A Descriptive Lens: Tlie Importance of Class
When I compared parenting styles among the professional middle-class respondents with those of their less privileged peers, I found quite distinctive differences. Among the former, parenting includes a lengthy perspective on children’s dependency without a clear launching point for a grown child, a commitment to creating “passionate” people who know how to find a “proper” balance between working hard and having fun, personalized and negotiated guidance in the activities of daily life, respectful responsiveness to children’s individual needs and desires, a belief in boundless potential, ambitious goals for achievement, and an intense engagement with children who in previous generations might have been encouraged to begin the process of separation. Privileged parents also put child rearing front and center: even in the midst of extremely busy lives, they highlight the significance and meaning they find in this activity, and they avoid shortcuts (such as playpens) that could make their job easier. Parents who view themselves as being much alone in the task of raising children and as having sole responsibility for their children’s safety and psychological well-being readily embrace these burdens.
As the following chapters show, in some ways these characteristics make for an approach to parenting that is filled with tensions and enduring dilemmas. For example, professional middle-class parents want both to protect their children from growing up too quickly and to push them to high achievement at an early age. The latter impulse often leads to treating their children as peers and to claiming that those children can be trusted to make decisions on their own; the former impulse often leads to hovering and to concealed surveillance. And while the contemporary style of parenting rests on an approach that has been found among privileged parents for some time—an emphasis on being permissive rather than authoritarian or even authoritative, a reliance on internalized constraint rather than punishment and external control—the
intense negotiation that often results from a commitment to loose reins and to trust takes place along with what appear to be relatively new patterns of vigilance and connection.15 All of this makes for the much noticed distinction between the current parenting style and that which characterized child rearing among the elite as recently as twenty or thirty years ago. This distinction is commented on by the parents interviewed for this study who see themselves as forging a new model.
By way of contrast, the working-class and middle-class parents assume that higher education will prepare their children to live on their own; they are more concerned with skills that will ensure self-sufficiency than they are with passion and fun. Working-class and middle-class parents are also less interested in intimacy and engagement than they are in clear rules of authority within the family. While they too find satisfaction in raising children, they do not believe they need to be involved in making every decision about their children’s lives, and they welcome shortcuts that can ease their burdens. And although they too view themselves as having sole responsibility for their children’s safety, limited resources of time and money shape day-to-day decisions and strategies. Finally, middle-class and working-class parents experience fewer internal contradictions in their parenting approach, and they are less conscious of carving out a new mode of parenting that differs radically from that of their own parents. Although they understand that more isolation for individual families and what are seen to be greater dangers might require more intense vigilance, they refer more often to continuity than to difference. Both attention to external constraints and attention to having children who
obey family rules are central to my dubbing this approach “parenting with
1 • • limits.