V. (Ed.). (1958). The new speaker’s treasury of wit and wisdom. New York: Harper.

Procter & Gamble (2012). Changing face of motherhood report. Retrieved from

Schmidt Neven, R. (1994). Exploring parenthood: A psychodynamic approach for a changing society. Melbourne: The Australian Council for Educational Research.

Shilling, J. (2013, January 31). Parenting wars: Tiger moms versus helicopter parents: The multimillion-pound industry devoted to telling you how to raise your child. New Statesman, p. 26.

Tucci, J., Mitchell, J., & Goddard, C.  (2004). The concerns of Australian parents. Melbourne: Australian Childhood Foundation.

Tucci, J., Mitchell, J., & Goddard, C. (2005). The changing face of parenting: Exploring the attitudes of parents in contemporary Australia.  Melbourne: Australian Childhood Foundation and National Research Centre for the Prevention of Child Abuse.


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