Raising children is, has been, and almost certainly will remain one of life’s great challenges. (Ask your parents.) Yet new data from the Pew Research Institute show that 62 percent of parents across the board and the nation are finding it even more difficult than they ever imagined.
“Almost half—44 percent—of parents reported that they were trying to parent differently from how they were raised, which may be part of why so many parents also reported that parenting is harder than they expected! It’s harder to parent when you don’t have models or direct experience,” says Johns Hopkins School of Nursing PhD candidate Emily Hoppe.
And their worries for their kids are legion, topped—after years of life under COVID, economic/political uncertainty, and social disparities—by fears that their children’s mental health is at risk. Add in the “enormous influence of social media,” much of it negative, and those worries make sense, says Johns Hopkins School of Nursing Professor Deborah Gross.
Still, Gross and Hoppe, both mental health nurses, were upbeat at the results of the 2022 Pew questionnaire.
Why? The study found that parents of all groups still profoundly love the gig and are going to great lengths to maximize their performance as caregivers and their children’s happiness. After all, parents who want to do better can be offered new tools, strategies, and other assistance—and can make things better for their offspring than they might have experienced themselves as kids. And to Gross and Hoppe, that is the sweet spot for making a meaningful difference.
The catch, as always, is that the playing field is never level. “All parents want the same things for their children, but the roads they need to navigate to get there are very different depending on their incomes, neighborhoods, and access to supports,” says Gross, Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Endowed Professor in Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing and co-founder of the Chicago Parent Program. For example, parents with lower incomes were four times as likely to worry about their children getting shot or abducted and six times as likely to worry about their children getting into trouble with police compared to parents with high incomes.
“All parents see the role as an important part of their identity,” she adds. “But parents with lower incomes are more likely [41 percent vs. 22 percent for parents with high incomes] to say it is the most important part of who they are as a person. And they’re also more likely than upper-income parents to say that it is rewarding all of the time [43 percent vs. 28 percent]—but also that it is stressful most or all of the time [33 percent vs. 22 percent].”
For its report, the Pew Research Center sampled of 3,757 parents nationally with kids under 18, with over-sampling of Black, Hispanic, and Asian parents and weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, education, and political affiliation.
As for what makes raising children seem harder nowadays, Hoppe points to another silver lining: It is far easier to repeat the patterns—good and bad—of one’s own rearing than to change the dynamic altogether once you become a parent. That desire to do it differently is always a welcome sign, explains Hoppe. “This suggests to me that parents who want to do things differently need support and resources, yet experience a lot of judgment, 47 percent of it from their own parents,” whose style they may have turned away from.
Additionally, the latest Pew study offers a lot of great data that researchers like Gross and Hoppe can use to make parenting interventions accessible, scale-able, and sustainable.
As for what nurses need to know from all this? “Nurses, as so many of us are parents ourselves, should go in with the baseline attitude that all parents may need a bit more support,” says Gross.
“Parents are really thinking deeply about their role as parents and how best to prepare their children for adulthood,” adds Hoppe.
And that’s the most hopeful stat of all.
Other study takeaways highlighted by Gross and Hoppe:
Mental health tops the list of parental worries, but there is considerable variability by income level in how much parents worry about different things happening to their children. Parents with lower incomes are much more worried about their children:
—Being shot (40 percent of parents with lower incomes vs. 10 percent of parents with high incomes)
—Being kidnapped or abducted (44 percent of parents with lower incomes vs. 10 percent of parents with high incomes)
—Getting into trouble with the police (26 percent of parents with lower incomes vs. 4 percent of parents with high incomes)
—Their children’s mental health (48 percent of parents with lower incomes versus 32 percent of parents with high incomes)
Yet across all income groups, parents share the same goals for their children: to be honest, ethical, and hard-working as adults, and become financially independent with jobs or careers they enjoy.