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Longing for the carefree parenting style of yesterday?

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
updated 3:34 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
  • Moms of all ages agree motherhood has changed over the decades
  • The Internet has given today's moms more info, but also more criticism
  • Many moms lament the loss of autonomy children had in the '60s and '70s
  • Today's parents too often refuse to let their kids fail, many moms say

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She's a mom of two girls and lives in Manhattan. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- When Betty Draper of "Mad Men" lit a cigarette on her son's school bus during a class trip, I cracked up. After all, the prospect of a 2014 mom smoking around her child's classmates is about as likely as teens giving up their smartphones.

Motherhood has changed a lot since I grew up in the 1960s.

Back then, women smoke and drank during pregnancy. (My mom says she even smoked in the hospital after delivering my sisters and me.) Today, expecting women add sushi and lunch meat to their alcohol and smoking bans.

Back then, Dr. Spock was the only guide for child-rearing. Today, there are too many manuals to count and Google is just a click away from parental questions answered.

Back then, we didn't have playdates. "You went out in the yard or you went out in the street and played," my mom told me with a chuckle. Today, my kids have piano, soccer, basketball, gymnastics and hip-hop dance. How do you spell overscheduled?

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In conversations with moms raising children today and moms who had kids in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, they all agreed that motherhood is a whole lot different nowadays. The question is, has it changed for the better or worse?

'Less of that judgment'

Infant Lyz Lenz with her mom and dad in 1982.
Infant Lyz Lenz with her mom and dad in 1982.

Lyz Lenz, a mom of two in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says part of her wishes she was raising children in the early '80s, like her mom.

"I feel like in that pre-Internet era we weren't quite as exposed to other people's pet peeves," said Lenz, who writes a blog in her own name. "There was less of that judgment and less of other people making you insecure. You didn't have to hop on Facebook and see a ton of different people telling you why giving your kid a processed cookie is child abuse."

What's different today, says Joanna Mazewski, a mom of two in Coconut Creek, Florida, is the level of paranoia.

Young Joanna Mazewski with her mom in 1980.
Young Joanna Mazewski with her mom in 1980.

"It seems like mothers these days are definitely more paranoid and uptight about every little detail of their children's lives, much more than they were 30, 40 years ago," said Mazewski, a contributor.

"It just seems that parenthood altogether was much simpler without the education that we have now and the devices ... to be honest with you, I think I prefer the carefree method more than scared-of-everything-we-eat-and-even-our-shadows."

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From Dr. Spock to Tiger Mom

Jeannette Kaplun, another contributor, said the problem is that parents today suffer from "information overload."

Baby Jeannette Kaplun with her mom and dad in 1973.
Baby Jeannette Kaplun with her mom and dad in 1973.

Dr. Spock was "the bible for parents," when she was born in the 1970s, said the Miami mom of two and host of a bilingual blog called Hispana Global.

"Now you have attachment parenting, then you have 'tiger moms,' and people tell you to co-sleep. Others tell you that you are a terrible parent if you co-sleep ... and pediatricians will tell you one thing and then people will search online and they'll find a blog that says completely the opposite and so it's very confusing."

Google can be a friend for today's parents, but it also can be a foe, said Lenz, the mom from Cedar Rapids, who shared a story about how she went online late one night when she wasn't able to calm her crying daughter.

"I'm like, 'Oh no, maybe she has brain trauma or stomach problems,' and then it's like, 'Oh. No. She's just teething.' "

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Ironically, Lenz's mom, Ellen Baranowski, who raised Lyz and her seven siblings starting in the early '80s, thinks the 24/7 access to information is one of the biggest and best parenting differences from when she was a mother.

Janis Brett Elspas with her mom in 1961 at an \
Janis Brett Elspas with her mom in 1961 at an "old fashioned" backyard birthday party.

"I think it's great being able to access the Internet at 2 o'clock in the morning when you are just scared to death," Ellen Baranowski said.

Janis Brett Elspas, a mom of four in Los Angeles and host of the blog Mommy Blog Expert, said technology can be very powerful for parents today -- when it's used properly.

"It's almost like the Life Magazine of this century in that we're totally learning from each other's experiences through the Internet," she said.

Less freedom, more schedules

Another difference between parenting then and now, moms say, is a loss of freedom and independence during childhood.

When Baranowksi and her family moved to a small town in South Dakota from Dallas, she felt comfortable letting her children roam the neighborhood without her.

"My kids then could walk to the swimming pool by themselves, and do things that I had no idea what they were doing," the mom of eight said.

Today, there's none of that.

"My grandkids are getting so scheduled and I understand why," she said. "This is not a complaint on their parenting ... they can't have just unattended moments and it's sad."

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Shannon Bradley-Colleary posed with her mom in 1967.
Shannon Bradley-Colleary posed with her mom in 1967.

Shannon Bradley-Colleary, a mom of two in Los Angeles who grew up in the '60s and '70s, remembers playing outside by herself as a kid.

"A lot of my favorite memories were playing 'war' ... until well after dark with no one even calling to see where I was. So do you think it was neglectful parenting?" the host of the blog The Woman Formerly Known as Beautiful said with a laugh.

She concedes there is a definite tradeoff between safety and independence in today's parenting. In her opinion, the tighter control is better, ultimately.

CNN\'s Kelly Wallace, a mom of two, longs for more of the laissez-faire parenting style of the pre-Internet days.
CNN's Kelly Wallace, a mom of two, longs for more of the laissez-faire parenting style of the pre-Internet days.

"I just think there's a pendulum swing or backlash from those of us raised in the late '60s, early '70s, which was that we were really left to our own devices, and what was great about that, was there was a feeling of autonomy and self-direction," she said. "But there was a much greater risk."

'You're all so concerned with keeping the kids busy'

During my first-ever interview of my mom, Judy Wallace of Long Island, New York, I asked her to compare parenting back in the '60s and '70s, when she raised my sisters and me, with parenting today.

"The biggest difference is that I feel like you're all so concerned with keeping the kids busy, taking them everyplace and having to take up all their time with activities, where in the '60s, that wasn't the case," she said.

"When you were little, you would go out and play with your friends, you kind of entertained yourself more than the parents nowadays, who are constantly trying to entertain the kids."

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But why did we move from the carefree, laissez-faire parenting of the '60s and '70s to the more frenetic helicopter approach of today?

"The reality is now we know more about what happens in the world ... so that obviously increases your perception of the world being much less safe," said Kaplun, the Miami mom of two.

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It's harder to parent today, says Brett Elspas, especially with the influence of media on our children.

"It's very, very hard unless you lead a life in a capsule ... Even if you home school your children, they are going to be exposed to stuff. You can't blind them and cover their ears and lead them through and hope they are going to turn out normally as an adult."

It could be hard, but we might reduce our stress and even have more fun if we take some notes from our own moms.

We need to let our kids chart their own course and make their own mistakes, said Mazewski, the Coconut Creek mom of two.

"I've seen toddlers that are already on vegan diets. It's like, 'You've got to allow them to make their own decisions.'"

A little wisdom from my own mom: "Kids have to learn disappointment, that they can't have everything and they can't do everything and they can't be good at everything."

What do you think are the biggest differences between parenting today and back in the '60s, '70s or '80s? Chime in in the comments below or tell Kelly Wallace on Twitter and CNN Living on Facebook.

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