No Playpen


hen I was raising my children in the 1970s, there were no baby moni­tors to help me hear them cry in the middle of the night, no cell phones to assist me in keeping track of their whereabouts at every moment, and no expectation that I would know any more about their educational suc­cesses or failures than they, or a quarterly report card, would tell me.1 Indeed, although I thought of myself as a relatively anxious parent, I trusted a girl in the third grade to accompany my five-year-old son to and from school, and when he was in the first grade, I allowed him to walk that mile by himself. Moreover, although I thought of myself as a deeply engaged parent, I did not believe I needed to know what my children were doing at every moment once they had reached their teen years. And although I was as status conscious as anyone else and deeply interested in seeing my children get into “good” colleges, I never called a teacher to find out about a homework assignment or contested an assigned grade. In retrospect, and from the vantage point of watching my younger friends and colleagues with their children today, my parenting style seems, if not neglectful, certainly a mite casual.

I’m not alone in feeling that something about the parenting of young children has recently shifted in profound ways. The other day I ran into a woman I’ve known for years but hadn’t seen for some time. We compared notes. “Grandchildren?” I asked. “Yes,” she answered, “and moving back to live near me.” As I expressed envy because mine live four hours away, she expressed hesitation. She wondered whether she could participate in the rear­ing of those grandchildren according to the style her daughter, a successful attorney in her own right, had chosen. “No playpen,” I joked. “Right,” she said, “no playpen.”

Personal experience aside, contemporary popular culture is replete with descriptions of a new style of parenting that appears to prevail especially among elite parents who, supposedly, worry all the time about the safety of their children and who, it is said, hover over and monitor them more closely

than ever before, even if they are likely to eschew artificial constraints such as playpens. Parenting books, journalists, and academics comment on this phenomenon that some have dubbed “hypervigilance” and occasionally offer advice about how best to cope with it.2

I’m also not alone in feeling that the intensity that characterizes parent­ing today does not seem to let up when children enter late adolescence or even early adulthood. At the sixty-fifth birthday party of a colleague, I chatted with a woman who worked in career counseling at a nearby university. I asked her how her j ob had changed over the past thirty years. Her answer came swiftly: “They’re now so immature when they graduate, and they have to consult their parents about everything.” She added, “But that’s not the worst of it. The parents call all the time too, demanding to know just what it is I am doing for their children.”

Although this career counselor might have been overstating the degree to which the undergraduate students at her university sought parental advice and the degree to which the parents managed to intervene in the lives of those twenty-one-year-olds, hers is a common overstatement. Wikipedia defines a “helicopter parent” as a “mother or father who ‘hovers’ over a student of any age.”3 Put this term into a Google search and scores of references pop up.4

Moreover, it turns out that both the notion that this hovering is intense and the notion that this hovering is welcomed by young adults may not be exaggerations at all. The National Survey of Student Engagement, which “obtains, on an annual basis, information from hundreds of four-year colleges and universities nationwide,” reported in 2007 that 86 percent of first-year college students had “frequent” (defined as “very often” or “often”) electronic contact with their mothers, and 71 percent had “frequent” electronic con­tact with their fathers; these rates are about the same for college seniors too.5 Moreover, 13 percent of first-year and 8 percent of senior students reported in the survey that a parent or guardian “frequently intervened on their behalf to help them solve problems they were having at the college,” and “another quarter of first-year and 21 percent of senior students said their parent or guardian sometimes intervened.”6 Another recent study reports that parents of college-age children communicate with those children an average of more than ten times per week through a sum of all forms of communication, such as cell phones, email, and letters.7 This study further suggests that intensive communication is initiated relatively equally by both parents and children and that both parents and children desire it:

Students reported that the contact was more often initiated by parents than by themselves, although only slightly more so. Parents reported that initia­tion of contact was roughly equal. Moreover, the vast majority of students expressed satisfaction with the frequency of communication, and 29 per­cent of those surveyed would have preferred more communication with their fathers. None of the parents surveyed wanted less communication than they had, and 13 percent would have preferred more.8

Much commentary about this new style of parenting notes that it appears to be accompanied by, enacted through, and perhaps even rests on a series of technological developments.9 In addition to the common baby monitors and cell phones, it turns out that parents can buy a GPS tracking device to put in a car to monitor adolescent driving practices, attach a transponder to a child’s wrist to ensure that they can locate children who venture farther than a pre­programmed distance, purchase a drug testing kit to use at home, place a pro­gram on their computers to record their children’s every keystroke, and install a piece of software to prevent access to designated Internet sites.10 Parents can also activate the blocking capacity of the V-chip that is now mandatory on larger televisions. Some of these devices rely on the cooperation of children; this is true, for example, of cell phones. But it also turns out that parents can implement controls, spy on their children, and monitor their children’s behavior, especially their driving, from a distance without the active partici­pation of their children at all."