Why and When Did We Decide that Every Aspect of Parenting Is Such a Big Deal?

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Oct. 17 and 18 I’ll be speaking at the amazing Battle of Ideas in London. The weekend’s wide-ranging topics include “Is Happiness Good for You?” “Can Big Data Save the World?”  and “The Lighter Side of the Dark Net.” (Which I can’t wait to hear!)

My session is, “Free-Range Parenting: Reckless or Responsible?” I was invited to speak by Ellie Lee, director of the Centre of Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent in Cantebury and co-author of “Parenting Culture Studies” (Palgrave, 2014). She calls herself a “parenting non-expert,” a term I love so much, I plan to borrow it. Here are her thoughts about what she studies, and why:

1 – Those of us who set up the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies have been primarily concerned (over the past 5 years we have been going) to explain how a wide variety of parental actions or attitudes, once considered uncontroversial and also not the business of parenting experts and policy makers, have become blown up into such a big deal.We’ve looked at feeding babies, having a drink when pregnant, disciplining children, playing with them (or not) as some topics. Overall what emerges is that mundane and ordinary ways of raising children have become considered sources of harm. The word ‘abuse’ or the word ‘neglect’ is used remarkably frequently to describe what used to be ordinary. ‘Free Range Parenting’ is a very clear example. It’s actually what used to be ‘bringing up kids’ – or even not something parents thought about that much at all e.g. kids playing out without their mum and dad around, or getting themselves to school. Just normal. Now, this has got turned into something that means parents run the gauntlet (even get arrested in the US). These developments are very important for families and society – they speak to a politics and culture that is very family un-friendly. It’s important that people like me (sociologists of the family) draw attention to how this risk-consciousness about children has emerged and the problems it creates.
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2 – There is also a level of recognition that children don’t have enough freedom away from the parental gaze. But we in CPCS are very concerened to challenge the way parents themselves get blamed for this, for being ‘over anxious’, ‘cotton wooling’, ‘helicopters’. Sure, alot are, but as long as overblown concerns about child abuse and dangers to children are what we are told about all the time, how else could it be? As the US shows (we think Britain is the same) being a ‘helicopter parent’ is what is culturally sanctioned – doing everything for your kids is the way to help them succeed and stay safe, we are all told, all the time. To not do this means being perceived as a ‘bad parent’. And in any case, it isn’t just parents restricting freedom. The whole structure of school policies and ‘safeguarding’ institutionalises a risk averse outlook. So we ALL (as adults) need to have a serious coming to terms with what has happened and what to do. This is why we have organised the session at the Battle of Ideas – to make a contribution to this.
I am so psyched to speak there, and I have a question for any professors or college presidents reading this: Shouldn’t parenting studies be right up there with gender studies, food studies, and all the other new-ish departments that look at the everyday life long ignore by academics? How we raise our kids is a giant mirror of our obsessions and priorities, with the added significance of actually CREATING who we become.
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And, on another note, after this talk in London I will be keynoting in Northern Ontario (brrr), and then speaking in San Fran. Or you can catch me in the Boston area on Oct. 6. My speeches are funny and, oh yeah, life-changing. To find out more, check out my speaking engagements page or go to LenoreSpeaks.com.
Cheerio! – L.

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Lenore speaking in Vienna (in Europe's second largest room!).

Lenore speaking in Vienna (in Europe’s second largest room!).

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31 Responses to Why and When Did We Decide that Every Aspect of Parenting Is Such a Big Deal?

  1. bob magee September 21, 2015 at 11:42 am #

    Give ’em hell, Lenore!

    Better yet, give them some good advice and ideas.

    The biggest issue, it seems to me, is that schools of thought regarding parenting has morphed into orthodoxy vs neglect – with no middle ground seen, desired or taken.

    Whoda thunk it that Rodney King may have voiced the overarching concern of modern times – “Why can’t we all get along?”

  2. Doug September 21, 2015 at 12:07 pm #

    Very likely it is an outgrowth of the “rule by experts” that many democratic governments are moving towards. Life is so complicated, so the thinking goes, that no one can be an expert on all the things a good citizen should do, and so we’ll turn control over those aspects of life to “experts.”

    Take, for instance, school lunches. Much hay has been made in the US that children are becoming obese, and school lunches are not very nutritious. And so, “experts” have stepped in to provide rules dictating that our children eat kale and broccoli instead of greasy pizza.

    Now, nutrition-wise, broccoli and kale are definitely better. And children are getting heavier. But no one stopped to think that cutting out recesses and a culture of tablet-addicted children is what’s causing obesity. Nope, we go straight to the lunches (because nutritionists aren’t looking at the greater picture). And so we get 250 calorie lunches that most kids don’t like/throw out/get hungry 45 minutes later.

    The same is true for child-care and -rearing. Experts say . . . lots of things. Our societies are tending to rely on experts more and more, so this morphs into “the Rules are . . . . ” Getting experts to say maybe they don’t know all the details means those experts won’t get calls from the rule-making bodies anymore.

  3. George September 21, 2015 at 12:42 pm #

    Be sure to tell all the parents to tell their kids not
    to take naked selfies, or risk becoming registered sex
    offenders.


