INTRODUCTION TO PART I
cholarly and ad hoc explanations for the new overanxious parent suggest a variety of immediate causes. Some argue that since events such as Columbine and especially 9/11, the world has become—or appears to be—a more dangerous place. Consequently, parents are “simply” responding to that new danger—or to a perception of danger.1 Many point to a new “culture of fear” and especially to widely publicized stories of kidnapping, Internet pornography, and sexual predators.2 Some note that more parents are having just one child, and therefore a larger proportion of all parents are “new” parents who are more anxious than those who are more experienced.3 In a similar vein, it is argued that as parents have fewer children, each child becomes ever more precious.4 Finally, some point to the “erosion of adult solidarity” and a feeling on the part of parents that they cannot rely on others to help them with the activities associated with the daily task of raising their children.5
From a somewhat different perspective, another set of scholars point to the rise of a more generalized “anxiety” and the emergence of a “risk society.” Many of these ideas come from the sociologists Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck.6 Giddens, for example, notes that although the world has not necessarily become more hazardous, the absence of tradition leads to a preoccupation “with the future (and also with safety).”7 When dangers are redefined as risks and thus “viewed as the product of human action and decision-making rather than of fate,” individuals might hold themselves ever more responsible for ensuring the safety of themselves and of those who are dependent on them.8 In conjunction with this approach, a growing body of empirical research notes that as the dangers facing children are interpreted as risks to be managed, parents come to limit the mobility of their children, leading ultimately to a more circumscribed existence.9 Additionally, scholars suggest that as the state has retreated from responsibility for its citizens, all individuals bear greater burdens for ensuring the security of themselves and members of their family.10
Each of these explanations is convincing in its own way, and each finds resonance in the responses of the parents, from among all socioeconomic classes, who were interviewed for this study. Parents do talk about the rise of terrorism as a source of anxiety and as an issue of attention as they teach their children to be aware, even as they want to make their children secure in the world. Parents also talk about predators—in the neighborhood and on the Internet—who might snatch or harm their children. Parents do hold themselves responsible for the well-being of their children and, indeed, look to themselves rather than some broader community of family or neighborhood (or even the state) to secure that well-being. And parents describe being more anxious about their firstborn and becoming less so with subsequent children.
Even so, there are several questions that remain. First, because these arguments often treat anxiety as an undifferentiated and global phenomenon, they do not distinguish among different groups of parents. Public Agenda, which describes itself as “a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to strengthen our democracy’s capacity to take on tough issues,” reports that the vast majority of parents worry “some” or “a lot” about such issues as “protecting your child from drugs and alcohol,” “someone physically harming or kidnapping your child,” and “the negative influence of other kids on your child.”11 But Public Agenda also reports that a higher proportion of low-income parents than of high-income parents worry “a lot” about these particular issues. Th ese class differences are significant. They are ignored, however, when an assumption is made that all parents make decisions about child rearing from the same set of concerns.
Moreover, theories assuming that concerns about risk and danger are exaggerated fail to take into account the fact that although some of these anxieties are overblown, in some cases parents have quite legitimate fears about dangerous neighborhoods (and hence concerns about “someone physically harming” a child). And the generalized analysis fails to distinguish between anxieties about safety (Is my child at risk of being harmed by her – or himself or by someone else?), anxieties about psychological well-being (Is my child happy?), and anxieties about status reproduction (Will my child fulfill my social class expectations?).
Finally, I would suggest that starting from this standpoint of viewing parental anxiety as produced by a “culture of fear” or by the “erosion of adult solidarity” might lead to inaccurate predictions. That is, if we assume anxieties about safety are the same across all social classes, we have little reason to believe that parents will make different choices about, for example, whether to place filters on their computers to protect their children from online predators or whether to purchase a tracking device for a teen driver, ffowever, social class differences do exist in attitudes toward implementing these new technologies, and they are not necessarily what might be expected.