Recent arrests of parents for leaving their kids unattended for short periods of time have again thrust parenting practices into the headlines, a rather frequent occurrence. Witness the debates over Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, or Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids, to name just two of the countless missives on parenting, which go back to Dr. Spock and before. Diana Baumrind’s conception of three parenting styles—authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive—is a major touchstone in this genre, and was followed by a slew of other works that attempt to delineate different parenting styles, such as “nurturant.” “Authoritative” seems to be one of the most recommended approaches, as in the recommendation for “authoritative communities” in the 2003 report of the Commission on Children at Risk.
The more popular writing on parenting practices, however, reveals a more contentious reality, and more divergence in actual practices. At the extremes, we have the hyper-parenting “Tiger Mother” style exemplified by Chua, which is blasted by Margaret K. Nelson as “parenting out of control,” but whose more moderate version is charitably called “concerted cultivation” by sociologist Annette Lareau. This “cult of childhood success” entails numerous planned enrichment activities for children and an ongoing use of experts and advice to manage the “business” of raising children and to ensure their future success. Some families put intense pressure on youth to perform well in school, with substantial lifelong effects on educational attainment and income and wealth levels. In this model, kids are often allowed to “negotiate” with their parents over duties or instructions, rather than simply being told what to do.
Another feature of this parenting approach, however, is often overprotectiveness, or the refusal to let kids venture out and explore the world on their own because of fears over their security. New Yorker Skenazy reports many episodes of being pilloried for her perceived neglect, and as a father of three boys, I can attest to a few similar incidents, like the time I was chewed out by a mom in a wealthy suburban Chicago mall for letting my five-year-old confront his fear of an escalator alone while I observed from below.
Skenazy is highly critical of overprotective American parents and the whole culture of safety that is partly created by media outlets, which amid ratings wars grossly exaggerate the actual risks to children. She uses a healthy dose of cross-cultural examples and anecdotes, including David Lancy’s The Anthropology of Childhood, to argue that American children are not given enough independence, to the point that parents like her are called “bad moms” for letting ten-year-old kids take public transportation, or even walk to parks, by themselves. Too many parents let fear limit the environments of their children and turn out timid kids afraid of the wider world.
American childrearing patterns have increasingly diverged.
At the other end of the parenting spectrum, we have “natural growth,” Lareau’s generous euphemism for a laissez-faire style found in lower-income groups that can verge on the negligent. Children are left on their own to play, and as a result often end up watching too much television or video games, don’t eat well, or get in trouble because of lack of supervision. It can produce more independent, less whiny kids, but also makes it very hard for those kids to attain economic self-sufficiency and other markers of success in a technocratic society, since doing well in school is not stressed, and books and language learning are neglected.
In other words, American childrearing patterns have increasingly diverged: the hyper-achieving model of nervous parents trying to get their kids into elite schools and on the road to economic success (with the potential drawbacks mentioned above), and the more passive model in which kids are entertainment-oriented, unengaged with anything except popular culture. This divergence contributes to the “education gap” that exists before kids even get to school, and which early education programs like Head Start are meant to compensate for, and to societal inequality more broadly.
In between, however, we have more moderate and mixed practices—those families that mix discipline and limitations on entertainments with freedom and exposure to activities that prepare kids to play positive roles in communities. Indeed, an ethnography of contemporary parenting would have to take in a wide range of possibilities including, as my students tell me, distinguishing between households with and without video game consoles (e.g. Xbox), or even more specifically those with or without the popular and violent videogame Call of Duty. One could also add policies related to television, meals, play time, friends, chores, bed times, and a host of other issues. Having family policies in such areas seems to cohere with “authoritative” approaches to parenting, but in many contemporary households, the policies are endlessly negotiated.
In some ways, it makes sense that we have turned middle- and upper-class kids into little lawyers by allowing them to negotiate with their parents, manipulate them, and look for loopholes in household rules, skills children learn all too easily. This kind of assertiveness prepares kids well for corporate life, but it can leave them with a sense of entitlement and habit of being aggressive. Popular culture tends to reinforce this outlook also. Unless parents specifically seek to counter these tendencies, they won’t manage to inculcate character or the classic virtues such as humility, patience, and temperance. Here parents may not get much help from most parenting advice. This advice often reflects our obsessions with educational and career success, rather than the expansive notions of being a good person that most parents still hope their kids can reach. To guide their children in this process, parents themselves, backed by their broader networks and communities, such as churches, must model and impart these alternative ways of being.
Michael Jindra is a visiting research scholar in the Center for the Study of Religion and Society and an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. Portions of this post come from his commentary “Parenting in the Modern Jungle” in Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution: Culture, Childrearing and Social Wellbeing, edited by Darcia Narvaez et al. (Oxford University Press, 2014).