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Have We Forgotten How to Parent?

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario. This week's was based on a blog post I wrote a few weeks ago (many of them are!). So sorry if it's repetitive for my regular readers. I'm working on a really long post on parenting right now, which I hope to have up tomorrow. It's just busy around here with editing my book! Anyway, here's the column!

Ohio State University recently conducted a study on childhood obesity, and found three things that were most correlated to preventing it: eating dinner together as a family; reducing the amount of time children spend watching TV; and making sure they get regular and adequate sleep. It was the last one that was mildly surprising to me; I would have thought family exercise was more important than sleep. But no; sleep won out.

Then I began to think, what if there were some other factor at play, behind the scenes, that was actually the more important one? It seems to me that a family that eats together, that limits TV, and that enforces bedtime is one that puts emphasis on order, on family life, and on parenting. And few families do that today. Families that do will also be the ones that make sure children do not develop unhealthy habits.

Once I started thinking in this direction, though, I grew rather melancholy. After all, eating dinner together, limiting TV time, and enforcing bedtime may be rare today, but when I was a child, they were considered normal parenting behaviour. They were normal even for families one wouldn't consider that good.

I grew up in a lower middle class neighbourhood to a single mother. All around me were kids in similar situations whose parents were struggling to make ends meet. And yet I remember one of the big topics of conversation in third grade was who had the latest bedtime.

When I turned eleven, I took that opportunity to debate with my mother about moving my bedtime back half an hour. It had been 8:30, but Little House on the Prairie had new episodes on Monday nights at 8, and I wanted to see the whole thing. I talked strategy with my friends, who were all trying to extend their bedtimes, too, because everybody had a bedtime.

We seem to believe that only the "rich" have time to parent well, but it was not always that way. I am not saying that life was perfect in the 1970s; just think Saturday Night Fever and bellbottoms. But I do think there was this cultural pull to parent appropriately, and everyone seemed to share an idea of what appropriate looked like. It was really only the incredibly dysfunctional families who did not do bedtimes or mealtimes.

Today that dysfunction has become the norm. Few of my children's childhood friends had bedtimes, even those in families one would have considered ideal. Few today have chores. All the semblances of what would have been considered normal are gone.

Perhaps we don't parent well now as a society because the purpose of life has changed. While it once was to be responsible and support yourself, it is now to have fun and be entertained. We turn to technology instead of to each other.

Chaos is also much more of a factor in too many children's lives. When so many children don't grow up with two parents, it's hard to carry on "normal" family life. And with so many families struggling to deal with conflicting schedules with both parents working opposite shifts, eating together, or performing family rituals, takes a back burner to just getting through another day. Those old basic family rituals become rare.

Parenting isn’t rocket science. Our parents, even those with little education, knew how to do it. We have more education and we’ve forgotten. Provide structure. Provide love. Provide stability by loving your spouse. Care for your children’s bodies by feeding them and putting them to bed. Not only will that help prevent obesity; it may also help us remember that real purpose and joy in life comes from investing in relationships and responsibilities, not in stressing our own happiness above all. I’m glad my mother understood that.

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At 10:09 AM , Blogger It's Grace said…

I'm so glad I found your blog through our Twitter connection! (I'm the one who wrote the post on the sexualization of young girls and asked about the Adams miniseries..)

I couldn't agree with you more on this post. Bedtimes, healthy, balanced diets and regular activities are so important. So are the regular schedules kids thrive on and lots of love. I'm so amazed at the freedom (unmonitored phone & computer time, fix their own meals, no bedtime, few if any tv restrictions, etc) some children have. I don't think it's safe for them.

I love Little House!! And after watching the first season on DVD I started giving my kids more chores.

Thank you for a great post, I can't wait to read more. So glad we connected!

Hope you have a wonderful Friday.



