Maclean's Poll '02: Parents Say Kids OK

"WHY DON'T YOU just go out and play?" Now what kind of mother or father would suggest that to their young kids? Good parents, we hear, play with their children, or take them to a play group, or sign them up for skating lessons or computer camp or ballet or T-ball.

Maclean's Poll '02: Parents Say Kids OK

"WHY DON'T YOU just go out and play?" Now what kind of mother or father would suggest that to their young kids? Good parents, we hear, play with their children, or take them to a play group, or sign them up for skating lessons or computer camp or ballet or T-ball. They might even hire a tutor to give their toddler a head start. Competitive parenting? Certainly, many high-achieving moms and dads aim for super kids. But not all the pressures of parenting are self-imposed. "There's a heightened standard that parents have to meet to be judged adequate," says Kerry Daly, a sociologist in the University of Guelph's family relations department. Today's parents are expected to ensure their children's success; to help them achieve physical, academic and emotional fitness. "It's quite different from a generation ago," says Daly, "when kids were more often left to do things on their own."

Now, family advocates say, it's parents who are left to their own devices. "Parents are not supported by the community," says Alan Mirabelli of Ottawa's Vanier Institute of the Family. "We say, 'You had the kids, it's your problem.' Child care? You know, 'I raised my kids without having my wife go to work.' " At the same time, families are watched more closely than ever. Spank your child and risk charges of child abuse. Attend your child's school concert and miss an important work meeting. "Parenting has always been a difficult task," says Mirabelli, "but it may have been rendered more difficult."

In a new poll, Maclean's and our sister publication Today's Parent examine how Canadians are coping with the heavy demands of child rearing. How do they handle discipline? Do they spank their kids? Do they spend enough time with them? What's the right age for a teen to have sex? 13? 18? Never? How would they react if their teenager wanted to spend the night with a sexual partner - at home? For the most part the results are reassuring, and frequently surprising. Who would have predicted a strong nostalgia for the traditional stay-at-home parent - though not necessarily mom? Or that nearly as many fathers (63 per cent) as mothers (73 per cent) would say they would rather stay home with their children than go to work?

Also, who would have predicted that parents' responses would betray a woeful ignorance of what their teens are actually up to out of their sight? Only Quebecers seem to accept that their kids are smoking, drinking, taking drugs and engaging in sex somewhere on the order of the statistical evidence. And if there are problem parents out there, there are few among our poll respondents - by their account, anyway. A whopping 93 per cent give themselves high marks as parents. Sixteen per cent claim to be "excellent," while 77 per cent modestly settle for a "good" rating.

And where do the troublesome kids we're always hearing about come from? Certainly not from our respondents' homes. The majority are convinced their children behave better than others. Surprisingly, that apparent smugness increases as the children get older. While an understandable half of parents think their preschoolers are above average, the number jumps to a dazzling 72 per cent for parents with teens. An overstatement, clearly. But, perhaps the boast carries an element of gratitude from parents relieved that they have avoided the dreaded horrors of the teenage years. "We are fortunate," says Kathie Ervin, a Lethbridge, Alta., mother of three whose oldest son just turned 18. "Touch wood - all three of our boys have so far been really good kids. We haven't had any problems with violence or trouble with the law."

In fact, "most kids do behave reasonably well," says University of Guelph professor Gerald Adams. "The myth of the teenage crisis does not fit the majority." But while just one per cent of poll respondents accept that their children are worse behaved than others their age, Adams says numerous studies dating back to the '60s suggest that fewer than 20 per cent of teens are truly troubled.

At the same time, the angst and guilt that consumed parents in the '70s, when the first generation of mothers entered the workforce en masse, seems to have dissipated. Never mind that 63 per cent of the poll respondents lived in dual-earner families. A stunning 96 per cent believe their children are "happy and well-balanced." The poll also reveals that parental roles are changing to reflect the new norm of two working parents, with mothers and fathers claiming equal responsibility for discipline.

Canadians, renowned as peacekeepers in global war zones, play a similar role on the home front. While a significant minority take a hard line toward offspring in their turbulent teens, most parents prefer a more moderate, even liberal, approach. In parenting, as in politics, Quebecers appear to be distinct from the rest of Canada - more laissez-faire in many respects and certainly more relaxed about teen sex. "There are two absolutely distinctive parenting styles in this country," notes Allan Gregg, chairman of The Strategic Counsel, which conducted the poll. "There are huge differences in Quebec parents' tolerance of diversity, smoking and sex outside of marriage - even in their own homes. The hedonism you see in that culture really does seep into parenting."

