There was trouble at my daughter’s day care. An app, which allows parents access to photos and updates of their children throughout the day, had a bug. There would need to be a new app. The length of time between apps could be days, even weeks.
Panic quickly spread through the centre. The carers were anxious about the app gap, sending out email reminders, admonishing parents – like me, I confess – for not signing the permission slip for the new app on the due date.
(I was late because my son had just started school, which was its own circus: over an hour of homework every night, the emails, and, of course, his own app.)
The New York Times labels it “the relentlessness of modern parenting”; the idea that raising a child is now more intense, more time-consuming, and therefore more draining than it’s ever been.
Before I had children, I assumed this was caused by helicopter parenting; that women (probably) who had given up work and had nowhere else to plug in their Type-A energy were hovering over their kids, never allowing a crumb to fall from their mouths. Now? I’m not so sure.
“Parenting doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” says child psychologist Collett Smart. “Society has become fragmented with more single parents raising children on their own, or families moving to different cities or countries without the support of extended families.
“The joys, but also the heavy weight of responsibility, then fall upon parents alone.”
It’s this fragmentation, along with higher levels of parental guilt about how children are raised, that Smart says is driving parents to micro manage their children.
In their book, Love, Money and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids, they say the “permissive” style of parenting, which characterised the 1970s, was borne out of the idea that it didn’t really matter how much you poured into your kids, odds were they’d turn out okay.
But by the 1980s, as income inequality increased, and social mobility decreased in most Western countries, parents began to hover.
It was no longer enough to assume your kid would get that well-paying job; he first had to get into the university, which meant he had to get into that school. Which also meant he had to get extra tutoring, and on and on until you’re downloading an app to make sure your daughter can cut with scissors.
In Australia, where low wage growth and a 20-year housing crisis have led to a widening gap between rich and poor, the most obvious manifestation of helicopter parenting is the uptick in private schooling. We have one of the highest levels of private school enrolment within the OECD, with the highest levels of private expenditure towards schools.
The fallout of this, apparently, is over-invested parents.
Principal of St Catherine’s Anglican Girls School in Sydney, Julie Townsend, coined the term "concierge parents" to describe the parents that hold on too tightly to their kids.
"They are there at a little desk waiting for any problems, and to sort them out," she told the Sydney Morning Herald last month.
Her comments were widely shared on social media. But I wonder if a least part of the concierge factor might be down to middle-class parents paying as much for their child’s education as they would a mortgage – sometimes more – and wanting a return on such a huge investment.
I contacted a friend whose two daughters attend one of the most prestigious private schools in the country. Contrary to the "concierge" label, she said parents were burnt out.
“The thing is the school always wants you to do more. Really great at sport? That’s fantastic, how about learning a musical instrument? Great at academics? Okay, now you need to join the rowing team. It never ends.”
Smart agrees, saying children are also in overload. “Certainly parents shouldn’t jump in and rescue kids, but some schools are setting so much homework (even in the primary years where there is very little evidence of any benefit) that kids are exhausted.”
When I think about my daughter, and her day care app logging her every miniscule milestone, I’m not ungrateful. It’s thrilling to watch her thrive. But there’s an undertow, a feeling – not entirely cynical – that my daughter’s carers want me to be pleased, not just as a parent, but a paying customer.
And, while both political parties are making promises about universal childcare, for the moment, the costs are exorbitant. So who can blame the carers if their motivations are for the child’s welfare – and their business?
Life really is tougher than it was in the 1970s. We know so much more about children’s potential, too. It’s just a shame that the privatisation of education should result in more pressure for kids – and blame for their parents.