Relationship values and modern childhood 1990-2000

At the end of the 1950s 75% of all married women were housewives. (Danish Statistic)

Parents split responsibilities for the home so that mothers spent most of their time on practical housework while fathers spent most of their time at work and therefore away from the home. The division of responsibilities for the home was clear. The father usually took care of the external and extrovert tasks and the mother took care of the home. There were of course differences in how much the individual father participated in the relationship between mother and child(ren) but in general each parent had his/her own activities and needs.

Even though the mothers were at home, they did not always spend a lot of time with their children. Practical housework occupied most of their time. Day-to-day responsibility for the children was entirely the mother’s and many mothers ended up living their lives through their children.

All this meant that there were different opinions as to what constituted a good mother and a good father!

For example, the proportion of advice and information given by the majority of Scandinavian compendia on important aspects of the home, family and housework for housewives in the 1950s included very little about children.

The majority of the pages of the compendia were devoted to giving instructions about hygiene and cleaning, closely followed by many pages about recipes, needlework and repairing clothes.

The same books in the 1990 version have left out more or less all the advice about hygiene and cleaning and the space is filled instead with advice and information about culture, society, psychology, the family and politics.

Where the family is concerned, the advice covers health, nutrition and exercise, sexuality, children’s welfare and social events - mostly by way of hints about seasonal celebrations, parties (duties of host and hostess) and cosy activities for children, friends and family.

From the beginning of the 1960s, women’s lives began to resemble men’s lives as - like today -  they went out to work and spent a lot of time away from the home.




-     “need  to communicate”

(exchange ideas and experiences, conversation,

opportunity for mutual comprehension, security, etc.)


-     “readiness to make and maintain contact”

(confirming the feeling of belonging to the family,

relaxation, reduce conflicts, etc.)


-     “social learning

(problem-solving, forming attitudes,

mediating values, interpretation of information,

school-home-work, etc.)


-     “competence and dominance”

(strengthening roles and role patterns,

practising authority, control functions, sanctions,

demands and reasoning)


Today (1999) in “modern childhood” the significance of both motherhood and fatherhood has become central because both parents are apart from their children during the week while they are at work.

The “shared responsibility” family’s distribution of work and responsibilities in the home and within the family unit has made fathers more visible. In most families both parents go out to work and want to assume both sides of the parental role. Therefore, the characteristics of neither one of the parents is more significant than the other’s.


Most parents’ education is now generally longer and there is an increasing number of mothers who go out to work, an increasing burden of work for mothers and fathers alike and temporal coincidence of starting a family with starting a career.

First-time parents are now on average older (24.3 years in 1970 compared to 26.4 years in 1990 - European average: European Union Statistics).

Within the European Union, the average number of children per family is falling:













Many parents feel pressed for time and they use strategies for buying time in the form of increased consumption of household appliances, more finished and “ready-to-use” goods and “help in the home”-type services. The effect is obvious: more focus on time as the limited resource, increased willingness to buy or invest in time and to make the so-called “ready-to-run products” a natural part of everyday life.

All in all, we can state that families now generally have two adults going out to work, that there is increased pressure to perform well in education and at work, that upbringing and decisions are subject to negotiation (with the active participation of the children) and that children spend a great deal of their time outside the home.

This means that there is less time available for the family, that there is focus on assuring children’s futures, that children now have greater influence within the family, that families use more “ready-to-run” products (including toys) and that there seems to be less time for free play activities.

Parents are generally especially aware of the importance of complementing each other as best they can for the sake of the children. Together or separately, mothers and fathers do a many different things with their children - so-called everyday and family relationships - but their closeness to their children, despite different interests and working habits, is equally intense.

Time, peace and quiet, intimacy, involvement in their children’s situation and constructive pursuits with and in relation to children, regardless of which parent is involved, are pivotal factors. Shared, positive experiences, also with grandparents or close family friends, are also central and very important activities.

Furthermore, many parents as a couple want to present children with an example. They want to be growing, developing people and want to express satisfaction with life. And this applies even though families with children (and especially families with small children) live under difficult circumstances due to the lack of time (and in some cases lack of economic resources), the demands of the employment market, the need to be upsides with the latest information, knowledge and insight and the need, at the same time as all the other needs, to be able to fulfil oneself as an individual and as a person, etc.

And this is true even though parents work long hours and are very busy in their work and in clubs and societies, etc.

