Just to be clear, none of these mothers wanted to do whatever unpleasantness their parents had done with them (whether it was hitting, yelling, making children wear out-of-style second-hand clothes, or anything like that), but they were legitimately trying to understand why these unwanted acts were suddenly so damaging.
As you might have guessed, there was never a real answer. Mostly hemming and hawing about a "different environment" and "things have changed" (oh, those ambiguous undefinable "things"!) and "it's a different generation."
All true, but not terribly satisfying because Jews kept immigrating into different environments throughout history and also, harmful movements within Jewry (particularly Easter Europe) kept rearing their ugly heads (like haskalah, Reform, Communism, etc) and snatching Jewish souls.
(And I don't blame the chinuch people, up to their ears in the problems of this generation, for trying their best to answer questions they didn't really know how to answer.)
Anyway, I wondered the exact same things and for the exact same reasons: I didn't want to do XYZ, but why indeed were common trials for children suddenly the reason for them to go flying off the derech?
Why was davka my generation of mothers being racked up to such a high standard?
And it wasn't just in parenting either. A woman's role suddenly expanded to include many more roles and expectations. Conducting proper shalom bayit and maintaining good mental and physical health also became fraught with challenges and contradictory advice.
And the constant refrain: "But our grandmothers didn't (work outside the home, exercise, eat spelt, fill-in-the-blank) and they were fine. So why do we need to ____?
Yet at the same time we were being told to somersault through all these hoops, nothing seemed to work (or only worked temporarily).
And so we heard our Sages quoted regarding the times of Mashiach: Chutzpah will increase, shalom bayis problems will increase, finances will go nuts, and so on.
That just makes Hashem sound capricious.
WHY do we have all these problems?
Is God just a big meanie? No, that can't be.
But while I can't know the deep kabbalistic reasons for everything that has changed, what I have discovered is that roughing things up forces you to burst out of your bubble of complacency and get your act together.
In other words, God wants us to get rid of all the garbage mucked all over our luminous souls to fulfill our true potential.
Disaster Drives You to Dig Deeper
Yes, at one point you could parent your children according to your own whims and moods as long as you covered the minimum bases set by your society.
But is that good for the parents?
When there are no consequences to your lack of self-awareness and lack of introspection, then you tend to keep drifting along in whatever direction your ego or mindset takes you.
What chinuch problems do is they force you out of your complacency and stretch your mind to find other (and hopefully better) ways of relating to your children and raising them to be the best they can be.
And it's the same thing with shalom bayit.
When you or your spouse feel like divorce is on the horizon, it forces one or both of you to take a good hard look at what's really going on. You need to dig deeper. If divorce is really the best option, then take it. But sometimes it's not. It depends. There are people who turned to Hashem for even very serious shalom bayit problems, saying thank you and investing in long discussions and soul-searching with Hashem, people who eventually either found themselves getting divorced without suffering the usual grueling process involved in divorcing an abusive person, or they stayed married and the marriage became a happy one.
Health problems perform the same function. I've lost track of the number of people who suffered intolerable side effects (or lack of effectiveness) from conventional treatments, and who thus turned to herbs, better eating habits, exercise, and prayer as a more effective way of treating their illness.
This includes mental illness too. There are people who started digging deeper and got themselves off of medication (including for serious diagnosis that psychiatrists insist need life-long medication, like bipolar and schizophrenia). They looked at what the roots of their illness really were and made lifestyle and behavioral adjustments accordingly. They then passed on their newfound knowledge to others in order to help fellow sufferers.
Note: The process involved in overcoming a mental or physical illness, or in dealing with a severely dysfunctional marriage or really problematic children or any other grueling challenge is not simple or short. The above summaries should not be taken flippantly. The process is a lot of work. And sometimes, no matter what we do, we still don't get the desired result in the end because there are hidden metaphysical reasons why the desired result never arrives.
The True Story of the Man who Lost Everything
In Rav Yehudah Hachassid's phenomenal compilation from the late 1100s, Sefer Chassidim, there's the true story of a formerly wealthy man who wept to his rebbe about his terrible suffering. Despite having had several children whom he married off and in whom he'd invested his wealth to set them up in their new homes, the formerly wealthy man was left without any progeny at all. His children all died before their time and before having children of their own and all the wealth he'd invested in them was lost too.
The man begged to know why Hashem left him lonely and poor in his old age.
"Did you deal honestly all your life?" asked the Rebbe. "Did you always keep people's trust? Did you ever cheat anyone?"
