The Dimensions of Class
My use of social class throughout this book distinguishes little among material, social, and cultural meanings. Each of these is relevant to how I believe it is that parents choose among competing strategies and among existing technologies. Recall, for example, Peter Chaplin, the divorced, middle-class father of a thirteen-year-old. Peter is tempted by private school and expensive sports programs for his son; he believes he lacks the economic resources to enable him to afford those special privileges; he also lacks the social resources that would enable him to evaluate which privileges might be most effective in achieving the goals he wants; and he questions the necessity of this kind of “concerted cultivation.”2 But we can go beyond this one example to see how all these elements are relevant to parenting styles.
Quite obviously, material conditions allow for greater freedom not only to consider the range of privileges about which Peter was so concerned but also to imagine a future that puts self-confidence, happiness, and passion ahead of the necessity of earning a living. Professional middle-class parents envision a long period of dependence for their children in part because they can afford to do so. Ultimately, of course, elite parents believe their children will settle down and find a career, but they are in no rush to push them out of the nest.
In addition, the daily circumstances of everyday life give rise to different sets of concerns and opportunities. Professional middle-class parents might
worry about the safety of their children as they traverse busy streets in urban and suburban neighborhoods, travel in cars with friends in suburban and rural areas, and hang out in empty houses in the full range of locales. But taken as a whole, these privileged parents need not worry about the same level of danger from the outside as do parents whose children live in neighborhoods with high crime rates. Of course, there are exceptions. One professional middle-class mother talked about a child who had been regularly harassed by a man on her block as she walked to and from school; another talked about a shooting in the neighborhood. However, these stories were rare. In contrast, for quite a few of the less privileged parents harassment and shooting were evoked more commonly as dangers to which they have to be attentive on a daily basis.
Material conditions matter in other ways as well. Most of those who were interviewed work full-time outside the home. This is as true for the working – class and middle-class parents as it is for the professional middle-class parents. However, working-class and middle-class respondents have considerably less flexible schedules than do their professional middle-class peers, and they feel less able to “be there” to supervise their childrens activities. Hence, they rely more often on technology as a substitute.
At the same time, many of the professional middle-class parents hold very demanding jobs; it might very well be the case that these individuals are working more hours than are their less privileged peers.3 In this context, parents’ clear-cut decisions to make themselves available to watch every move become significant. Furthermore, we cannot ignore the influence of social factors and of cultural attitudes as they circulate in the media, among groups of young mothers gathering on the playground or among the telephone trees of the parents of teens as they make decisions about what to allow.4 The practices that get established—the degree to which parents begin to use a language of “choice,” for example—may have less to do with what can be afforded than with what other people within one’s social group find appropriate.5
Among the respondents in this study the professional middle-class parents are, on average, four years older than their less privileged peers. This small average difference has large ramifications. The older parents had a particular set of cultural experiences when they were young. And although many participants in the sixties rejected the counterculture activities of drug use, protest, and antimaterialist values (and many adopted a far more conservative political position later in life), the experience of an acute generational divide (“don’t trust anyone over thirty”) may have left many in that generation with a sense that connection could be found more readily by looking down to one’s children than up to one’s parents. These privileged adults are also highly mobile and thus often live at a distance from their own parents. In contrast, the middle-class and working-class adults, who remain both ideologically and geographically closer to their own parents, might have less of a psychic need to find connection in the next generation.
In short, the attentive hovering of the professional middle-class parents both requires and builds on a vast array of material resources, even though it does not necessarily rely on all available technology; simultaneously, the attentive hovering has roots and dynamics that emerge from, and are sustained by, cultural and social practices.