An Analytical Lens: Finding Causes
It would be thrilling to announce that I had found a single reason for the new approach to rearing children among the professional middle class. But no single cause could possibly explain such a complex shift in orientation toward parenting; moreover, particular aspects of this new approach in all likelihood have multiple and overlapping causes. These realities frame my analysis of how the differences between the groups of parents can be linked to the diverse ways adults in different social classes envision the future, remember
their own histories, and evaluate present concerns. I search for explanations rather than the explanation; I explore the manner in which many different strands of influence feed into specific elements of the new distinctive style of parenting out of control.
I start with a consideration of how parents think about their childrens futures. I argue that parents from all social backgrounds worry about contemporary conditions of acute economic uncertainty.16 But, not surprisingly, the content of the worries and the responses to these concerns are different among the more privileged than they are among those with fewer resources at their disposal. Anxious to secure their children’s competitive advantage in a world that is marked by increasing anxiety about college acceptance and increasing economic inequality (and perhaps shrinking options for elite status), professional middle-class parents seize opportunities for educational success and enroll even their very young children in a dazzling array of “extracurricular” activities. They assume that their children are, if not perfectible, blessed with boundless potential. In response, they nurture children to become the best they can possibly be; they also provide them with the “best” social, cultural, and economic capital.17 However, because contemporary professional middle – class parents do not know which skills will be most appropriate and useful in a rapidly changing world, they hope to encourage a broad range of skills and the readiness to be flexible. The delayed launching of children into adulthood may well be tied to concerns about not settling too soon in a world undergoing major transformations. The professional middle-class parents are also well aware of the personal costs of their own success: most have sacrificed a fair degree of leisure to get where they are; many also have sacrificed their youthful idealism. These are pains from which they hope to protect their own children as they guide them toward the future. These pains are also reason for parents to find in their children companionship that they do not otherwise experience in their busy lives. From a different social and economic milieu, and out of both economic necessity and inclination, middle – and working – class parents envision a shorter educational future, clearer career goals, and an earlier launch.
Understandings of the past are also relevant to how parents make choices about child-rearing strategies. Some professional middle-class parents who adopt the new approach of a high degree of connection with their adolescent children do so not just in response to something missing in their lives but also in response to what they regard as problems with how they were treated during their own teenage years and to what they recall as having been an essential distance between parents and children. This is true of those who experienced authoritarian parenting. It is also true of those raised in the more permissive mode advocated by Dr. Spock.18 Ironically, some of the loudest claims for the beauty of intimacy between parents and teens come from a generation of parents who themselves once proclaimed that it was foolishness to trust anyone over thirty. Over and over professional middle-class parents told me, with pride in their voices, that it was now very different in their homes—that an adolescent child was their “best friend.” Less privileged parents also told me that they saw reasons to be more vigilant than their parents had been, but they also said that they knew well the difference between being a parent and being a friend.
The professional middle-class parents who hold their adolescent children close are not just responding to and reversing the lessons of the past or anticipating future concerns. They are simultaneously responding to what they see as the threats to their childrens present well-being. These perceived threats include what they describe as media images of violence and, what they speak of with even more urgency, as media images of sex. Over and over professional middle-class parents told me—in this case less with pride than with anxiety—that they want to protect their children from too much exposure to the images around them and from growing up too fast. Professional middle-class parents have additional daily concerns that stem from the actions they have taken to prepare their children for the future and to help them compete on a daily basis with their peers. Having purchased devices such as cell phones and laptop computers so that their children will not be left behind in the race to the top, and having encouraged their children to participate in scheduled activities from morning to night, elite parents then worry that they have overindulged, overscheduled, and overpressured their children. Some of the hovering they do is thus to keep track of the consequences of patterns of child rearing they have created. Middle-class and working-class parents also said they were concerned about what it was their children were exposed to in the media, but they stressed even more concrete dangers in their neighborhoods and schools. Over and over these parents told me that they worried about their capacity to keep their children safe from physical harm.