When life is too full: Social and cultural impact on parenting practices

During a lecture that I was giving to students yesterday I found myself rattling through a list of gross motor and fine motor play experiences that OTs might suggest to parents and how these activities would promote normal sensory motor development.

I started thinking to myself that it was odd that we are socially and culturally in a place where we have to 'teach' some parents about how to promote children's play. The truth is that some parents really do need help to understand how to promote normal development - and in part that is probably because we have new social and cultural practices that separate families from each other and relegate care of children to non-family members.

Some families are able to deftly balance all of the conflicting social role expectations and requirements of jobs, parenting, maintaining family balance, etc. Others struggle mightily. I just did a quick blog search to see if I have ever told the story of the "mom-ager" and I couldn't find it anywhere. I have had a story brewing for nearly ten years about a wonderful and well-intentioned mom who was the family's primary wage-earner and had a high-powered job, but she was so overwhelmed with her work role that she tasked out child care responsibilities at a level that would have impressed the most organized of schedulers. She knew the schedule, down to the minute, of what her 12 month old child was doing and who he was with. She quilted together a tightly organized but ultimately dysfunctional network of care providers and ran the whole operation with an iron fist. The impact on the child was unfortunate: he had developmental delays due in part to his lack of a normal environment and lack of any primary caregiver. There were days where the child would have up to three or four caregivers, and the parents got home so late from work that the child just slept over different people's houses. I always thought that the child did not receive parenting but rather was subject to what I called "mom-agement." I probably never wrote this down because I don't know how to constructively tell the story. It was just sad.

Anyway, a recent study indicates that nearly half of preschoolers do not experience an outdoor play experience that is supervised by parents. This relates rather directly to my statements to the students yesterday and how occupational therapists often have to 'teach' parents about these kinds of activities.

A blogger for the LA Times wrote an article questioning the validity of the study, but in her asking if the study missed the point I think that ironically she may have missed the point. I understand how parents struggle with making the ends of financial and parenting responsibilities meet - and I understand how that might drive parents toward a defensive reaction to the information found in the study. It is true that the study didn't report on how much time children were getting outside play experiences in preschools or at care providers. Maybe they are getting physical play experiences in these environments. But maybe they are not.

Either way, the larger concern is that parents themselves used to be the direct supervisor, organizer, nurturer, etc. of their children for these outdoor play tasks and sometimes that just isn't the case any longer. Some parents, having 'given up' or 'tasked out' those roles no longer 'know' how to do these things with their children. Even if they do 'know' they don't have the ingrained behavioral habits and routines to engage their children these ways. That might be the largest issue - if we accept the premise that habits and routines are socially reinforced via patterns of repeating parenting interactions then it is no wonder that professionals are now having to 'teach' some parents how to do these things.

Occupational therapists also should try to re-frame this issue for stressed parents. Here are the words of the blogger:

I’m guessing I’m not the only working parent who would feel chastised by the study authors for putting my kid in a situation in which he’s unlikely (statistically at least) to get his recommended hour of daily exercise. But the kids who play outside with their parents every day may not be getting a full hour of moderate-to-vigorous exercise either. The study makes no attempt to measure the total minutes of outdoor playtime with parents, only the frequency of these outings. Is 30 minutes of playtime in the sandbox with Dad really worth more (from an exercise standpoint) than 45 minutes of tag with friends at school? I doubt it.

The 'hour of daily exercise' is really not the point because as we see in the example of the "mom-ager" I am sure that the daily requirement could be achieved one way or another. The point is that parenting practices have changed as a result of the stresses associated with our social and cultural practices. What we need to examine is how current demands are changing our children's experiences and impacting their development. Then parents can make choices based on their unique experiences and mitigate any 'problems' that might exist.

These are tough issues. Occupational therapists are in a good position to help parents frame the concerns so that it is not processed as 'guilt' but instead leads to an understanding of how to improve their children's experiences.


JAMA and Archives Journals (2012, April 2). Nearly half of preschoolers lack one parent-supervised playtime per day. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 10, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2012/04/120402162557.htm

Kaplan, K. (2012, April 10). Booster Shots: Oddities, musings and news from the health world. Study on kids' playtime with parents: Does it miss the point? Retrieved April 10, 2012, from http://www.latimes.com/health/boostershots/la-heb-preschool-child-exercise-outdoors-20120403,0,1930263.story?emc=lm&m=678248&l=4&v=2714438


Liz Ditz said…
Having a twitter chat about handwriting issues in older children and I think this non-play is part of it.
Barbara TherExtras said…
Well said, Chris.

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