The man admitted that while he'd never cheated or stolen from a fellow Jew, he did betray the trust of a non-Jew who'd appointed the man to manage the non-Jew's business and committed theft against that non-Jew.
"Indeed," the man mused, "my sorrows began right after his death."
The Rebbe then explained that after this non-Jew died, he complained before the Heavenly Court. Noting that the complaint was justified, the Heavenly Court decreed upon the Jewish man to lose all that he'd acquired in a forbidden manner, and that this was just punishment for his sin.
The Rebbe then reassured the man that he can still do teshuvah. The suffering he was experiencing was atoning for this sin and with teshuvah, the old man certainly had hope for eternal salvation when his time would come to stand before the Heavenly Court.
A very sharp story indeed.
And as horrific as it is to lose all one's children without even being able enjoy the comfort of grandchildren, atoning for sins the Afterlife is even worse. Doing true teshuvah for his sin in This World enables him to see his children again in the Afterlife.
But the point is that without this tribulation, no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn't prevent the profound losses he suffered, he never would've investigated further and never would've discovered that the actions he considered permissible were in fact completely forbidden and looked upon with great severity in Shamayim.
Also, had he done some soul-searching prior to the non-Jew's death (when he could still ask forgiveness and pay him back), he could have averted the entire tragedy. And had he done some soul-searching after the first child died and sought out atonement then, he possibly could've prevented the loss of the other children.
We can't know for sure, but that's the implication.
Problems with no apparent solution, no matter how hard we try, no matter how much we investigate and invest -- this means that there is only one solution: God.
Look, it's difficult.
I have wholeheartedly frum friends from yeshivish homes who, no matter how much they're suffering from one of their children, refuse to make God-connection and self-introspection the center of their efforts. They spend tons of money (which they don't have), endure humiliating situations, undergo enormous aggravation and frustration, hop from medication to medication, run all over the country and even fly out to other countries -- all in search of the solution to the problem.
Because of their own (understandable) issues, they feel they just can't turn to Hashem and start looking for the message in it all or begging Him to remedy things.
To compound the confusion, they also cling to a false feel-good pride in how much effort they're investing in helping their child. This feeling is misleading because they're feeling good about dancing around the solution rather than leaping into the only real solution available.
I understand why they do it because I used to do it too until I crashed and burned really badly. But all the understanding and justification in the world can't change the basic fact: Only Hashem can work the miracles they so desperately seek.
If you have issues with Hashem, like anger or fear or resentment or shame or suspicion or general lack of belief, then that needs to be dealt with according to your personality and level. A lot of people have issues with Hashem; it's quite normal even if it isn't discussed so much.
In that case, you can just start talking to Him about these issues and see where He leads you from there. You can also read Garden of Emuna, which addresses these issues (and a whole lot more) head-on, or you can read the classic mussar books, like Duties of the Heart, Pathways of the Just, Ways of the Righteous, Pele Yoetz, etc.
For works that aren't classic mussar and aren't obvious how-to books, but deliver great sustenance for the soul and powerful practical guidance, feel free to try out Words of Faith by Rav Levi Yitzchak Bender or Rav Ofer Erez's From the Depths.
If you want something bite-sized, then you can try out Rivka Levy's pocket-sized book The How, What, and Why of Talking to God, which contains very helpful guidance and tips, and can be read in half-an-hour.
In this type of thing, you go according to what speaks to you and what works for you on whatever level you're holding on now.
But the main thing is to connect with Hashem emotionally with your heart in a way that is real.
The only way to merit Mashiach is via emuna.
And the only way to develop emuna is to turn to Hashem as the Source of everything, good and bad.
And if we won't turn to Him on our own, then He needs to overcome our resistance and turn us to Him against our will. (Or against the will of our yetzer hara, anyway. Our yetzer tov is quite happy to turn to Hashem.)
But it's all Love.
God wants a deep abiding connection with us because He loves us so much.
Sefer Chassidim: Introduction
Tales of the Heavenly Court, Vol. II (The above story was reprinted here.)
Duties of the Heart/Chovot Levavot
Garden of Emuna
Words of Faith
From the Depths
(Disclaimer: I haven't yet read From the Depths by Rav Ofer Erez, but am in the middle of reading another book of his and I've listened to his classes and read his Torah gems on the English website, and find his material to be startlingly beautiful, powerful, and illuminating. So I feel pretty certain about recommending this book, which is the only one of his that has been translated into English as far as I know.)
The How, What, and Why of Talking to God