But no matter where they live, Canadians appear to agree on the joys of parenting. An overwhelming majority of respondents - 97 per cent - says raising children is a "satisfying" experience. In fact, a strong sense of self-satisfaction emerges from the poll results. "Despite the frustrations and concerns we read about in the popular press," says Gregg, "Canadians are happy as parents. They recognize there are problems, but they're not hysterical."

Well, maybe not hysterical. But parents in every province are certainly concerned about their children's schooling. Fully 39 per cent put education at the top of their list of "important issues facing Canadian parents" - far ahead of the next greatest concern, health and health care, at 12 per cent. Down the list are such supposedly hot-button issues as child care, drugs, child safety and balancing work and family - all hovering around seven per cent. Violence, the environment and two working parents barely make it onto the parental radar screen.

In follow-up interviews with Maclean's, parents offered a litany of complaints about public school systems across the country - from large classes to poor discipline and a dearth of programs for students with special needs. In parents' minds, cutbacks to education - at every level - pose a real threat to their children's ability to survive in a competitive marketplace. "If our children aren't educated, what is their future?" asks Ervin. She says one of her sons had to wait a year for a psychological test to diagnose a learning disability. "If I could have gotten him help in school sooner, maybe he would have done better," she says. "It's very frustrating as a parent."

Some parents complain that they are forced to pick up the slack as teachers scramble to keep up with large classes and changes in the curriculum. "Teachers can't cover all the material in the classroom," says Debbie Kurcz of Windsor, Ont., whose children are in Grades 10, 7 and 4. "They are under a lot of pressure. It's, 'OK, here's your multiplication tables, do this at home.' I find I'm doing the teaching."

Education has clearly touched a nerve. But many working parents feel torn in the daily struggle to build a family life while holding down a full-time job. Archie Butt of Reidville, Nfld., is among the two-thirds of respondents who say that - if money were no object - they would stay at home with their children. "If the opportunity had come up, if we could financially, I would have done it," says the self-employed businessman who would like to have more time to spend with his 18-year-old son. "My wife tried to take a year off, but we found it difficult financially," he says. "In order to survive right now, you have to have two incomes. Obviously, your home life's got to suffer."

Responses such as Butt's are reflected in The 2001 National Work-Life Conflict Study, recently released by Health Canada. The survey of 31,570 male and female workers - in health and education as well as in the private and public sectors - shows that the time crunch has increased significantly over the past 10 years as Canadians put in longer hours on the job. By any measure, parents are stressed. Nearly 59 per cent reported high levels of overload, compared to 47 per cent a decade earlier, with women much more likely than men to say they were dealing with more than they could handle. The study - authored by two business professors, Linda Duxbury at Ottawa's Carleton University and Chris Higgins at the University of Western Ontario in London - also revealed a noticeable decline in life satisfaction and mental health.

Still, Duxbury suspects that many working parents are being less than candid in saying they'd rather stay home with the kids. "I'd say that's a politically correct response," she says. "If parents felt that strongly, they would do it. We now have pretty good maternity policy and we find people don't even take the year. They go back early." Duxbury, a working mother, acknowledges the financial and career penalties on those who take advantage of parental leave. But she's convinced parents are underplaying the satisfaction they derive from their careers. Quebec parents, more likely to choose work over staying home, may be more honest, she believes.

As for the 63 per cent of men in the Maclean's/Today's Parent poll who said they would prefer to stay home, well, Duxbury is even more dismissive. "Most men don't even take advantage of parental leave - they take vacation when their kids are born," she notes. The problem, argues Duxbury, is that society has yet to adjust to the reality of dual-income families. "Parents are in a lose/lose situation," she says. "You can be a horrible parent or a horrible employee."

But many Canadians do manage the daily balancing act that is modern parenting. "It's one of those things you expect to do," says Windsor's Kurcz. "I knew when my first one was born that I was going to go back to work. I like my job." As a full-time nurse, Kurcz had the flexibility to schedule her shifts around her husband's regular business hours, limiting the hours her children spent with a babysitter. Kurcz even believes that she - and her children - benefit from her time away from home. "I know from maternity leave, staying home, you are a different personality. When you work, you're more organized and the children appreciate you more when you're not there all the time."

Still, parents are devoting more of each day to their children. A study by University of Waterloo professor Jiri Zuzanek, finds that between 1986 and 1998, employed parents increased the time they spent with their children by 50 per cent - from 51 to 76 minutes per day - mostly at the expense of their personal needs. "We tend to think of parenting being compromised with both partners working," says Daly. "But in many cases, it's the parents' relationship and leisure time that gets lost in the rush." More parents are stretching the family budget to pay for cleaning services and restaurant meals, so they can focus on their children. In the "time triage" of dual-earner families, says Daly, "kids are the first order - they get the attention - family activities are orchestrated around their needs."

