Social class differences in child-rearing practices have been clearly linked to differences in educational achievement as measured by grades, standardized test scores, and college attendance; in turn, these differences in educational achievement give rise to enormously unequal life chances.4 Interestingly, now that the “hovering” of professional middle-class parents does not appear to end when children move out of the home and into college, social class might continue to matter in new ways. Indeed, the research by Barbara ffofer and her colleagues also demonstrates that the academic assistance parents offer to their children continues during the college years:
In terms of academic regulation, some parents are maintaining their involvement and monitoring. Proofing papers and editing papers are not uncommon, reported at 19% and 14% respectively, and 8% of the students responded that “my parent contacts my professors or deans when I have a problem,” although they do so infrequently. Some parents check to see if the students are keeping up with homework (32%), and check to make sure that students have written papers that are due (14%).15
If professional middle-class parents are now using their privileges to help their children not just to get into college but also to wend their way through college (and, as some commentators have suggested, in the years beyond), these class differences might have significant impacts that challenge whatever notions of meritocracy and individual achievement we might still hold dear.16
And What about the Parents?
For much of the foregoing analysis I have not distinguished between the parenting approaches of mothers and fathers. Indeed, men and women expressed many similar attitudes during the interviews. Occasionally differences
emerged within couples, but even these were not consistent: for example, although some mothers said that their husbands are stricter than they are, other mothers said that precisely the opposite is the case in their homes. Of course, had I studied the number of hours put into providing child care and the degree of effort put into sustaining daily life, I would most certainly have found more significant differences between mothers and fathers. A substantial body of research demonstrates that rather than sharing equally in these efforts, women work far harder than do men.17
If parenting out of control is even more time-consuming and emotionally demanding than other parenting styles, the inequity between men and women might have particularly devastating consequences for women. This is precisely what a series of influential books and popular articles suggest, that at least some women in the professional middle class find the conflict between the demands of the workplace and the demands of rearing children so acute that they abandon highly successful careers.18 Although it is easy to overstate the numbers and misinterpret the data on this issue, the narratives of such women suggest two causes for “opting out”: the workplace has not proved to be particularly flexible, and parenting has become more intensive and more demanding than ever before.19 Time-use statistics support this assertion about the increasing intensity of parenting practices: since 1965 the amount of time mothers spend on all child care activities has risen even though the majority of mothers are now in the labor force. The increase in time devoted to parenting is true across the board; it is especially the case for the highly educated adults who are also putting in more time at work.20 Professional middle-class mothers thus appear to have few options: they can opt out, or they can overwork themselves.21 Those who do opt out may need to justify that decision: defining child rearing as a full-time, totally consuming job can provide precisely that justification. Moreover, professional middle-class mothers might have considerable managerial skills to enhance that activity of raising children, and they may well set trends for other parents both within and outside their circle of peers.
In addition, I suggest that if mothers in the professional middle class find themselves in a difficult spot, their marriages might bear the costs of those difficulties. The excessive attention paid to one’s children might leave little time for the maintenance and repair of adult relationships; in turn, the unsettled state of many marriages might lead adults to conclude that the only reliable, and persistent, relationships are those with their children. A study by
Robin Wilson at the Washington and Lee University School of Law reports that “huge numbers of female, and male, professionals who remain in the workplace. . . opt out of family” and that “these men and women forego parenting and stable, long-term relationships in surprisingly high numbers, believing they cannot have both.” More specifically, using data from the 2003 National Survey of College Graduates, Wilson shows that women with MBAs are divorced or separated more often than those who have only a bachelors degree and that women with JDs and MDs “are also more likely to divorce or separate than their male counterparts in the same profession.”22 In short, when women have serious career obligations a high divorce rate might be both a cause and a consequence of intense devotion to ones children.
Tfie sociologist Rosanna Hertz makes the following provocative statement in the introduction to her compelling book, Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice: How Women Are Choosing Parenthood without Marriage and Creating the New American Family.
