Parenting Styles Meet Technology
A parent commenting about the delights of her baby monitor wrote on Epin – ions. com that she had extended its use to engage in concealed observation of her older children:
This is also a great monitor to hide in the playroom. I can put the transmitter in the room and when I hear them getting too rowdy, I just push the button and tell them to simmer down. It’s great because they think God told me they were acting up and I don’t have to walk all the way upstairs!2
The control strategy is (like the Almighty) simultaneously omnipresent and invisible. As this mother likened herself to a god in both her omniscience and her invisibility, she illustrated just how easily care could shade into control. Like this mother, the professional middle-class parents interviewed for this study generally began with a concern about care when they explained why they eagerly use devices of connection such as baby monitors and cell phones. As they talked more freely, they provided evidence for the dialectical relationship that exists between seemingly disparate impulses.
The more privileged parents also indicated that they found the level of care abetted by these devices—being able to hear every whimper and sigh made by an infant or being able to keep track of a teen’s whereabouts and activities from morn to night—to be especially compatible with other aspects of what they choose as a style for raising their children. These parents actively want to remain close to their children, and they equally actively want to respond to needs and concerns as they arise. The professional middle-class parents praise baby monitors and cell phones for helping them to establish this desired closeness and responsiveness and for enabling them to use the knowledge thus obtained to better control their children. In contrast, the working-class and middle-class parents praise these devices because they ensure safety.
Even sharper class differences emerge with respect to the devices that openly seek to constrain behaviors—a child locator that lets parents know where a child is, a filtering device that stops wandering to an array of websites on the computer, and a mechanism that blocks television programs. In general, the professional middle-class parents are least inclined to report that they find these useful; the working-class and middle-class parents are more inclined to view such devices favorably. Among the professional middle class, parents’ objections rest on a number of grounds, including the sense (and this is especially the case for the child locator) that these devices are an unwelcome substitute for parental responsibility. Professional middle-class parents are willing—even eager—to manage their childrens behavior, and they view doing so as part of the definition of being a parent. They want to remain intensely involved; they want to know what is happening; they want to “be there.” One aspect of what Annette Lareau calls “concerted cultivation” or what Sharon Hays calls “intensive mothering,” then, is ongoing, continuous involvement in children’s lives.5 This is time-consuming parenting.
In contrast, the working-class and middle-class parents want to limit parenting both in space and in time. Recall that more of these parents indicated that they find parenting to be burdensome in some way. Recall as well that more of these parents assume that intensive responsibility will end by the time their children graduate from college. On a day-to-day basis, they know that they cannot always be home, and when they are home they want to free themselves from negotiations and arguments about appropriate behavior. Quite simply, if the technology will help them keep their children safe and enable the implementation of clear limits, they are interested in using it.
Discussions with parents about these constraining devices illuminate some deeper aspects of parental relationships with teenage children, and some other key differences between parenting out of control and parenting with limits.
Professional middle-class parents discuss how their role as parents involves shaping and guiding their children to help them fulfill their boundless potential and become the best they can be. Of course, they can describe their children as having rather distinctive and rather set personalities—one child is compassionate, one is athletic, one is a good student—just as the less privileged parents do when asked to describe their children. But the professional middle-class parents also understand their parental responsibility to include gaining intimate knowledge of what their children are capable of and “imposing” their values through (sometimes coerced) conversation. When they talk about why they wouldn’t want to have a child locator, they talk about “working with” their young children to teach them not to wander off, they talk about helping a child “to be able to internalize. . . safety behaviors,” and they talk about traumatic events (e. g., when a child is lost) as “learning opportunities.” Professional middle-class parents of older children talk about how they negotiate the transition to more adult content in the media. They watch television with their children, and they discuss the significance and meaning of what they have seen; they check histories on the computer and ask about Internet activities. And as they do, they continue their efforts to shape their children in their own likeness.
Erica Harper, who had different rules for her three children and required her sixteen-year-old son to watch R-rated movies with her, spoke about how she simultaneously allowed that son to have access to his PlayStation and his video games (as a reward) when he was younger and about how she still wants to change who he is so that he can achieve a perfect “balance” in his leisure
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Back when Nate was younger he was really into PlayStation and video games, and I consider that just sitting in front of a screen. We would limit that to chunks of time. We actually tried to keep that a privilege for him, so if he got his responsibilities concluded, . . . then he could earn himself the privilege of being on for x amount of time. … It wasn’t good for his brain; it wasn’t good for his temperament. . . . We worked really hard to encourage our kids to have a balance in what they do with their free time. Nate is so incredibly drawn towards technology. . . . He is one of those kids that would sit in front of [a screen] and rarely do much more. … To this day we have to say, “You’ve been on a long time.”
