The Consequences of Parenting Out of Control
vividly remember the moment when I first conceived of this project. As I was standing at my kitchen counter, eating a bowl of cereal, and glancing at the local newspaper, I came across one of those small “human interest” articles that described a “smart card” parents could use to track lunchtime purchases by their children. Do you know whether your children are buying nutritious meals? Are you concerned about why your daughter is gaining so much weight? Do you wonder why your son is so hungry when he gets home from school? No problem. You can find out what is happening, each day, even though you are not there.
As I read this piece, I wondered about the motivations of parents who so strongly believed that they had to know about their children’s every move that they would buy into a piece of technology that secured that knowledge. And I wondered whether these parents were the same ones who, it seemed to me from casual observation, were so intently engaged in hypervigilant practices, so controlling of their children, and seemingly so unwilling to launch them into adulthood. Although ultimately I decided not to include the smart card within the range of devices explored (because I wanted only those technologies potentially available to all parents rather than being dependent on what a school system had to offer), as I have shown, the answers to these two questions are more complex than I originally believed.’
I found that within what I have called the professional middle class, parents do, indeed, adopt a style of parenting that has as its key features constant oversight, belief in children’s boundless potential, intimacy with children, claims of trust, and delayed launching. And I found that this style of care emerges from anxieties about their children’s future, from nostalgia for the way they imagine families used to live, and from assessments of dangers to childhood in the world today. I found as well that this distinctive style of parenting gives rise to enthusiasm for technologies of connection that allow for both care and control, even as it creates ambivalence toward technolo-
gies of straightforward constraint and distaste toward technologies of surveillance. Indeed, most professional middle-class parents might look at the new smart card wi th some horror, seeing it as too clumsy a mechanism for parental control and as something that would overtly challenge the trust they have appeared to place in their children to do the right thing.
It is different among the working class and middle class, where parenting styles draw on concerns about concrete dangers, an awareness of youthful indiscretions, and a desire to see children mature sooner, rather than later. These parents might very well be grateful for the smart card—along with the full range of connection, constraint, and surveillance technologies—if they believe it could help them keep their children safe and operating within parental limits. Our sociological answers often challenge our simple com- monsense assumptions about the world.