At 11:13 AM , Anonymous Miss Leslie said…

Hi Sheila,
Thanks for this post. I was just talking with the father of one of my young students about parents nowadays seem to be unable to say 'no'. I've listened to young mothers talk about how they can't get their children to go to bed, and I think, 'Isn't that what parents are supposed to do?' I grew up in the 50's and 60's, and my bedtime was 8:00. My parents didn't beat us with a stick, but I knew that even if I laid there until midnight staring at the ceiling, I was not to get up. It was hard in the summer when it was hot in the house, the sunlight was still lingering, and the stock car races were running at the nearby amusement park! Children do need structure and rules. Thanks for pointing it out.

Wishing you a song in your heart,

Miss Leslie @ Music with Miss Leslie


At 12:18 PM , Anonymous Amanda R said…

I am on the fence about this particularly on the fence about this topic.

When I was growing up, I had two hard working parents who done an amazing job raising myself, my brother & sister. We hardly ever ate at the table as a family. If we wanted to eat dinner in the living room while watching tv, we could. If we didn't like what Mom cooked we ate something different. Even though we didn't eat at the table together that doesn' mean my parents didnt know how to 'Parent' or that they weren't good parents. It's simply their ways of parenting. All parents have different ways of parenting and just because it's not your style or the way you think it should be does not make someone a bad parent. In fact, my parents are my idol and I am thankful that I was raided in an enviorment where I had choices of my own. We were all loved growing up, taken care, and had had everything we needed and to me, thats all that matters. There is no handbook that states how one should parent. You do what works best for you and your family and there is certainly no need to judge a parent just because they don't parent the same way you do.

I am a mother of one Daughter and I parent a lot like my parents did. I want her to have choices just like my parents allowed me to have. I feel when a parent is too strict on a child thats when problems can arise and the chilld then becomes rebellious. If my daughter wants to eat her dinner watching TV, so be it! AS long as she eats, I don't mind where she eats at!

I just wanted to express my opinion on this topic because so many parents are judged by parents who think they just know it all- but in reality, as mentioned earlier, every parent has different parenting methods. We are not all the same.


At 12:20 PM , Anonymous Amanda R said…

Sorry, my fingers got ahead of me at the beginning of my previous comment!


At 12:30 PM , Blogger Sheila said…

Amanda, don't worry about your fingers! We all do that!

I think the main point about parenting is that the parent provides structure, love, and connection. That's what that study revealed. That structure is usually shown in things like a set bedtime, set mealtimes, etc. And connection best happens when there are regular times to connect--like sitting at a table eating.

It is not that the eating at a table is so vitally important, as long as those things are in your family. The main thing is the structure, the love, and the connection.

HOWEVER, and this is a big HOWEVER, studies show that is very unlikely a lot of that necessary connection will occur unless a family eats dinner together at a table. If, in your family, you've found ways to connect otherwise, that's fine. But most parents say they connect--but studies show they don't. Families who eat at a table, though, do tend to talk significantly more each day than families who do not. That's why that particular thing is so important.


At 12:31 PM , Blogger Sheila said…


Hit reply too fast!

What I wanted to end with was this: it sounds like your parents did raise you in an environment where you did feel connected, and you did have structure and love without necessarily eating together. That's great.

But what has happened is that things have broken down so much over the generation that it's becoming harder to maintain that connection. So no, I don't think these things are 100% necessary. But I also don't think they're irrelevant. And I do think it's very hard--though not impossible--to maintain a great family without them! But each family is different, and we need to decide for ourselves!


At 12:32 PM , Blogger Sheila said…

Erin, good to see you here, too, and not just on Twitter! Glad we made this connection!

And Leslie, thanks for dropping by! It's funny, but I always knew what my bedtime was, too, and I really don't remember how my mother enforced it. It just didn't occur to me to question it!


At 1:48 AM , Blogger Janet - AKA: Latte Lady said…

I'm crackin up! I am reading this on a night that we ate dinner out (very late) because we were at a homeschool basketball tournament AND didn't get home until 11:00 PM. AND I let them stay up til 12:30 AM!!!!!!!!!!


We do eat together, sometimes 3 meals a day and I love it! The statistics say it all. You can't deny it.

Love and hugs,


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About Me

Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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