Studying Parenting Styles
Curious about the hovering and curious about its possible link to new technology, I designed a research project that would allow me to explore and explain the roots, dynamics, and class location of a style of child rearing that I have come to call “parenting out of control” as it affects attitudes toward and behaviors directed at adolescent children. This book represents the results of that research. I both holistically examine parenting in the contemporary United States amid social, cultural, and technological changes and focus particularly on the contrast between parenting out of control and a different style of care—found within a different social milieu—that I call “parenting with limits.”
I draw on intensive interviews that my research assistants and I conducted with a total of ninety-three parents (of whom three-quarters were mothers). These interviews took place in respondents’ homes in thirty-seven different locations in eleven different states representing seven of the nine major regions of the country: New England (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont), the Middle Atlantic (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York), the South Atlantic (North Carolina), East South Central (Kentucky), West North Central (Missouri), West South Central (Texas), and the Pacific West (California). The vast majority of the parents with whom we spoke had at least one teenage child at the time of the interview. (A complete discussion of the methods and sample can be found in appendix A.)
In what follows, I compare the parenting styles of what I refer to as the “professional middle-class” parents with those from the “middle” and “working” classes.12 Since class status is in some ways an arbitrary designation, let me take a moment to address how I define it and why I use the awkward term “professional middle class.” Because social class has material, cultural, and social elements, no way of designating the social class position of an individual is perfect. Relying on just income as a measurement of class status taps into the material component of social class but often misses the cultural and social elements, especially insofar as these are reflected in (or components of) occupational position and the activities of daily life. Although an individual’s job constitutes an important determinant of daily life, relying on it as an indicator of social class is an especially unsatisfactory approach for women who may be staying at home with their children and who may have deferred or halted career aspirations and opportunities to care for a family. Moreover, elite jobs that build on professional training do not always yield high incomes (and thus cannot invariably be identified as upper middle class or upper class); academics can testify to that fact, as can lawyers and doctors who put public interest above financial gain. Education often offers a better measure than income for assessing cultural issues and, because of the strong association between education and occupation, for explaining those issues of job flexibility and authority connected to occupational status. Education, through its association with occupation and income, can also determine to a great extent the milieu in which one lives, whom one takes as a reference group, and the kinds of values one holds.13 These are all important determinants of what one defines as good parenting.
Consequently, education is the key to how I identify class status in this study. I define the “professional middle class” as people with educational credentials beyond a bachelor’s degree and, when employed, as people holding professional occupations: this grouping includes such individuals as an Asian American college professor from Berkeley, California, a white attorney in a Boston suburb, and a white woman with a PhD who is, by self-definition, a “stay-at-home mom.” The people in the middle class with whom I spoke have a bachelor’s degree, but nothing higher; usually they are in what have been referred to as “semiprofessional” positions. This group includes a Latino policeman from San Antonio, Texas, and a white high school teacher from Louisville, Kentucky. None of the working-class respondents have a bachelor’s degree, although many of them have attended some college (including occasionally having received an associate’s degree); they hold a vast range of occupations. Among the working-class individuals are a white man employed as a sheet-metal worker, a first-generation immigrant from Italy who lives on Staten Island, New York, and is a stay-at-home mom, and an African American woman who works as a teacher’s aide in Philadelphia.
In general, I make no distinction between working-class and middle-class parents. Throughout the comparisons, it should be remembered that these inclusive groupings—of all three social classes—contain within them individuals who deviate from the general patterns of parenting I ascribe to each group. Moreover, because my central focus in this study is the professional middle- class parents who have adopted the style I call “parenting out of control,” middle- and working-class parents who follow what I call “parenting with limits” often serve as a touchstone rather than an equal focus of analysis.14
For well over a decade my own research has been with people less privileged than myself and with those in vulnerable positions. This is the first time I have focused on individuals close to me in background, occupation, and interests. Indeed, a few of the people my research assistants and I interviewed I count as friends and colleagues; some of them are one step removed—the friends and colleagues of friends and colleagues. The spotlight I turn on the professional middle class may be all the more self-conscious, and maybe even harsher, for my awareness that, were I somewhat younger than I am, I too might well be “parenting out of control.”
The spotlight through which I examine parenting styles can be thought of as having four lenses that are sometimes overlapping and sometimes distinct.
One lens simply reveals the major features of the professional middle-class style and how it differs from that of the less privileged parents. A second lens seeks to uncover some of the root causes of the professional middle-class style. A third lens examines how these styles are enacted in conjunction with technologies. And finally, yet another lens links parenting out of control to other contemporary theoretical (and social) currents.