The bottom line of this book is clear: we can no longer deny that the core of family life is the mother and her children. Marriage was once the only socially sanctioned way to have a child, just as sex was once coupled with procreation. Even though it still takes both sexes to create a baby, only the availability of both sets of gametes is essential. This sea change is rendering sexual intimacy between husbands and wives obsolete as the critical family bond. . . . While this begs the question of where men fit in, it is the reality of the new family, built on the assumption that romantic ties are no longer the foundation of family life. Caregiving and nurturing, which have always long been the responsibility of women, are at the center of U. S. family life in the twenty-first century.23
Hertz reaches this conclusion through an investigation of sixty-five women who sought artificial insemination as a way to become mothers even though it would mean raising their children outside marriage. The women in Hertzs study thus are not the stereotypical single mothers who arrive at that status as a result of divorce, separation, or abandonment by men. At least theoretically, they might say that they value marriage as much as or even more than they value children but were simply (or not so simply) unable to sustain (or even achieve) the former in their own lives.
well as sound. And cell phones are being promoted for ever younger children and with ever more varied innovations.19
I also anticipate that among the professional middle class the current aversion to some of the other devices discussed here will disappear. Recently child locators got a major sales boost when they were advertised with Duracell batteries.30 And the insurance industry now promotes GPS tracking in cars as a way of keeping children safe.31 On the other hand, home drug testing seems to be in disgrace and may therefore be less likely to be used in the future by the professional middle class than are referrals to physicians and counselors.32
When I began this study newspapers reported frequently—almost daily it seemed—about predators and other dangers on the Internet; the frequency of those reports appears to be diminishing.33 Our moral panics are often time bound—here today, gone tomorrow.34 This panic may have subsided because more and more adults are themselves becoming comfortable with the new technologies of the World Wide Web. And I suspect that as anxiety decreases, parents will feel less compelled to adopt technologies that constrain Internet usage.35 (Moreover, as children become more adept themselves, they will be able to get around whatever devices their parents have chosen to use.)
There is already evidence that parents are becoming inured to sexuality and violence on television: fewer parents said they are “very concerned” about sex, violence, and adult language on television in 2006 than did in 1998, and fewer parents said they rely on ratings for television programs and movies (though more said they rely on music advisories and video game advisories).
In a 2008 piece in the New York Times, the popular mystery writer Harlen Coben described how a friend of his had put spyware on a teen’s computer. Coben suggested that, in spite of his initial revulsion, he had come around to believing this was a “good idea.” He explained: “This isn’t the government we are talking about—this is your family. . . . Loving parents are doing the surveillance here, not faceless bureaucrats. And most parents already monitor their children, watching over their home environment, their school.”36 Whether bringing this kind of activity out into the open and condoning it will produce more purchases of spyware among the professional middle class, I don’t know. With so many parents teetering on the brink, it just might be the case that a number of people will be persuaded by this kind of commentary. But, no matter what the outcome, these devices will be used within the framework of control itself, at least by the professional middle class.
Is control here to stay? Will parents continue to hover?57 In spite of some pushback in the encouragement of what is referred to as “free-range children,” hovering has roots in parental perceptions of where the burden for keeping children safe and secure rests and on parental perceptions of the consequences of educational and occupational failure.38 I argue that unless there are changes—in neighborhoods, in workplaces, in communities, in state actions—that demonstrate that child care is a community responsibility, and as long as our society continues to be marked by an extreme income inequality that makes consequences of “failure” so severe, it is likely that control is here to stay. Moreover, current parents—of emerging adults, of teens, and even of younger children—are modeling parenting styles for their peers, their younger friends, and, of course, the next generation. Whether that next generation—raised through control—will take it upon themselves to resist that control and raise their children some other way is impossible to predict. What is clear, however, is that to do so they will have to grow up enough to know their own minds.
♦ APPENDIX A