“Ed Rather Do It Myself”: The Perspective of the Professional. Middle Class toward Controlling Media Exposure
The professional middle-class parents were less likely to be affronted by the mere notion that devices that constrain access to the media could substitute for parental control or undermine parental competence than they were when confronted with the idea of a child locator. However, as they talked about how they decide what their children may watch on television or what movies their kids may go to, it was clear that analogous concerns arise. Here, too, parents focus on internalized restraint rather than external control. Moreover, they are not just interested in the content of the programs available to their children; they also see it as their job to monitor and assess how their children interpret or comprehend what they see. And professional middle-class parents want to make decisions about what is appropriate by themselves rather than relying on a potentially unreliable source such as government ratings.
All these inclinations were apparent in the discussion with Erica Harper, the professional middle-class mother of three children who likened a child locator to the kind of restraint used in nursing homes. When she was asked how much her children watch television and whether she sets limits on hours and programs, Erica became defensive: “I’m really not a Nazi mom.” She then went on to explain the elaborate arrangements she has put in place to supervise the media to which her children are exposed. Erica’s three children range in age from nine to sixteen. Erica said that she tries to have different rules for each of her children depending on their level of maturity, illustrating well the efforts she makes to individualize the care she provides for her children. Moreover, she said that she does not simply restrict television viewing with a V-chip or rely on industry ratings to make those decisions for her. If she has concerns, she draws on the subtly coercive language of “make a different choice” to turn their attention elsewhere.8 She might also stay with her children to watch programs with which she is unfamiliar:
We have limits on TV and the shows they watch. I watch along with them if I have any questions about a show or a movie or a DVD that they’ve selected. And I definitely have criteria for the nine-year-old that’s different for the thirteen-year-old, that’s different for Nate [who is sixteen], . . . For Nate. . . I’m watching [out for] sex and violence. … I always ask him to
one white, working-class mother of two said, “I’ve never forbidden certain programs [because] we don’t get the channels that those programs will be on.” Cost is clearly a factor here: cable is expensive. These parents also activate the V-chip on the television in order to prevent their children from watching specific programs. As a white, middle-class mother of two said, “[There’s no] ‘R.’ We have the blocks on all those channels if there’s an R movie. So they watch PG or PG-13, which they can get anywhere.” In addition, working-class and middle-class parents purchase software to control computer use. And some parents frankly admitted that they need these varied technologies because they can’t otherwise make certain that their children are staying within the limits they have drawn. Indeed, the working-class and middle-class parents acknowledged that their work schedules and other obligations prevent them from ensuring that their children are not watching programs or going places on the Internet of which they wouldn’t approve. Danielle Jones, an African American mother of three, explained:
I had to call in and put in a code to block out certain channels. … I had a problem with the kids watching things. . . . And I’m not home at all times. Even when I wasn’t working, and I was home, if I ran to the store, they would cheat on the TV and watch that stuff. So I did do a code with [the cable company]. We’re working on [a filter for the computer]. That’s what I’m going to get when I get the other computers up and running.
But the approach of getting a block on the television or on the computer goes beyond practicality to the broader issues of parenting that are at stake here and that are the subject of this book as a whole. The working-class and middle-class parents trust the technology more than they trust their children (and perhaps more than they trust themselves), and they also want to contain curiosity and nip problematic behavior in the bud in order to keep their children safe. In addition, they see advantages in having their children negotiate the world without constant parental intervention even as they are protected by arbitrary limits. In their minds, freedom from parental intervention is as meaningful as other earned freedoms. It thus constitutes a real benefit to children as well as to parents. Danielle Jones, who said she is working on getting a filter for the computer, added that one of the reasons is because she wants her children “to be able to use the computers without. . . being over their shoulder all the time.” Annemarie Fernandez, a Hispanic mother of three from Texas, similarly spoke about how the AOL filter could give her, as a parent, peace of mind while giving her daughter more freedom and autonomy:
I’m hoping that [the AOL filter] will prevent her from getting curious and going to sites where she shouldn’t be. … I started [using those] when I bought the computer, five years ago. [It gives me] peace of mind—as much as can be had with the computer. There’s always some way around it, [but I like] just feeling at least there is that one wall up there. [And] it gives her more freedom because I’m not constantly questioning her. (Emphasis added)
From the working-class and middle-class point of view, devices such as filters are advantageous to parents who no longer have to make subtle distinctions about what is or is not too much of something or worry about what happens when they are not at home. A professional middle-class father such as Tom Audet deliberates about whether looking at pornography constitutes an “obsession” before he acts. In contrast, Maria Ascoli, a woman who sometimes acts more like the professional middle-class parents, was securely “middle class” in her response to pornography. She explained that, “like every other boy, we had caught Gary looking at pornography on the Internet [in] seventh grade.” She laughed easily when she recalled the conversation with her son, indicating how comfortable she was with a straightforward resolution: “I just said, I had caught him. … I just told him as a parent I can’t have him looking at all this stuff on the Internet. When he grows up if this is what he wants to do, [he can do it], but he can’t do it here. I’d be remiss. So we have some software.”
In contrast to the professional middle-class parents, then, the middle-class and working-class parents avoid unpredictability in their child-rearing style: certain things are always oflF-limits. The latter group of parents also save themselves from the burden of having to know precisely what it is their children are doing at all times: the blocks and filters free them to turn their attention elsewhere. The parents also free their children to wander within defined limits rather than controlling their every move.
When it comes to employing devices that prevent wandering through the creation of enclosures, significant class differences emerge. In general, middle – and working-class parents more readily adopt these modes of discipline.