Retro parenting: Three things we should go back to doing

Children playing in the mud

The world is a different place than it was when I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. Mostly, that’s a good thing. There are so many ways that technology has made life easier and better, the internet has brought knowledge to our fingertips and connections that span the world — and as a physician, I am grateful for all the life-saving discoveries of the past few decades.

However, when it comes to parenting, not all the changes have been good.

There has been a shift in parenting: We are far more focused on our children’s achievement and happiness than we used to be. This isn’t all bad, of course. Achievement and happiness are good — and it’s a welcome and appropriate shift from our agrarian and industrial past when children were literally expected to work. But the child-centric approach can sometimes have the effect of making our children less successful and happy.

Here are three examples of things I think families should go back to doing:

Chores

Back when I was a kid, it was normal to have chores. My sister and I, and all our friends, had things that we were expected to do — like setting the table, doing the dishes, taking out the trash (and of course, cleaning our room).

I see that far less now. It’s not that none of my patients help out at home or aren’t expected to clean up after themselves; many of them do. But the concept of children having “jobs” at home, and being regular participants in the work of daily life, has become uncommon. The “job” of children is thought to be homework and extracurricular activities.

There are two problems with this. First of all, as any parent knows, life is full of chores. We don’t do our kids any favors if we send them out into the world not knowing how to cook, clean a bathroom or do laundry — or how to manage their time so that the chores get done. These are necessary tasks of life.

More importantly, having assigned chores sends the message that children are part of a bigger whole, and that we all need to chip in to make things — families, workplaces, communities — work. Not only does it give children perspective and teach them about service,  but it also makes them more likely to be good coworkers and community members.

Family dinner

This used to be routine; in most families, everybody sat down together to eat. Now, it has become almost quaint. Schedules are busy, and family members grab dinner individually when they can — or parents get kids fed and eat later themselves.

Family dinner, though, has all sorts of demonstrated benefits. It can help develop vocabulary in young children, help prevent obesity and help keep teens out of trouble. It can help keep families in touch, especially if devices are shut off (I love the Device-Free Dinner campaign — check out the videos with Will Ferrell, they are great). And again, it teaches children that they are part of a whole.

It may be that you can’t do it every night. But even if you do it a few times a week, it can make all the difference. And even if both parents can’t be there, make it the norm that whoever is home eats together, in the kitchen or dining room. The more you discourage living room or bedroom eating, the more likely you are to eat together when you can. On days when you can’t eat dinner together, try to have some other “together” time so that you can catch up and connect.

Downtime

Childhood used to involve long stretches of unscheduled time, which could be used for all sorts of pursuits; now, unscheduled time is rare and often thought of as wasted. But the problem is that children need downtime. They need to play, not just for stress reduction but also because play in and of itself promotes creativity and teaches important executive function skills like cooperation, collaboration and delayed gratification. It’s important enough that the American Academy of Pediatrics actually has a policy statement about it.

So often, parents worry about their children’s “resumes,” and want to pack days as full as possible — or, when they have unscheduled time, we let them fill it with entertainment media, which isn’t great either. We need to give them some blank time to not just relax but also use their imagination, make things, read books and play. Boredom, after all, can be good — it can be where some of the best ideas start.

Coming up with good ideas is a big part of what makes a person successful and happy — as is their ability to navigate life’s inevitable storms, and their connections and collaborations with others. As we find new ways to support our children in learning these skills, it’s important to keep in mind that sometimes the old ways are just as good — or better.

About the blogger: Dr. Claire McCarthy is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, a senior editor for Harvard Health Publications and an official spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.