The relationship between the ‘good’ parent and parent fatigue

| June 26, 2013

Modern parents are expected not only to participate in their children’s lives, but to perform. Dr Kym Macfarlane, senior lecturer of Child and Family Studies at Griffith University, argues that we should make time to play and relax.

In 2009, journalist Steve Cannane wrote a book called First Tests. This book was largely about Australian cricket, and while it goes some way to explaining our current woes in this area, it also focused on a very important point. Cannane highlights the fact that in Australia we do not spend enough time playing. Cannane writes that the lack of focus on playing in the backyard has had an impact on how our sporting heroes are performing at elite level. This notion of lack of play in the backyard is also having some other real effects on families at a more general level. It is indirectly contributing to parent fatigue.

To some of you this may seem a bit of a stretch, however there is a real link to this idea of lack of play and parent fatigue. The problem is that parents are currently getting a ‘bad rap’. They are expected to organise and manage their children’s lives, and while that may seem reasonable at some levels, it becomes highly problematic when parents are expected to organise and participate in multiple ways. Parents are not only expected to participate – they are expected to perform.

Take parent Patricia Bennett for example. When interviewed by Anna Patty of the Herald, Patricia stated that she “juggles her job with Thursday soccer training, Friday netball and Monday afternoon acrobatics and dancing”. Tuesday is the only day she is at home. Her children are very stressed on this day, as she needs to encourage them to complete their homework in whatever short spaces of time they have available. Bennett stated that she admired a friend who did not push her young child to complete homework but that she feared that her children would “fall behind” if she tried this.

Why do parents organise their children’s lives in this way? Because they are under constant pressure to assist their child to succeed. According to numerous governments and also a plethora of research, successful children become successful citizens. They grow up to complete twelve years of schooling and then work hard (Gillard, 2007) and pay taxes that ensure Australia’s economic productivity. To ensure that this is so, parents must work to pay for their children’s education and multiple extra curricular activities that contribute to this ‘success’. If they cannot work, parents are then expected to be substitute teachers, help with reading and in the classroom, work to raise funds for the school, supervise homework and, in their spare time, help in the tuckshop, on camps, on excursions and on the P&C. Parents go to extreme lengths to organise their lives to ensure their children’s success. They do this because it is ‘the right thing to do’.

The issue is that these extremes are having real health effects. These health effects have been highlighted in research by Hall (2007), who has studied the relationship between the diminishing backyard, the lack of time spent in the backyard and the health risks associated with these factors. Such effects are not only impacting on groups of parents but our nation as a whole, and yet the drive to give their children the best opportunities to compete is still incredibly strong.

The result of this struggle is parents who are extremely fatigued and, like their children, have little time to play and relax. Not to mention parents who do not have sufficient funds or cultural capital to compete at the levels of performance that are currently required. As a society, we bemoan the loss of the good old days where children played in the streets and when we had time to be together as a family. It is no wonder there is such a focus on electronic devices for relaxation in this day and age. They require little energy and engagement. Most parents and children are too tired for anything else.