Magali Chouinard, a mother of three school-aged children, blames her separation from her common-law husband at least partly on the fact that they had so little time alone together. "When both parents are working, it's hard on the couple," she says. "We had maybe two weekends a year." Despite the breakup, the Montreal teacher says she and her ex-partner, continue to put their children's interests ahead of their own. "They are the centre of our lives," she says. In addition to sharing custody, they frequently take the children on joint outings.

AS FOR THE TRICKY matter of discipline, the traditional "wait until your father gets home" approach is pretty much a relic of the past. Seventy-two per cent of poll respondents say they share the responsibility for disciplining their children equally with their partner. "In the '50s, father was the disciplinarian," says Mirabelli. "Mother said, 'This is what Johnny did today,' and then the belt came out at night." Now discipline is more likely to come from the parent on the scene or the one - mother or father - more suited for the role.

Another fading practice: spanking. While 49 per cent of respondents (although just 29 per cent in Quebec) say parents have the right to spank their children, only six per cent of parents with children aged two to five say they do it at least once a week; fewer for parents with older kids. Chouinard and her spouse applied the punishment only once or twice when her first daughter misbehaved as a toddler. "We didn't feel good about it," she says. "It wasn't constructive, we did it out of anger." Instead, they now impose time-outs and encourage their children to stop and try to understand why their behaviour is unacceptable.

The vast majority of poll respondents use reminding and reasoning to keep their children in line, along with an arsenal of techniques like counting or rewarding good behaviour. "There used to be a parenting school that said these are the devils that must be tamed," says the Vanier Institute's Mirabelli. "The current school says these are social beings with hearts, souls and minds - all of which have to be engaged." With teens, parents rely most primarily on reasoning. A recipe for disaster? Not so, says University of Saskatchewan psychologist Margaret McKim, who says it's "consistent with good parenting practices." Maxine Holmes, a Cornwall, P.E.I., nurse, sees no need for rules or curfews for her teenage son and daughter. "It's understood," she says. "I expect good marks. They don't have anything else to do in the house, not a whole lot of chores. They take that responsibility themselves."

Remarkably, few parents say that discipline causes much stress, although he numbers grow as the children age. Only eight per cent of respondents with preschoolers admit to finding the task difficult. One explanation could be that parents simply aren't doing all the disciplining they should. Kurcz feels many parents are simply too lax. "I've seen five-year-olds who basically run the house. They come in and say, 'I'm not going to let you put a Band-Aid on me,' or 'I'm not going to take my medicine.' But the parent won't step in and give the kid the medicine. We end up showing them that they have to just give it to them whether they like it or not."

Twice as many parents with teens - 15 per cent - seem to be sweating out those years. "It's hard," says Elizabeth Lof of Wellandport, Ont., a mother of two adolescents. "They're no better or no worse than other teenagers. But you have to sit on them all the time - in a loving way." For Lof, who admits she is strict, the difficulty is that other parents impose few restrictions on their teenagers. "My son thinks it is ridiculous that he has to be home by 11," she says, "because so-and-so's son can come home at 1 a.m. It makes it tough when some parents don't care."

THEN THERE'S the sex-and-teens combo. Here's an issue poll respondents are struggling with, even though - or perhaps because - they came of age after the parental nightmare known as the sexual revolution. At a time when increasing numbers of children are experiencing puberty as early as 10, nearly three-quarters of parents put the appropriate age for going steady at 16 or older - if at all. Less than four per cent think sexual relations are appropriate before 16. But, while one in three parents strictly oppose premarital sex, parental acceptance - for kids in general, not necessarily their own - reaches 60 per cent by the time the child is 19.

And what if teens want to sleep with their sexual partners at home? The answer is a loud and clear no from 78 per cent of parents. Among the 20 per cent who would allow overnight guests, some may simply be resigned to the inevitable. As Ervin explains it: "Some of our friends say, 'We don't really agree with what they are doing, but they are under our roof so at least we know where they are.' And I go, 'Yeah, I kind of see that,' but I don't know if I would be able to do that."

Ervin, 37, says she is "very grateful" her 18-year-old son has not been involved in any serious romantic relationships. She is adamant that teens should wait until at least 18 to go steady. "With raging hormones, one thing can lead to another," she says. "They don't have enough life experience to be really smart about the things that could happen." Not to mention the emotional roller coaster of really caring about someone - and the possibility of "getting your heart broken." Ervin speaks from experience. She first went steady when she was 15, an age she now believes is "absolutely" too young. "I learned from it," she admits. "But if I could go back, would I do it over again? No. My boyfriend was older than I was. I skipped out of school. 'Oh, I'm in love - this is it.' You think it's the end of the world and you're just not old enough to deal with that kind of stuff."

