The Lens of Theory: Parenting Out of Control
My findings of intimacy and hovering combined with elastic constraint and covert surveillance are central to my dubbing the professional middle-class approach “parenting out of control.” Clearly intimacy and hovering lay the groundwork for control in the commonsense meaning of the word: parents are carefully guiding, shaping, and determining the contours of their children’s actions. Because so much of teenage children’s daily lives is subject to observation, discussion, and negotiation, those who are subject to this kind of parental oversight may experience their parents as being “out of control.” And the parents who implement these strategies may feel that the time required to raise children has gotten “out of control.” Indeed, if the jury is still out on the effects these strategies will have on the independence and autonomy of young adults, a considerable body of evidence (including this book) suggests that the new parenting style consumes the lives of the parents who adopt it, often at the expense of other meaningful relationships.21 This is another way that parenting has gotten “out of control.”
The phrase “parenting out of control” is also linked to a more nuanced meaning. In the abstract world of social theory, a distinction has emerged between strategies that shape individuals by relying on disciplinary techniques and strategies that accomplish those ends through mechanisms of control. French social theorist Michel Foucault is the premier authority on the former approach. In his groundbreaking study of discipline, Foucault analyzes the structure of a prison that was designed like a panopticon with an always-present, elevated guard whose presence was apparent but whose direct gaze was concealed from the prisoners.22 Because the inmates
would always be visible but would not know when they were being watched, Foucault argues, they would come to obey the rules, to discipline themselves. That is, self-discipline emerges from uncertainty about whether one is being watched at any given moment. As the contemporary theorist of surveillance David Lyon says, “[This uncertainty] creates the desire to comply with whatever is the norm for the institution in question. Through the process is developed an inner compulsion to ‘do the right thing’ as prescribed by the organization, which produces the desired ‘docile bodies.’”23 Here, then, is a model of shaping that relies on clear constraint, on hierarchy, on overt judgments about what is and is not appropriate, and on acknowledged surveillance. This is also a model that assumes that at some point the guard is no longer necessary because the subjects have become “docile.” And this is the model assumed to be in use in the full range of contemporary institutions, including the school and the army, each of which is “producing” its own distinctive product: in the school one becomes a student; in the army, a soldier. This also is the model used in the family by parents who emphasize hierarchical authority and clear limits.
By way of contrast, what can be called a strategy of control relies less on enclosure and confinement than on constant communication, less on clear rules than on shifting possibilities, less on hierarchy than on intimacy, less on acknowledged surveillance than on the denial that it is necessary (because of trust), and less on the finished product than on the ongoing processes of shaping “inmates.”24 Indeed, in this model, there is no “finished product” or launch into self-discipline. This new model of shaping corresponds well to what I see going on within the professional middle-class families. And, as has been implied, this model is quite different from the (older, disciplinary) approach to child rearing found in middle – and working-class families who understand and experience the past, present, and future quite differently than do the more privileged parents.
Most investigations of the new model of control, and especially of its uses within the fields of criminal justice, refer to the state or occasionally the community as a smaller unit of analysis.25 However, I suggest that these concepts of control and discipline might be an interesting medium through which to contrast parenting practices in different social classes. In so doing I link fam
ily “styles” to broader cultural trends and suggest that the family is not all that different—or distant—from other institutions with authority over, and involvement in the shaping of, contemporary subjects, including the criminal justice system.26