Few will dispute the fact that – for good or bad – raising children in the era of smartphones and Internet- connected tablets and laptops is totally different from the way their own parents raised them. Anyone who watched CBS TV’s sitcom Father Knows Best starring Robert Young and Jane Wyatt and their fictional children as the Andersons – a middle-class family living in the Midwestern town of Springfield – will sigh with nostalgia.
Tel Aviv clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Dr. Nitza Yarom has devoted 204 pages in Hebrew to dissecting the major changes in family life since the era of the idyllic Anderson family sat around the dinner table. Called Matzpen Lehorot Reuya: Madrich Le’Siah Habein Dori (A Compass to Worthy Parenthood), her NIS 69 volume, just released by Pardes Publishing in Haifa, explains to adults how parenting has changed and offers ways of coping with the new era.
It is true that parents are busier and more distracted than ever. Instead of stay-at-home mothers who just cook and clean, most women now fill demanding jobs. Kids are “smarter” and more skilled than their parents in the social media and in a wide range of computer skills and applications, and family life is more democratized than in the 1950s (or even in the year 2000). Inter-generational relationships have changed a lot.
But while the 73-year-old Yarom has a good hold on massive changes affecting most contemporary non-religiously observant Israeli families, she has an incredibly skewed perspective on Israeli society as a whole – completely leaving out traditional sectors such as ultra-Orthodox Jewish families and, still, many modern Orthodox ones, not to mention Muslim Arab ones. The skewed perspective in this, her ninth book is well reflected by the odd cover photo chosen – a man’s arms uplifted, with a faceless girl toddler thrown into the air (perhaps not so safely), shown from below in an air-blown dress that makes her blue panties the most visible part.
The volume should better have been titled A Compass to Worthy Secular Parenthood.
There are hundreds of thousands of Israeli households in which the parents still set down the rules (usually based on religious dictates), and offspring are respectful and even obedient; children do not have their own smartphones or online computers in their bedrooms (or in the house at all). Some living rooms even lack TV sets. In fact, the religious sectors in Israeli society are growing, and the increasing family conservatism is an attempt to shield their children from the dangers of smartphones, Internet and the social media.
But in this book, they don’t exist at all for the psychologist, who says she has taught generations of child psychologists and parent counselors and now presumes to educate parents on coping with the “new species” of children and teenagers.
IN A rather repetitive fashion, Yarom notes that today, technological devices change the reality of life at a speedy pace.
Her book is less a compendium of practical tips for better child-rearing, and more advice on how to rethink what the roles of today’s parents are.
Children are from a very young age well versed in how gadgets function, how to communicate electronically and obtain information, as well as in social (but non-frontal) connections. But even though they are aware of products and prices, this does not prevent them from lacking empathy for schoolmates who are from deprived families and can’t go to the mall to eat lunch.
Children seem and probably are “smarter” than their parents, leaving their elders confused, embarrassed and even overwhelmed, even while regarding them as “partners” in power sharing and having fun with them. Even teenage rebellions of the past seem to have become milder or even to have disappeared as children set the agenda and parents lose much of their authority.
Berating young kids is a waste of time, suggests the author. An example is a woman busy on her cellphone at a café who from time to time angrily demands of her small child: “Sit up straight!” This is the wrong way to behave. As a contrast, she describes the scene of a loving father who treats his toddler with respect, buys her the kind of ice cream she wants and discusses things with their heads leaning on each other.
While working parents today are pretty good at multi-tasking, it tends to tire them out. Their children, however, were born into doing several tasks simultaneously, like writing, studying, listening to music and talking on their smartphones.
They thrive on it and know of no other way to live.
In the “old days,” a young woman having her first child would turn to her mother to show her the ropes of feeding, bathing and diapering. Today, there are many advisers to lean on, either in person or from Internet forums and blogs.
“Professional writing for me today is a sort of need to shine light in [the] dark places and confusing reality of our time.
As experience is updated, perspective is useful,” Yarom states.
