Retro Parenting

April 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

My parents once drove the family back from the south of France in a clapped-out VW, back seats down to make room for the handy double ceramic sink they’d picked up in Toulouse. I sat on the draining board, a toddler curled up in the rinser, with the others squeezed alongside in nylon sleeping bags. None of us wore seat belts. The car broke down. It started up again and kept going, but only as long as we didn’t stop. This journey was not atypical, nor was the holiday itself (camping in an ex-army tent without an attached ground sheet). My parents were not considered bad parents or dangerous drivers. This was the 1970s.

Among people who survived 1970s parenting and are now parents themselves, there’s a divide between those who look back and shudder and the “it never did me any harm” mantra of a growing band of retro-rearers. Their views were confirmed by a recent study which found that, despite water shortages, inflation peaking at 23% and widespread strikes, 1976 was the best year to be a child in Britain, thanks largely to a heatwave and parents with more time to enjoy it with their kids.

Nowadays, with widespread frustration at state regulation, conflicting advice from parenting “experts” and the shattering of the old job-for-life securities, it’s no wonder that 1970s-style parenting seems to be making a comeback.

It’s now uncool to be seen to be too health-and-safety-conscious; far sexier to aspire to cycle-helmet-eschewing bohemia. The most popular play dates are with families that have perilously high treehouses, half-supervised by parents who don’t ban toy guns (“Boys will be boys”). There’s a yearning for risk and adventure.

I know parents who travelled across India on a moped, kids squished between them. They made it seem glamorous, rather than dangerous. One of the most laid-back — and happy — mothers I know recently bought her four-year-old a penknife. As Bear Grylls — the retro-rearer poster boy — says: “If you mollycoddle kids, you disempower them.” There’s a growing recognition that children, especially boys, have feral instincts that cannot be channelled by the chess club. Helicoptering over them doesn’t help.

The retro-rearer mum is the antithesis of the tiger mum, although even she struggles to let go completely. Her primary concern is her child’s happiness and she will let her child develop at their own pace, as long as they don’t fall too far behind. (Maths tuition is complemented by heavy investment in guitar and singing lessons — she’s got a hunch she’s given birth to the new Florence Welch.) She views Ofsted as sinisterly Orwellian, although she will move house or find God to get the kids into an “outstanding” school — especially now the family has embraced the state sector because it can no longer afford private school fees. The dream would be a Scandinavian-style “forest school”, where lessons take place outside and curriculums are child-led. As Steve Jobs said, the future’s in creative thinking.The most popular play dates are with families who have treehouses, half-supervised by parents who don’t ban toy guns

You’ll spot her photogenic progeny chaotically piled into a prang-scraped VW Transporter eating bags of Haribo (“Anything to keep them quiet”). You’ll see them wandering around festivals such as Latitude and Port Eliot, half-naked, caked in mud, looking for parents who have been distracted by someone saying something fascinating about grammar and ukuleles in the Idler tent. Their under-10s all resemble the McCartney children circa 1978.

It’s not the 1970s, thank goodness. Whereas real 1970s parenting was about putting the grown-ups first and letting the kids get on with it, retro-rearing is arguably modern self-conscious parenting in a different guise. We all desperately want to do the right thing, and the most laid-back parent today can only ever take a 1970s-lite approach, because what is acceptable, and legal, has changed.

Forty years ago, nobody would raise an eyebrow if you topped the cot with chicken wire to stop a baby climbing out — “It’s for their own safety!” Now, you would have social services knocking on your door. Back then, 23% of pregnant women boozed regularly, according to a recent survey, and 77% of parents also smacked their kids. Again, not something we want to emulate, not when it’s far more effective to confiscate their Nintendo DS.

The pressures on mothers are arguably greater now. If you’re working, there’s only so long you can nurture “creative play” (fighting, trashing the house) without losing it and ordering them to watch telly so you can catch up on your emails. Perhaps we’re also more conformist than we like to think. We may have a Jamie Reid Sex Pistols print on the wall, but we’ll be bringing out the Union Jack bunting for the jubilee, and we have this crush on Prince Harry. As for our kids? Just as ungrateful as we were. They still roll their eyes when you ask them what they did at school. And they still moan on long car journeys, even though they don’t have to share the car with a sink. They don’t know they’re born. 

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