Both parents have a common ideal that daily life should run as smoothly as possible while their aims (mentioned above) ought preferably also to be realised. This also means that, when asked what they see as a good father and a good mother, children’s responses are basically the same.

Parents compare their own childhood with that of their children and, for many of them, this is a case of comparing two different kinds of childhood - and two different ways of spending time with one’s children.

This can, of course, give rise to the creation of myths. Myths surrounding the amount of time mothers spent with their children and the degree of intimacy they had with them (and, by way of contrast, the absence of fathers) in the 1950s and 1960s mean that many of today’s parents complain they don’t have enough of time and intimacy with their children and feel guilty about this.

How much time yesterday’s parents really spent on taking care of their children is in fact open to question.


The fact that both parents go out to work means that there is an automatically increased need for child day care institutions and “controlled childminding”. In Denmark, this is fortunately high quality!

However, there is also an increased need for intellectual learning - securing children’s futures. This increases pressure on child care institutions and schools to bring children up and educate them and they are not geared for this. Consequentially, during the 1990s, an increased demand for home education has materialised.

The effects have been multiple:

  • Strong intellectualisation of free timeactivities,
  • Increased and more intensive use of professional pastimes ranging from music and art to sport, riding, etc. and
  • Strong pressure on the schoolsystem to use personal computers in teaching with
  • Consequent reduction in the amount of timespent on play activities.

These developments have brought about changes in ideals and views concerning children’s upbringing. Spending time together has become negotiable and children have more influence on all household investments and purchases and their position in the “power structure” of the family unit has changed.

There are, therefore, significant differences in the amount of time parents now have available and the way in which they spend this time with their children compared to their parents (and grandparents). And we see the pattern repeating itself where the content of play is concerned. In today’s children’s grandparents’ day - and in the days of the previous generations and partly too in today’s children’s parents’ childhood - experiences, field and direction of play were concentrated in four spheres:

1. Home and immediate surroundings

The children listened to what the adults talked about and what they did around the home and in their immediate surroundings - imitated them in play, most often in a way the adults recognised as “real life” in the children’s play.

2. Family partiesand gatherings

Children participated with their parents in family parties and festive gatherings. This gave rise to alternative possibilities for play and the addition of new play variations - “handed down” by older family members or other children.

3. Changing of the seasons in relation to work

Work and social rituals were connected to and affected by the changing of the seasons and play related to work and traditional games were seasonal too. Special ritual games were played on certain occasions - often with adults.

4. The children’s own play

Children’s free play without adult surveillance/control amounted to handing down traditional games and especially forms of free play with a variety of things and objects which the children could find or obtain by themselves. (To a limited extent, prefabricated toys or play objects).

Today, children’s play is supplemented with the following:

5. Organised and controlled “play”

Activities, play, games and sports which are limited in terms of time, space and resources and which are arranged, organised and controlled in a pedagogical or institutional way by adults and which take place in an organised, institutional sphere, e.g. child day care institution, school, club or society.

6. Electronic games

Electronic games are abstraction games which children almost always play with other children and partly without parental/adult control and which are generally and most frequently subject to children’s own rules for co-operation and mutual exchange of games, ideas and instruction.

6a. Video games - a wide variety of types and qualities

Many parents see video games and electronic games as a threat to something which is in fact immutable, simply because they have no insight into the basis and true nature of these games.

6b. “Watching video films”

This is onlooker play - where the child/spectator plays with what he is watching. Like watching TV, the children act as spectators or audience and are witnesses to the fictional processes of action and imagination which comprise the content or narrative of the film.

This is why it is relevant to differentiate between freedom to play and take part in activities without adult surveillance on the one hand and arranged and disciplined activities subject to adult organisation and control on the other.

The amount of time spent on spheres 1 and 2 has hardly changed. The parents of today play at least as much with their children as the parents of yesterday did  - if not more.

The amount of time spent on play spheres 3 and 4 has been significantly reduced because children’s play connected to parents’ work is less frequent.

Spheres 5 and especially 6b have taken over a huge part of children’s own play possibilities (i.e. where they are free to organise their own play and activities) and this means that the children of today in reality play less than their ancestors - when we regard play in a traditional and historical perspective.

We don’t yet know what the consequences of all this will be for the children’s attitude to life - but there are no good grounds for believing that it is harmful -  although many “childhood romantics” insist that it is!

Spheres 5 and 6 are additions. There are good grounds for the belief that these areas enrich children’s play and children’s lives.



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