Perhaps all parents, at some point, look back wistfully at earlier generations and assume that childrearing was easier for them than it is now. Any supposed Golden Age of family life seems elusive today, when "balancing" and "juggling" are the operative words describing many parents' lives and when competition for family time and attention is often intense.
But now there's a modest bit of encouraging news: American parents are more involved in their children's lives than they were 10 years ago, the US Census Bureau reports. They are reading to their children more often, eating more meals together, and monitoring their children's TV viewing.
At the same time, census takers are not the only ones tracking domestic life. New studies and surveys abound on both sides of the Atlantic, trying to gauge the well-being of 21st-century families. Individually, each represents a tiny piece of a giant sociological puzzle. Collectively, they offer varied perspectives that attest to the complexities of raising children.
As if to challenge the trend toward family togetherness reported by the Census Bureau, a study from the government-backed Booktime literacy project in Britain finds that children spend very little spare time with adults. Working parents have little time for family activities, the group reports, and they struggle to find time to read with children. Even so, the more money a father makes, the more likely he is to read with his children. For mothers, the opposite is true. The higher a woman's earnings, the less likely she is to read with her children.
Perhaps these findings represent cultural differences between two countries an ocean apart, or maybe it's just a case of British parents being more candid about their limited time.
American parents are also monitoring their children more closely than in the past, the Census reports.
For some families, protectiveness starts early and in unusual ways. A year-old website, HowsMyNanny.com, provides a mini-license plate that parents can attach to a child's stroller. Passersby who observe a nanny's conduct, good or bad, can send an e-mail to the parent's personal account.
"Today's busy parents want to know how their children are being treated," explains Jill Starishevsky, founder of the site. Members, who pay $50 a year for the service, can "immediately discover if their nanny is doing something praiseworthy or behaving in a negligent manner."
In other families, parental tracking of children involves everything from nannycams in the home to GPS monitoring, instant messaging, and cellphones.
What parents and grandparents in previous generations could have imagined such high-tech ways of being involved with their offspring?
David Eigen, a psychologist in Atlanta, has the capability to track his two teenage daughters with GPS monitoring. "If I wish to track them I can go to a website and track them," he says in a telephone interview. "I've never done it, but they know I have it."
Many families would regard that as a step too extreme. Dr. Eigen's rationale? "Parents need to know where their children are," he says. "Part of being a parent is to guide and watch our kids. The bottom line is, parenting is job one." Borrowing a line from Ronald Reagan, he adds, "Trust, but verify."
Still, just how involved should parents be in shadowing their children's every step? Deciding when and how much to loosen the parental leash differs from family to family, child to child. Parental distrust can breed ill will, but the consequences of a laissez-faire attitude by parents can also be perilous.
Almost 1 in 5 American teens say they live with "hands off" adults who fail to set consistent rules and monitor their behavior, according to a survey by Columbia University's Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. That puts these teenagers at a four-times greater risk for smoking, drinking, and illegal drug use than their peers who have "hands on" parents.
Another study from Britain suggests that some parents need to be slightly more hands-off when it comes to children's performance at school and elsewhere. A report by Mintel, a London market-research firm, finds that fathers in particular exhibit an obsessive concern with children's academic and extracurricular achievement.
When does involvement become over-involvement, and protectiveness turn to overprotectiveness? Learning how to strike a balance is a parental art form.
Perhaps the most encouraging new family study reports that teenagers' best-kept secret is this: They really do care what parents think. Even if they appear to be turning away from their family in favor of their friends, what their family thinks matters to them – a lot.
That's the finding of a 30-year longitudinal study by Simmons College School of Social Work in Boston. It makes a persuasive case for strong family involvement at every stage – the kind of togetherness that will show the American family in a continuing favorable light when the census takers make their next rounds in 2010.