The Ideal Parenting Myth…Busted?

I don’t know what is more exhausting about parenting: the getting up early or acting like you know what you’re doing. ~Jim Gaffigan, actor & comedian

Journalist Micheal Brown shared the research of Shannon Pynn of the University of Alberta. Pynn, a PhD student, recently demonstrated how social media might alter what she and her team label as the ‘good parenting ideal’ of active free play in the whirlwind demand by parents for ‘structured’ activities like gymnastics, swimming, and dancing for our children.

To the keen observer, an obvious reason why we don’t see our parks, neighbourhood streets, and other public spaces filled with kids after school and on weekends (like we recall) might be due to Big Gaming (i.e. the gaming industry). The impact of the video gaming industry has all but obliterated the free, active, unstructured play that as a Gen-Xer was the norm. But Pynn and her team also argue that the power of social media has forced more and more parents to rethink the safety of allowing their children to roam free and unsupervised. And there is, of course, the Jones’s effect–cultural inferiority.

Power of Cultural Capital

Pynn also acknowledges that the influence of cultural capital implies a feeling of judgment by other parents when their child is not involved in a million different structured activities. Social media, the study argues, has massively augmented the power of cultural capital, and reports many parents feel that giving their kids unlimited opportunities to engage in structured events is the best way forward towards creating a well-rounded adult-in-the-making.

Of course, one cannot but harken back to their childhood and ‘judge’ the choices and decisions made by parents. As a child (of what eventually became a double-income family), I had the privilege a stay-at-home parent for the first eight years of my upbringing. Once both of my parents were engaged in full-time employment, I fondly recall heading to my grandparents directly after school; often 3-4 times a week. I also recollect having dinner with Grandma and Grandpa before mom or dad were able to round us up for the evening. Nevertheless, we were with family. It was safe. Familiar. And we were never for need nor want.

As we grew older, my brother and I were often left to our own devices after school. To this day, I do not recognize any long-lasting effects as a result of this situation borne out of necessity. It is with a small modicum of nostalgia that I consider us lucky to have our grandparents so readily available. So willing to be a part of our lives. Nowadays it seems more parents are choosing to raise their children at greater distances from immediate family members. Some out of necessity. Many more out of choice.

A majority of my peers abhor the idea of the ‘latchkey kid’, and recognize inherent value of having a parent home to greet the kids at the end of the school day. Sill there are others who do not envision that scenario for their children. Often it is due necessity (both parents working).

And yet, others describe it using a different rationale. One friend eloquently shared recently that in his mind “structured play is better than no play” approach is the preferred value in his family. But is it really a simple case of no play versus the two three-hour gymnastics practices a week? Unstructured play does not solely equate to an absence of play. These are kids, after all. Play is their nature. They are play.

Naturally, we all want to do right by our children; striving to be a better parent. To give them opportunities to challenge themselves, follow a passion, experience joy in pursuit of learning something novel. Collectively, do we recklessly forge ahead with this ‘version’ of the ‘ideal parent’? Why is it so easy to get caught up in this narrative?

Another close friend, and parent of two young children, confided he and his partner “want to be more present in their kids’ lives, more than their own [parents] were.” Fair enough was my initial internal response. And yet, I wondered if his words revealed a contradiction (of sorts) in what he was sharing. Is leaving your  child with their taekwondo instructor twice a week for two hours after school any different than having your child return home to an empty house? Shouldn’t ‘being present mean that we need to well…be more present (literally) with our kids?

Forced Play

Now more than ever, Pynn argues, many activities by design (or not) often involve the family unit. Consider those three-day soccer tournaments that involve massive travel and time away. In many families everyone hits the road (yes, siblings pack your bags, too). Dedicated time away together as a family unit is a beautiful thing, indeed. How could it not help families to strengthen connections and the desire to spend more time together?

Back to the shame of having a latchkey kid for a minute. This representation is a powerful one that is reinforced through social media and in our society. The ‘idle hands’ metaphor quickly comes to mind (i.e. if our kids on their devices or left at home for a few hours after school we are inviting trouble and mischief). Pynn reports that trying to change these social media-driven misconceptions is a Herculean task for any parent. It seems to me that it takes courage; courage to honour the choices of other families and promote the power of free, active play among our children.

To raise a child it sometimes takes a village…but sometimes that village should shut up and mind its own business.  ~Susan McLean, blogger

What’s the end in all of this?

For our family, it’s about balance. A fine balance. One that is different for each of our three children and our ability to (realistically) support them. A balance between family financial constraints and values. In our family, we have a two-day-a-week maximum structured activity allotment. Wanna try something new? Sure. But our kids recognize that a current activity may have to be sacrificed albeit temporarily in order to maintain the balance. As parents, we walk the talk. We attempt to role-model by making sure that we are within the weekly quota, too.

And quite honestly, it feels liberating to know that more structured time isn’t necessarily better for all kids. The need to keep our kids up with the Jones’s kids exerts very little pressure on our family and its values. Free play, without digital devices and supervised structures, can be (and still is) a powerful antidote to the increasing anxiety and worry that has weaved its way through our children’s lives in the age of more is better.


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