“I want to explain how the book was born. Much has been written and said about the parent-child relationship. As a guide to caring for children and adolescents and [after] training parents for many years, I found myself restless. Parenting, I observed, seemed confused and even neglectful. From my perspective, it lacks the psychological/social dimension of the unique spirit of our era... I found myself needing to help people update the relationships between the generations.”
With the traditional family hierarchy displaced, new relationships have been created, and parents are confused and torn between what they learned about parenting from their own parents and new demands and dilemmas they face. The require a new compass, she says, to show them the way. They suddenly become mere “service providers” and “bankrollers” of children’s activities and gadgets, rather than the people solely responsible for their welfare.
It’s “useless” today to tell misbehaving children that they will “have no TV for a week” or won’t be able to go out and play with their friends. Today’s children have many alternatives to get around such disciplinary punishments – by punching keys on their smartphone or tablet or those devices of their siblings or school friends.
And they are less likely to want to “go out to play” than the previous generation.
Parents still have to express affection, feed, clothe and ensure the safety of children, she writes, but advising, directing and berating them is much more difficult, and what parents know is often “anachronistic.”
Children have to be protected, but parents today also feel the obligation to “give them a fun time.” Well aware of new products from media advertisements and how much they cost, children are usually more attuned to what the consumer age has to offer.
Quoting then-US first lady Hillary Clinton that “it takes a village” to raise a child, the author states that help from the state’s educational and other systems is needed more than ever to raise him or her, even to the extent of explaining relations between the sexes. Youngsters become sexually developed today at an earlier age. Too embarrassed to get into details, parent input is superseded by what their children find out themselves, even if it is in the form of pornographic films. Schools, suggests Yarom, must fill the vacuum and give lessons on adolescence and sexuality that will educate and inform without making the kids laugh.
The father’s and mother’s parents, who are likely to be alive, relatively healthy and active, are increasingly asked to “babysit” for grandchildren of various ages as kids have too-long school vacations and parents have too-short vacations from work.
Dealing with the “new strains” of children is a challenge for the grandparents, but usually involves less tension than the new parent/child relationship.
AT THE same time that the smartphone era introduces new forms of stress between the generations, writes Yarom, it also creates difficulties between spouses who have to reconstruct roles and functions. “equality in couplehood can cause arguments because it is no longer based on the classic division of roles,” Yarom notes.
“Men are more involved in child rearing, but most really do not do much more heavy housework to relieve the burdens on their working wives. Such balances must be worked out.”
This situation often leads to the well-publicized erosion of sex lives and libido.
“Sex, the primary glue between the genders, must not be compromised... One can’t speak about equality in sexuality because of the different nature of men and women... Power and control still intoxicate more than intimacy.”
In the second half of the book, Yarom gives case studies of various children (including some from previous volumes she wrote) to describe the problems posed by divorce; violent teenagers and those who upload nude photos of themselves on Facebook; violence in the family; single- sex marriages. The difficulties are well defined, but guaranteed solutions are not provided.
“Parents and children – this involves complex and long-term dependence that creates many expectations, much emotional investment, broken hearts and accounts that do not get settled on either side. It is extended, maybe for too long a period. At both edges of the timeline – childhood and old age – it is accompanied by a feeling of burden... and the hope that someone will be at your side when needed,” she writes at the end.
“Navigating contemporary parenthood requires coping with the conflict of cultures, with multiple roles, with the central desire for self-realization and not necessarily to serve someone else. It’s easy to turn a child into such a partner, but difficult to preserve satisfying self-navigation while properly navigating a relationship with someone who is connected to you but autonomous.”
She hopes that parents of this era will not be overwhelmed by their children’s technological and navigational abilities or try to fight their children’s skills but rather enjoy the family connection for which they became parents.
And, one concludes, if it doesn’t work out as neatly as at the end of Father Knows Best episodes, at least when today’s kids become parents, they, too, will understand what it means to have to struggle with a “new strain” – a generation no more comprehensible and manageable than they were.