That perfect “balance,” of course, is far more difficult to establish than are clear and straightforward limits on the number of hours a child can sit in front of a screen.
And rather than allowing “freedom” within identifiable constraints, the professional middle-class parents constantly shift the constraints themselves. Working-class mother Danielle Jones relies on the cell phone to augment the parental gaze, “to find out where [her children] are” and “remind them of their curfew.” In contrast to Danielle, a professional middle-class mother uses the cell phone to negotiate about appropriate behavior. Recall, for example, Anna Benton, who first encouraged her daughter to attend a party and then called her home. Or consider Donna Gibson, who described herself as being both permissive and protective. She discussed the intense negotiation that took place, with her daughter and with the parents of her daughter’s friends, about whether to allow her child to attend an underage club in San Francisco (they live across the Bay in Berkeley). The rules about what is or is not acceptable behavior might quite appropriately be outside this sixteen-year-olds control; even so, she is subject to a considerable period of indecision and a negotiated settlement as her parents find the best midpoint between their concerns about safety and their desire to nurture their child’s emerging independence, and between their own attitudes and those of other parents:
You just get a feeling about balancing safety and their desire to be independent and what is okay and what is not okay. My daughter wanted to take BART [the Bay Area’s transit system] into the city to go to an underage club and come home on BART, and it was a big brouhaha for a week. And what finally happened was we let her go in with her friends in daylight, but a parent had to escort them back at night; it was going to be like midnight or one—she’s sixteen. It goes on and on, these issues.
During this period of indecision, a child is subject to changing rules:
I was very insistent about the girls’ being accompanied by an adult on the way home on the BART. [The] other adults were not as concerned about it. They would probably have let them come home alone, and it was out of the question for me. In fact, I did insist for a while that they be accompanied to the club and ultimately backed down because all the other parents
said they can make it okay on their own, so I say, “okay in the daylight.” So I think in the area of security I’m more protective than what I see are the average parents.
Indeed, one of the technologies examined here—the cell phone that remains so present in the lives of college students—becomes a key tool for this shifting, as children negotiate freedom and independence against parental restraint.4 The child at the other end of the conversation does not know whether she or he will be allowed to engage in a desired activity but must remain in constant contact and participate in constant discussion. Parental control abetted by technology thus operates like a “sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point”; the actions of an individual child may—or may not—be allowed at any given time; and since the power lies with the parent, whose rules change and shift as children mature or as the parents themselves change their perceptions, the privileged child’s world is full of unexpected and unanticipated shifts.5
Working-class and middle-class parents talk with a greater clarity about rules. In keeping with their standpoint of “predestination,” they also demonstrate a greater acceptance of who their children are at any given moment. Recall that Yvonne Wood said that she would have used a child locator with Samantha because “her mind was like somewhere else all the time.” In addition, there appears to be a greater acceptance by these parents of the sheer likelihood of misbehavior. Because children “cheat,” parents put a code in their television to block out certain channels; because children will be curious and look at pornography, parents put a filter on the computer to prevent wandering onto questionable websites. The parent does not try so hard to change her or his children or to encourage the internalization of the family morality; the parent accommodates who her or his children are by adopting technologies that allow for the implementation of clear, unchanging, and obvious rules. These technologies also ensure compliance, whether children want to comply or not. In short, middle- and working-class parents adopt fundamentally different styles than do their more privileged peers; these different styles do not depend on technology but work in conjunction with—or sometimes against—new developments.
Taken as a whole, then, the working-class and middle-class parents regard both the devices of containment and the devices of surveillance more favorably. They are more likely to use filtering devices on the television and computer, and they think that if they could afford it, they would purchase some of the new surveillance devices. They speak with more open acknowledgment that teens are not to be trusted and that it is better to know where they are and what they are doing than to ignore the possibility that they might be getting into trouble. They also view these devices as good substitutes for parental discipline when parents can’t be at home and when parents are too busy to engage in personal monitoring.