Calgary's downturn: a time to teach our children some valuable lessons

Sociologist Caroline McDonald-Harker on how we can use Calgary's economic downturn as a way to bring families together, and teach children some important life skills.

Mount Royal University sociologist says take advantage of the situation

Caroline McDonald-Harker argues tough economic times can help bring families closer together. (Getty Images)

This story was originally published on Feb. 14, 2016

Family Day weekend in Calgary — a time to celebrate families.

Many of us are spending time together, some creating new traditions, others carrying on old ones. Families are taking part in the local activities offered in Calgary, from skating to swimming to attending movies/museums/carnivals.

But this year there is more than just family traditions and activities on the minds of Calgarians.

There is also the economic situation of our city, and what it means for families. Indeed, the current economic downturn means we are at a crossroads not only for Calgary as a city, but also for our individual families.

'Trickle down families'

We have long thrived and prospered in Calgary, but the economic impacts of recent cutbacks, downsizing and layoffs have a social trickle-down effect on families.

Calgarians are currently facing stressors such as job loss, reduced household income, and loss in savings — which place strain on families as a whole. There is less money on hand — less disposable income for family activities like vacations, recreation and outings. Some are even struggling to meet basic family needs like housing, food and clothing. These pressures can lead to family conflict, breakdowns and even domestic violence.

Many families in Calgary are facing stress due to the economic downturn. (CBC)

Even families that are not directly impacted by job loss are concerned about what lies ahead. Many are putting in extra time at work and cutting back on family spending, nervous that tomorrow they may find themselves without a job. 

In light of our city's changing economic reality it is easy to fall prey to a "doom and gloom" outlook. But this need not be the case.

There are ways that families can cope with the stressors brought on by an economic downturn. Parents and children can come out stronger and more resilient than before, learning valuable skills for the future. 

Culture of affluence 

For close to a decade, Calgarian families have functioned in the midst of a booming economy.

For many, it was a time of good jobs, promotions, raises and bonuses. Over the last several years, many families from other provinces moved to Calgary with the belief that it was the ideal — the most lucrative place to work and raise a family.

This city grew comfortable with a materialistic lifestyle — one that they believed they deserved and should aspire to — including every conceivable luxury.

In many cases, parents sold themselves on the idea that all of this was an optimal way to raise a family. They were comfortable spending more and more money, and assuming more and more debt with the promise of enriching their children's future. 

All over Calgary — at Chinook shopping centre, the Calgary Zoo, Calgary Flames hockey games, restaurants on 17th Avenue, and at the Calgary Stampede — kids could be seen dressed in high-end clothing brands, carrying numerous technological devices, asking for and receiving from their parents any advertising-driven item they wanted, and going from one extravagant event/activity/enrichment program to another.

In a city where the economy was on the uptick and family resources were plentiful, this became the norm. 

It's true that not all families have experienced the gains of the oil boom — thousands have always experienced financial struggles. Nonetheless, a culture of affluence arose in our city.

In an increasingly materialistic and consumption-based society, many parents — including Calgarians — whether they have the means or not, feel pressured to provide the "latest and greatest" items and activities for their children with the belief that this is what their children need. Some even measure their effectiveness as parents based on how much they are able to give to their children. 

But is this best way to parent?

Many parents have come to associate affluence with good parenting, according to Caroline McDonald-Harker (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images). (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Programmed to provide

According to an evolutionary psychology perspective, parents today have evolved and are "programmed" to provide as much as they possibly can for their children in order to ensure their survival. In this sense, children's well-being and success depends on parents' continual and abundant investment in their children's lives. 

But parenting is not solely an evolutionary adaptation. Parents are not dupes to genetic forces.

According to a sociological perspective, parenting standards, expectations and behaviours are not inevitable. Rather, they are socially created. 

Parenting changes in response to changing societal factors such a norms, values, politics, laws and economics. It is constantly shifting.

Good parent, bad parent

In the 1960s post-war era, the emphasis was on a "physical proximity" style of parenting.

Parents were expected to be around for their children, with little said on any need for them to be attuned to the psychological, emotional, cognitive, let alone materialistic needs of their children.

Back then, children played outside with little to no supervision and headed home when the streetlights came on. This was the "children should be seen but not heard" style of parenting.

Today, the emphasis is on an "intensive" style of parenting. 

But the truth is, there is no one ideal 'gold standard' of parenting — although parents are often led to believe there is — and hold themselves to today's popular model of "intensive parenting".

Parents are not only expected to be in close proximity to children, but are also expected to expend a tremendous amount of time, energy and money in raising children. When parents succeed at this style of parenting they are viewed as "good parents", when they fail they are seen as "bad parents", by others and even themselves. This is now the "children should be seen, heard, and indulged" style of parenting. 

It is no surprise then that many parents in Calgary have and continue to feel pressured to engage in this style of parenting.

