Styles of Care
The summary characterizations captured in the phrases parenting out of control and parenting with limits help us think about the breadth and depth of
parental influence and how this ultimately shapes the behavior of college-age students. Across the board, parents want children to internalize their values, embody their hopes, and fulfill their dreams. Parents who enroll their children in the full round of extracurricular activities, assess every academic achievement, and hoard advantages thereby create lives in which every moment is designed to contribute to privilege, to preserving a competitive place, to becoming the best. No sphere of life is untouched. Simultaneously there is a depth to this influence as parents build relationships with children based on intimacy, on being available, on staying connected, and on friendship. Among the nonelite, less structured lives leave more room for children to simply be; less intense relationships with parents allow children more occasions to demonstrate who they are (rather than who they might become).
The phrases parenting out of control and parenting with limits also refer to the absence—or presence—of external constraints imposed on children as part of a caregiving style. Elite parents have concerns about children who wander off an acceptable path; they do set some limits for their children. But some of those limits go unstated, and at least some of those limits are up for grabs—as Anna Benton said, her approach is “1-2-3 maybe.” Children who sense (or know) that their parents are hesitant to stay firm may very well respond by wheedling and whining. Parents acknowledge that wheedling and whining sometimes make their job a nightmare. But their commitment to flexibility allows for the negotiation that engenders such behaviors. Less elite parents who make clear that there are limits to what kinds of behavior they will allow may also be confronted with wheedling and whining. They are more likely, however, to nip it in the bud—to tell and yell instead of negotiate. For the working-class and middle-class parents who live with more present dangers, limits are seen as lifesavers, rather than as barriers to free expression or as premature restrictions on potential.
Finally, the phrases make reference to the absence—or presence—of external constraints of time and money that frame styles of care. Almost by definition, privilege carries with it a certain freedom. Professionals are often in a position of authority; they make decisions themselves rather than enact those made by others. Parents with professional training are often also in the position to make the decision to devote themselves to their children. Even jobs that are intensely demanding—being a college professor, an attorney, or the CEO of a camping-goods business—contain at least some flexibility for those
at the top, and parents can opt to work that flexibility to serve the end of being available to their children. In the process they may also work themselves into exhaustion. Having chosen the path of intense responsiveness, they may not know just when to cut short their engagement with their children. They may feel that their parenting has gotten out of control.
For many of the elite parents, few economic constraints exist to help them define limits. Substantial financial resources allow them to purchase whatever it takes to ensure their children’s social, psychological, and academic wellbeing. Here also they may feel that their parenting has gotten out of control as they indulge their children’s every whim. Quite obviously, and by definition, less privileged adults function within more serious constraints. Less flexible jobs and lesser financial resources circumscribe the style of parenting that can be adopted.