Monitoring mums and dads
A New York mum travelled thousands of miles to attend a conference in Kent, England, on today’s culture of ‘intensive parenting’. It was worth it, she reports.
Most parents, myself included, have become accustomed to living with a subtle sense of unease. It’s there in the playground and at the schoolyard gate. It permeates the atmosphere of children’s parties and sporting events, the doctor’s office, the supermarket checkout. It is a sense of watching and being watched; most of all, it is a feeling of being judged that seeps into every area of our lives, undermining confidence and transforming parenthood from a straightforward part of life into an angst-ridden ordeal.
I know this because I serve on the advisory board of Park Slope Parents, the second-largest parents’ group in the United States and certainly the most well-known. Day in and day out, I watch parents struggle together to overcome the effects of a parenting culture where one wrong move at the playground, one forgotten snack, risks incurring the wrath of fellow parents, non-parents and even the media. And that is why it was worth travelling thousands of miles to the UK to attend Monitoring Parents: Childrearing in the Age of ‘Intensive Parenting’, an international gathering of social scientists at the University of Kent at Canterbury (1).
If parenting is a big issue in the US, it is possibly even more so in the United Kingdom where seemingly almost any aspect of parenting can be politicised and made the subject of public policy. The conference set out to inject some rigour and objectivity into the discussion. And though the halls of academia seem a long way from the playground, and parents weren’t the intended audience, it would be hard to find anything more timely or relevant, or actually reassuring. The evidence is unequivocal: you aren’t just imagining it - being a parent today is different than in the past.
Academics studying a wide range of topics, from family size and teenage motherhood to infant feeding and literacy, demonstrated how intensive parenting, with its assumptions about the vulnerability of children and imperative for a high degree of parental involvement, is the single most important factor shaping childrearing today. So much so that many delegates I spoke with had not set out to study parenting at all but had shifted their focus as their research made it impossible to ignore this issue.
What is intensive parenting? Ellie Lee, senior lecturer in social policy at the University of Kent and organiser of the conference, explained that parenthood has become ‘highly emotionally demanding, more and more child-centred, reliant on expert guidance and so increasingly medicalised. Parenthood has also become shaped by risk consciousness, in a context where parental actions are frequently deemed potentially risky for children.’ Media historian Susan Douglas discussed how a culture of intensive parenting plays havoc with mothers’ self-esteem, sets mother against mother, and undermines women’s rights. Sociologist Frank Furedi, author of the influential critique Paranoid Parenting, argued that contemporary culture normalises parental incompetence, through its assumption that parents need ever-increasing amounts of advice and ‘support’ in matters of everyday life, while at the same time promoting the notion that parents’ actions determine everything about their child’s life, from cradle to grave.
In practice, this means that parents are under constant scrutiny from other parents, professionals and policymakers. Everything from giving birth to what we feed our children to the risks we do or don’t allow them to take in everyday life is considered a legitimate area for concern and intervention. So, Rebecca Kukla of the University of South Florida gave a critical appraisal of the notion that ‘you are now what your child eats’, to the extent that even a single hotdog-of-convenience apparently risks ruining a child’s palate and ultimately jeopardising their long-term health and mental wellbeing.
Public policy initiatives aimed at ‘supporting’ parents almost never improve things and sometimes make them far worse by denigrating parents’ ability to rise to the occasion. Young fathers surveyed described parenting classes they were compelled to attend as ‘problematic and sometimes embarrassing’. One study of teenage mothers, who have been singled out for ‘intensive support’ by the New Labour government, found that they were strikingly positive, capable and far less in need of official intervention than policymakers believed.
Perhaps the most intriguing discussion of the conference and the most confounding aspect of intensive parenting is that so many people appear to choose to do it. At its most extreme, families adopt parenting lifestyles such as so-called ‘attachment parenting’ that rely on close physical contact between mother and child for an extended period. And though physically and emotionally demanding, parents derive a sense of moral superiority from choosing what they believe is a more natural, yet scientifically enlightened way to raise their children. In fact, such practices are neither natural nor scientific but the logical conclusion of the view that individuals, good or bad, are simply extensions of how well they were ‘parented’.
Most of us don’t set out to go to these extremes but the same basic principles influence everything we do. Canadian academic Stephanie Knaak explained that we don’t so much make decisions as choose within ever-narrowing parameters of what is acceptable. As an example, she pointed to the question of bottle-feeding versus breastfeeding in several editions of Dr Spock’s childcare manual. In early editions of Dr Spock, breastfeeding and formula feeding are both treated as acceptable alternatives that take the needs of the parents into account. In contrast, the most recent edition makes it clear that breastfeeding is the morally superior choice and the needs of mothers are no longer part of the equation. Sure, you can formula feed, but you’d better have a good excuse.
The inescapable conclusion of all of this is that parenting culture today is bad - and bad on many levels. Reducing parents to the passive recipients of expert advice not only squelches parents’ creativity, spontaneity and resourcefulness; it also destroys what intensive parenting purports to celebrate: the rich, complex relationships we have with our children.
What can we do? According to Frank Furedi, many parents do instinctively resist ‘intensive parenting’. They make the ‘wrong’ choice, they lie to professionals about what they do, and some simply tell the truth and face the consequences. But no one can resist intensive parenting all the time without some cultural counterpoint to back them up. The sociologists at this conference, many of them parents themselves, have taken the first steps toward creating this counterpoint by holding up the culture of intensive parenting to critical scrutiny and challenging its underlying assumptions. And for those of us caught up in it? Let this conference serve as validation: don’t believe the hype, trust your instincts, and know that you are a better parent than the ‘experts’ could possibly know.
Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother-of-two based in New York.
(1) Monitoring Parents: Childrearing in the Age of ‘Intensive Parenting’