In Quebec's more tolerant atmosphere, however, 36 per cent of respondents consider sexual relations appropriate by 16 - an attitude shared by only seven per cent in other parts of Canada. "I can't decide the best time for my children to fall in love," says Chouinard, who first went steady at 15. "It depends on the person and if they feel they are ready." She believes 12 is really too young for a sexual relationship, although she remembers "kissing and caressing" with a boyfriend at that age. "It wasn't too young," she says. "It was an exploration. I learned what I liked and what I didn't like about boys."

Instead of setting rules, Chouinard believes parents should focus on helping their children build self-esteem. "The work we have to do as parents is to let them know they have the right to say I'm not ready," she says. "Then they will decide what to do."

WHAT DETERMINES whether a child turns into a lawbreaker or a well-balanced adult? Nearly half of the parents in the Maclean's/Today's Parent poll assume they are the major influence in their child's life. Fewer than one in three believe their child's inborn personality and temperament is the prime factor in their development. And only 16 per cent attribute that importance to the child's friends. Other possibilities - daycare, babysitters, school, faith, TV and movies - barely register.

In fact, academics are still debating the relative influence of parenting styles, genetics and peers in determining a child's behaviour. "The research evidence on the causal connection between parenting and kids' development is not as strong as one may think," says Guelph professor Adams. A child's inborn temperament may override the best - and worst - of parenting. "This is what I say to many a parent who comes to me crying about their kids," he says. "You can't take more credit for your kids' positive outcomes than you can for their negative outcomes." Nor are friends as powerful as many believe. "Peers have an influence, but there is clear evidence that kids who are alike seek each other out. If you have a kid whose friend smokes grass, chances are your kid smokes grass, or wanted to, before selecting that friend."

Adams thinks the Quebec respondents, who tend to give more credit to ingrained personality, may be closer to the truth. "They may have more respect for the nature of human beings," he says. "Or, maybe they are more fatalistic." But it would be a mistake to assume that families do not make a difference, he adds. "Parents have an indirect effect through the environment we create for kids at home, at school, in the encouragement and opportunities we provide," says Adams. Yes, parents, peers and others have some influence - but the rest is up to the kids.

OPENING THE CLOSET DOOR

One sign of the times from the Maclean's/ Today's Parent poll: a notable tolerance among Canadian parents for gay and lesbian teens. Asked how they would react "if, at some point in the future, your child had a sexual relationship with a member of the same sex," nearly half the respondents said they would find it acceptable. At the other side of the spectrum, one-third consider such a relationship "very unacceptable." Diane Kelly, an activist with the Winnipeg chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, finds the positive response surprising and encouraging. Kelly recalls her reaction when she learned five years ago that her son was gay. "All I could think about were the people out there who were going to hate him," she says. "I was worried about a hard life for him, but now I'm not so much. It's really changing."

Percentage saying it would be acceptable for their child at some time to have a sexual relationship with a member of the same sex:

Quebec - 57%

Rest of Canada - 44%

Parents' Top Five Worry List

Percentage citing as the most important issue facing Canadian parents:

Education - 39%

Health/health care - 12%

Safety - 8%

Drugs - 7%

Making time for kids - 7%

It Doesn't Get Easier

Percentage saying disciplining their children is a major source of stress:

Aged 2 to 5 - 8

Aged 6 to 12 - 13

Aged 13 to 18 - 15

Sex and the Single Teenager

Q: What's the appropriate age for teens to have sex outside marriage? (%)

Age Quebec Rest of Canada

15% 5% <1%

16% 30% 5%

17% 18% 5%

18% 25% 28%

19% 5% 14%

Never 11% 41%

Q: Should your teens be allowed to spend the night together in your home with their sex partner? (%)

Quebec Rest of Canada

Acceptable 41% 13%

Unacceptable 54% 86%

Family Matters

Percentage agreeing that:

Overall, my kids are happy and well-balanced - 96%

There are a lot more dangers out there for kids than when I was young - 81%

I have a much better relationship with my kids than my parents did with me - 70%

My kids spend too much time watching TV, using the computer or playing video games - 61%

My kids eat too much junk food - 53%

Parents have the right to spank their child - 49%

My kids don't get enough exercise - 40%

Calling All Parents

The Maclean's/Today's Parent poll is based on telephone interviews with 800 parents (512 mothers, 288 fathers) of children aged two to 18, conducted across Canada by The Strategic Counsel between May 28 and June 3. For the overall sample, responses are accurate to within 3.5 percentage points 19 times out of 20. The margin of error widens for data based on an age group, province or any other smaller sample.

Maclean's September 30, 2002