In discussions about a child locator, some of the professional middle-class parents were offended by the mere notion that they would ever use this device, seeing in it something that they feel undermines their own understanding of what it means to be a competent parent. For example, Carol Clark, a white woman from Louisville, Kentucky, who was not familiar with the device before we described it for her, said she would “probably not” use it with the youngest of her four children (aged two). When asked to explain why not, she said, “I feel that when were out in public, were all keeping an eye on her and her whereabouts.” Asked to reflect on a situation with large crowds—such as the Kentucky Derby—and whether she might use it then, Carol insisted that she feels “comfortable enough” in her family’s ability to keep track of their child and that she would thus have no need for a mechanical device. Elizabeth Blake, a mother of two from California, similarly seemed almost insulted by the implication that she might need technology to help her keep track of her children, and she proclaimed her conviction that she knows how to keep a close eye on them: “See, when they were that little I was there. … If they were out in the yard, I was out with them. . . . Kids are not supposed to be left unattended. That’s the bottom line.”
A closely related set of responses came from professional middle-class parents who insisted that a device of this sort not only appears to disparage their competence as parents but also is an entirely inappropriate substitute for doing what they defined as being their job. In turn, they defined their job as taking responsibility for, and paying close attention to, their children. One mo th er insisted, “It’s my job as a parent to watch over my child.” She sighed, and then continued, ironically using technological language to express how totally she discounts this new piece of technology: “It would just not be on my radar screen as a device.” Like the woman just quoted, Paula Brown spoke about what she believes to be the nature of good parenting and contrasted that definition with the use of an electronic device: “It’s just relying on technology when it’s really your job to keep track of them. Obviously errors happen. Mishappens. ‘What if. . . ?’ But I just can’t imagine ever thinking that was for us something we’d have to default to—a beep, versus knowing where my kid really is.” And Ellen Barnes, another married, professional middle-class mother, used almost precisely the same language to explain that she thinks parents should look after their children themselves, rather than rely on a mechanical aid:
ELLEN: No, I wouldn’t use it. I would hope you wouldn’t be in a situation where you’d be that worried. interviewer: Are there any circumstance you would?
ELLEN: No. I wouldn’t want to be in that situation. interviewer: Why wouldn’t you even consider it?
ellen : I don’t know, it just seems too… I mean if you’re going to be a parent, be a parent. You don’t need a device; you should be watching them anyway. I don’t know, it just seems odd. That would be like, “Beep! Beep! Where the hell are you, Parent?” You know what I mean? If you need a crutch like that, you would wonder what the deal is.
PARENTAL CONTROL VERSUS EXTERNAL CONSTRAINT
Significantly, professional middle-class parents also located their opposition to child locator devices in their commitment to alternative methods of control. They thereby demonstrated that a commitment to psychological and moral training directed by the parents—even with all its ambiguities—is preferable to physical constraint and clear limits. Thus, in addition to holding hands with toddlers, elite parents suggested communicating directly with children so that they learn not to wander off. A mother of two teenagers was particularly appalled by the technological alternative: “Are they attached to the parent like a dog on a leash? I never heard of them. … I never would do that. I don’t think it’s inhumane: it doesn’t hurt them. But I don’t know why you couldn’t communicate and hold their hand if you needed to keep them near you.
As professional middle-class parents discussed the alternative approach of what one father called “working with” his child, it was clear that they believe in starting control early; they also discount the notion that changing people might ultimately be more “controlling” than changing the situation itself. The same parents who worry about pushing their children too hard and too early also believe that children can act in an adult manner when they are very young. For example, consider the response given by Erica Harper, a white mother who wants her child to learn impulse control from an early age:
I actually have heard of those [child locator devices], and I would never, ever consider using one of those, even for Nick, who tended to be very impulsive. … I just sort of feel like there are other ways to manage kids. [The locator] just seems like a nursing home. [It is] unnecessary, and maybe [it wouldn’t help the child to be able to internalize what’s been learned, safety behaviors, or listening. It feels unnatural to me as a parent to do something like that. (Emphasis added)
Like other parents in her peer group, Erica commits herself to finding ways to “manage” her children while eschewing simple solutions. She also hopes that she can change her children and help them internalize lessons (“what’s been learned”) so that ultimately she will be able to trust them to do the right thing.