Intensive Mothering and the Impact of Social Class
Those who write about the concerns parents have about the physical wellbeing of their children often also talk about the concerns parents have about their childrens psychological well-being, daily activities, and future development. The recent shift toward more involvement in childrens lives has been well described by two contemporary scholars, Sharon fiays in The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood and Annette Lareau in Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Both books have helped shape the notion that parenting has become more intensive over the years, especially for those from a higher socioeconomic milieu.
Sharon Hays argues that parents from all social classes have recently developed a model of what she calls “intensive mothering,” which, as she puts it, involves the focus on children to the exclusion of a focus on one’s own concerns as an adult. Moreover, Hays argues that “intensive mothering” has its own internal logic:
The willingness to . . . expend a great deal of physical, emotional, cognitive, and financial resources on the child. . . follows directly from the requirement of placing the child at the center of one’s life and putting the child’s needs above one’s own. Centering one’s time and energy on the child. . . [follows from] the fact that the child is understood as innocent, loving, and pure, and therefore deserving of protection from the corrupt and cruel outside world. . . [and from] the emotional intensity of mothers’ feelings for their children that flows from the love they experience as they nurture that innocent (and dependent) child.12
In Hays’s analysis of the “why” of intensive mothering, she argues that the relationship between mothers and children “comes to stand as a central symbol of the sustainable human ties, free of competition and selfish individual
ism, that are meant to preserve us. . . from an unbearable moral solitude.”13 This is a fascinating analysis of the moral roots of the new way of enacting maternal devotion. Hays, however, does not tell us what happens to the parent-child relationship as children move out of infancy and toddlerhood; nor does she tell us how the new form of maternal devotion translates into a particular parenting style when children begin the inevitable pull and tug of teenage years. And while she acknowledges that what she calls “middle-class” parents (which would include those I define as “professional middle class” and “middle class”) are most likely to engage in the most extreme forms of “intensive mothering,” Hays finds the same approach throughout the social spectrum.14
Annette Lareau picks up where Hays leaves off—with children aged nine and ten—and shifts the focus to explore social class differences in child rearing. She argues that while all parents might share the ideology of intensive mothering, the practice takes different forms within different social groupings. Like Hays, Lareau defines the “middle class” to include those I define as “professional middle class” and “middle class,” and she contrasts that class with parents who are either from the “working class” or “poor.”15 Among the middle class she identifies a style she calls “concerted cultivation,” and she locates its key element as residing in the fact that the parent “actively fosters and assesses [the] child’s talents, opinions, and skill.”16 By way of contrast, Lareau characterizes the child-rearing style of the working class and the poor as being fashioned around providing basic care for the child and allowing the child to mature.
Lareau’s research is a superb contemporary example within a long tradition of scholarship that demonstrates that child-rearing styles differ by social class.17 These differences include the degree to which the parents are “child centered,” meaning that adults are encouraged to shape their parenting around responding to the child’s wants and needs.18 These differences also include the style of discipline used in the home. In general, studies show that the higher the socioeconomic status, the more likely parents are to give children choices, negotiate with them about proper behavior, encourage them to share their own views, and give reasons for disciplinary practices. Those who are less privileged are more likely to expect children to acknowledge parental authority and do what is asked of them; less privileged parents are also more likely to use directives without offering reasoned explanations.19 In addition, scholars have recorded differences in the patterns of language use encouraged within the home, differences in the kind and range of cultural capital with which parents supply children, and differences in the degree to which parents equip children to intervene in institutions on their own behalf.20
All th ese ideas have resonance in the responses of parents interviewed for this study, and I both build on this tradition of investigations into class-based child-rearing strategies and diverge from it in several ways. First, I focus on parental attitudes toward teenage children rather than on children who are considerably younger, as is the case for Hays, Lareau, and many other scholars. Second, whereas Lareau, for example, is describing differences in parental behavior, and I too am interested in these, I am also describing differences in parental belief systems—the ideas about parenting and the parent-child relationship that underlie the behavior. Moreover, I link the roots of these differences in belief system to the generational histories and ongoing concerns about the present and the future among contemporary parents as much as to efforts to reproduce social class. Finally, and perhaps most distinctively, I demonstrate (in part II) how these attitudes intersect with and are enacted through new technologies.
Because parents’ ideas about their children’s futures frame their notions of appropriate child-rearing styles, I begin with these in chapter і. I then turn in chapter 2 to parents’ understandings of the past and how those understandings are incorporated into a parenting style. In chapter 3, I consider the problems that parents believe they face on a daily basis as they strive to keep their children secure. In chapter 4, I demonstrate how emerging strategies intersect with and produce both satisfactions and ongoing tensions.
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