But the truth is, there is no one ideal "gold standard" of parenting — although parents are often led to believe there is — and hold themselves to today's popular model of "intensive parenting".

This has considerable implications for parenting during times of economic downturn.

Calgary guilt

Families in Calgary have been more susceptible to this 'jam-packed' way of living, according to Caroline McDonald-Harker. (@kerrisingh/Twitter)

When prosperous times are followed by periods of sudden, unplanned financial scarcity, like we are experiencing in Calgary, parents may feel guilty because they have to scale back, and no longer have the means to intensively parent.

Parents may blame themselves for being unable to provide their children with the luxuries and opportunities they have become accustomed to. Consequently, they may feel inadequate — having failed the litmus test of what a "good parent" is or ought to be. But they should not.

A consumer lifestyle, fuelled by expectations of intensive parenting, inadvertently encourages children to adopt materialistic values. 

What children need are parents who are present and attentive, who talk and listen to them, and who care and support them.

Our children end up finding satisfaction and happiness in getting more 'stuff', rather than in building relationships, even with the most important people in their lives. 

In fact, research shows that the pressures of consumerism can cause children to feel anxious and depressed. It also encourages self-absorption and less empathy. No parent intends to do this, but it is a real and unfortunate consequence. 

What children need are parents who are present and attentive, who talk and listen to them, and who care and support them.

This type of parenting, often referred to as "attachment parenting", puts at the centre the nurturing of strong parent-child connections.

There is no thing — no new toy, no game or piece of technology, and no item of clothing that can replace supportive relationships and a sense of belonging. We know from attachment theory that securely attached children are confident, cooperative, independent, have high self-esteem and are more resilient under stress.

These are important skills that help children later on in life.

It is important during these tough financial times that Calgary parents re-focus on what really matters — teaching their children the interpersonal skills of working through hard times, supporting one another and being resilient.

So, how to do that...

'Parent fail'

With less in the bank, families may be forced to engage in activities that don't cost money. (pawpaw67, Flickr cc)

Families live in a fast-paced society, often focused on what they are going to do next rather than living and enjoying the here and now.

In fact, families in Calgary have been more susceptible to this "jam-packed" way of living.

With so much 'happening' in Calgary during the boom years, many families have not only become lured into a busy lifestyle of "doing", rather than just "being", but have had the means and opportunities to actually do so. Parents running kids from one after-school activity to another — from piano classes, to swimming lessons, to hockey practice. 

During times of financial hardship, activities may be limited, and parents may in turn feel they are "failing" their children. They may believe their children are going to be dissatisfied, bored, or fall behind — limiting their future success. But this is not the case.

What children need is not quantity of activities, but rather quality time spent with parents. Parents who take the time to really focus on being with their children, help children feel secure, cared for and bonded. 

Symbolic interactionist theory emphasizes that families reinforce and rejuvenate family bonds through shared practices such as family meals, family talks, etc. The more family members are bonded from spending time together, the more they feel integrated not only in their families, but also in wider society. 

When families cut back on their busy lifestyles they may struggle — not knowing how to spend time together in real and meaningful ways.

But less cash can actually create more ways for family members to find innovative ways to spend time together. Rather than a restaurant, there is the kitchen table. The family living room can become the movie theatre. Board games replace expensive activities. But more importantly, family members can just talk.

When families are experiencing the ups and downs of financial instability, as is the case in Calgary, this provides an opportunity for parents to re-prioritize what is important, and to turn these moments into learning experiences.

For example, parents can include their children in making the family budget, reducing expenses and coming up with creative and inexpensive ways to plan activities. This equips children with valuable life skills that they can use later in their own lives, and is something that cannot be learned through paid activities.

Life lessons

Rubber boots from volunteers and firefighters line the stage at the flood commemoration ceremony at Calgary's City Hall. (Neil Herland/CBC)

Life's crossroads, despite the difficulties they present, create opportunities for change.

The choices we make can either help us grow and improve, or stifle and knock us down.

The life lessons we learn during these times of hardship are ten times more abundant than during times of prosperity. They are rarely easy, but always valuable. 

Will Calgarian families overcome this economic downturn? Yes. Of that I am confident. 

Let us remember how we weathered and overcame the 2013 floods in our city.

Many families watched every worldly good they owned float down the Bow River.

They lost many of the material distractions of everyday life — flatscreen TVs, smartphones, laptops, gaming consoles, clothes, you name it. But what we gained as a city was a stronger sense of community. Family, friends and neighbours coming together, uniting in support of each other. 

Likewise, let us embrace 2016 as a year where we, the Calgary family, refocus on what matters and re-prioritize what is important.

We will gain as a city, and as families.

CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.


Caroline McDonald-Harker is a Sociologist and Professor in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at Mount Royal University. As a family expert, she is currently conducting a 3-year study on the impact of the 2013 Alberta flood on families. She is the author of the book “Mothering In Marginalized Contexts: Narratives of Women Who Mother In and Through Domestic Violence”.


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