The anxious modern culture of parenting goes global

A new book shows how the messed-up outlook around raising children that turned 'parent' into a verb is spreading beyond its Anglo-American roots.

Sally Millard

Topics Books

Barely a day goes by without some aspect of parenting hitting the news headlines. And with the headlines comes advice, reams of it, often backed up by what appears to be scientific evidence – which usually contradicts the ‘evidence’ of the previous week’s headlines. Parenting in Global Perspective draws on sociological and anthropological insights to examine how the public discussion and promotion of ‘expert-led’ parenting practice impacts upon the private world of the family and how parents, particularly mothers, respond to this.

Bringing up children is no longer something that mothers and fathers just do, as the editors write; it has become ‘parenting’, a culturally and historically specific activity ‘that is increasingly taken to require a specific skill-set; a certain level of expertise about children and their care’, and which is cast as ’an explanation for and solution to social problems’.

Drawing upon Frank Furedi’s insight that parents are presented as simultaneously all-important and incompetent, the editors argue that in this circumstance it is no longer possible just to ‘be a parent’. When the choices you make about how and what to feed your children, how to talk to them and whether you allow them to watch television are seen as so significant for your child’s future and that of society, it becomes necessary to justify them, to yourself and others. These choices become self-conscious, rather than something that you just ‘do’.

The editors use the concept of ‘identity-work’ to express this process, arguing that the reaction of parents to parenting culture is more than just the adoption of a self-identity as a means of self-expression, but is an active process that has an ‘inherently social nature’. Parents do not simply take on board the advice that is given to them in an unquestioning way, and as this volume shows, their resistance is as important as their compliance in helping us to understand the dynamics of parenting culture as a political and social phenomena.

That parents are not simply passive recipients of expert messages is shown by Tracey Jensen’s analysis of how British middle-class viewers respond to the TV programme Supernanny. These parents saw themselves as different to the ‘real’ Supernanny audience, and refused to be ‘taken in’ by the reality TV format or the advice given by ‘supernanny’ Jo Frost – but in doing so, they drew on other sources of expertise, from books, magazines or other television programmes, to differentiate themselves and present their own version of parenting.

Jensen notes that there were moments in her research which suggested ‘an embryonic kernel of criticism levelled at parenting culture more widely’ as viewers expressed dissatisfaction with the everyday experiences of parenting and, in particular, the feeling of being surveilled; but this sense of dissatisfaction ‘seemed simply to heighten the sense of the inescapability of parenting culture’. As one of her interviewees said: ‘I suppose throughout the years, people have always looked on and disapproved or whatever, but you knew you were just going to be left to get on with it, but now it’s like, ooh you should be doing this and you’re doing that, and complete strangers have got an opinion’.

Parents’ use of one source of expertise to challenge another, or to promote their own choices, is a very strong theme in the volume and comes through particularly clearly where mothers have made choices that could perhaps be considered more ‘extreme’. For example, Catherine de Graeve and Chia Longman show how mothers living in Belgium, who have adopted Ethiopian children, invoke intensive mothering to justify the transfer of poor African children to affluent families in OECD countries. In particular, the construction of adopted children as highly susceptible to identity crises and psychological dysfunction has resulted in adoptive parents being encouraged to become ‘semi-professional parents’ in order to anticipate these problems. This in turn has led many such parents to take what would seem to be rather extreme measures, such as putting themselves and their children ‘in quarantine’ in order that the child can form a bond with a single parent as advocated in attachment parenting ideologies, or taking the decision to breastfeed their adopted children.

The use of sources of expertise to vindicate parenting decisions is also explored by Charlotte Faircloth’s comparison of the experience of mothers who choose ‘full-term’ breastfeeding and attachment parenting in Paris and London. Faircloth’s research found that both French and English parents who breastfeed their children beyond the age of one and up to the age of eight saw themselves as ‘beacons’ who were ‘spreading the light’ about attachment parenting, but doing so in different cultural contexts. Whereas in the UK breastfeeding is promoted by healthcare professionals and culturally validated as the ‘natural’ and right thing to do, in France, breastfeeding is not straightforwardly promoted. The result is that French parents who adopt this practice have a commitment to the cause that is stronger than in the UK, which Faircloth argues is perhaps ‘as a result of their exacerbated non-conventionality’.

Becoming a ‘beacon’, or moral advocate for a particular parenting behaviour will, of course, have consequences for those around you. One consequence that comes through many of the contributions to this volume is the disruption that parenting culture creates for family life. The impact of parenting policy on families is discussed more generally elsewhere in terms of direct forms of intervention, such as that of social workers or health workers whose job it is to directly monitor and ‘support’ families. The strength of the research in this volume is that it gives us an insight into the impact that policy in its less direct, cultural manifestation has on family and other informal relationships.

Hinton, Laverty and Robinson’s research into the negotiations involved in adopting a healthy lifestyle finds that ‘parents seldom care for children as completely autonomous agents’. For example, parents might have a limited capacity to shape their child’s home environment if other adults are involved in the care of their children. Hinton et al look at this in relation to smoking and drinking, and note that children themselves are also active agents who know what ‘good’ parents should do as a result of the messages that come from cultural and political institutions such as government, the media and education. The authors of the study are ambivalent about the role that state agencies should play in getting children to police their parents’ behaviour, but their research is a telling story of how campaigns that promote behaviours that used to be considered private and of little interest outside the family can now act to disrupt family life and undermine parental authority.

What is very clear from this research, and other research in this volume, is the anxiety and sense of failure experienced by mothers when the expert advice that they might want to put into practice becomes difficult to implement in their own family circumstances. One way to try and avoid some of the conflict and anxiety is to decide that having a partner who might disagree with your parenting choices is more trouble than it is worth, and hence the category of parent ‘single mothers by choice’ is born. There is a fascinating account of one such mother in this volume, which speaks to the extent to which ‘good’ parenting practice has become individualised. The logic of intensive parenting culture is that it is easier to ‘parent’ according to the rules if there is no other adult getting in the way: in a bizarre twist, parenting becomes conceived of as incompatible with family life.

There are a number of other chapters in this volume well worth reading, absorbing and discussing. For example, Rosalind Edwards and Val Gillies’ comparison of parenting responsibilities in the 1960s and 2010s gives a fascinating insight into the way that conceptions of children’s needs and capacities have changed. Livia Jiménez Sedano’s research is an interesting exploration of the way Dominican mothers living in Spain use the narrative of their cultural difference to challenge ‘Spanish’ intensive parenting.

Taken together, by examining the impact of intensive parenting culture on particular families and communities, this volume exposes the price of intensive parenting culture, with its scrutiny of our decisions, constant requirement for justification, and the anxiety it brings to mothers and fathers. By putting parenting culture in a global perspective, the book shows that the phenomenon of intensive parenting is not confined to the US and the UK, but is becoming a more significant cultural force worldwide. For those of us who want to understand more fully the impact of parenting culture and challenge this way of thinking about how we bring up our children, this is perhaps a sobering thought, but one that certainly needs to be engaged with.

Sally Millard is a founder member of the Institute of Ideas Parents Forum and is producing the session ‘Can you be a perfect parent?’ at this year’s Battle of Ideas festival..

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