    Teen prosecuted as adult for having naked images – of himself – on phone

    North Carolina high schooler and his girlfriend face legal proceedings over selfies as both the adult perpetrators and minor victims

    A teenage boy in North Carolina has been prosecuted for having nude pictures of himself on his own mobile phone. The young man, who is now 17 but was 16 at the time the photos were discovered, had to strike a plea deal to avoid potentially going to jail and being registered as a sex offender.
    http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/sep/20/teen-prosecuted-naked-images-himself-phone-selfies

  4. Steve September 21, 2015 at 12:49 pm #

    Even though experts often disagree, quoting an expert is a way of shutting out opposing opinions.

  5. Rae Pica September 21, 2015 at 1:06 pm #

    Enjoy the experience in London, Lenore! Sure wish I was going to speak to the issue of whether or not parents should play with their kids!

  6. Vicky September 21, 2015 at 1:32 pm #

    There’s been a concerted effort to demonize parents for decades. Once you put in question the legitimacy of parental rights, then you have put in place the wedge you need to separate them from their children. Look throughout our history, look at the groups fighting to take children, or gain access to children over their the objections of parents. There are only a couple. Both have government funding. Both have gained illegal authority over parents. Both are corrupt and care little for children, seeing them only as a means to an end. Both have caused immeasurable harm and will multiply that harm if not stopped. I’m of course talking about Child Protective agencies and the homosexual lobby.

  7. John September 21, 2015 at 4:05 pm #

    …and the homosexual lobby.

    Seriously?

  8. Steve S September 21, 2015 at 4:19 pm #

    Yes, John, I think she is serious. Reading through a few threads, Vicky mentions something similar in every post, whether it is relevant or not.

  9. Havva September 21, 2015 at 4:58 pm #

    That headline question was basically asked of me by a grandparent. She had volunteered to babysit and her her grandson arrived with 7 pages of written instructions and an propensity to breakdown crying if someone wasn’t constantly playing with him. That it became a big deal when safety experts determined that they weren’t getting through to the worst of parents with calm advice and decided that the only way to get through to anyone is to give instructions so simple and unyielding that someone of very little sobriety or intelligence couldn’t mistake the meaning of it.

    That thought got a little more refined recently when my husband and I were discussing stages of moral development and I discovered that most people end up at stage 4 (the law and order stage). And don’t progress very well beyond to understanding fundamental principals and questioning when social convention (stage 3 thinking) or law and order (stage 4) has become destructive of fundamental rights.

    I think that explains why the relatively high levels of support for the Meitivs that suddenly evaporated when the kids were taken by the police. And then that support came right back when the department overseeing CPS in the area issued new instruction and told CPS that kids walking alone are not “neglected.” So much of that brief angry phase was related to a sense that if authorities had taken such a dramatic action, then the parents simply had to be wrong morally.

    So basically I think when the officially endorsed experts decided not to leave anything to parental discretion, it became in the minds of most people, morally wrong to do a situational assessment and make decisions accordingly. This may also explain why the free-range kids projects at schools have such dramatic impact.

  10. sigh September 22, 2015 at 1:46 am #

    Hooray that sociologists somewhere are calling this out.

    Go, Lenore, GO!!!

  11. SKL September 22, 2015 at 1:55 am #

    I think the answer to the title question goes back to when colleges/universities started putting so many resources into child and educational psychology. The results of which are probably more BS than anything else. But we still persist in quoting studies etc. Now some of the studies say free range is best, yippee – but doesn’t this still feed the attitude that parenting should be determined by the “experts” instead of the parents?

  12. SKL September 22, 2015 at 2:02 am #

    A little off topic, but I was thinking. We often contrast the current US parenting norms with those of more free-range countries. What if we contrasted them with less free-range cultures? I think that would be interesting too.

    I currently have a houseguest from India. He is aghast that I let my 8yo, 4th grade daughters go off by themselves (e.g., to the ethnic grocery next door to where we’re eating, or to the school bus stop down at the corner). I asked him when this would be allowed in his culture, and he said not until they are adults – especially not girl children. (Granted, they have a higher rate of crimes against children there.)

  13. sexhysteria September 22, 2015 at 3:50 am #

    Some parents are certainly ignorant, so we should not condemn parent education completely. That doesn’t mean every adult should become a helicopter parent, but every parent should be informed about child safety and the potential benefits of accurate, balanced and comprehensive sex education from the earliest age.

  14. Jane September 22, 2015 at 8:27 am #

    Previous generations also sought out experts for child rearing advice: their parents, grandparents and other experienced parents! The “village” has been replaced by public agencies and private (for profit) services.

  15. Vicki Bradley September 22, 2015 at 8:44 am #

    I think Vicky is on the wrong website (also, I’m ashamed to share a name with her).

  16. lollipoplover September 22, 2015 at 10:25 am #

    “It’s actually what used to be ‘bringing up kids’ – or even not something parents thought about that much at all e.g. kids playing out without their mum and dad around, or getting themselves to school. Just normal.”

    This.

    There are no parenting “methods” to learn or labels for your type of parenting. I think we all want to raise healthy and happy kids and there are many different ways to do this successfully, depending on the child. Where many families go wrong is when they substitute “manage” kids for “raise” kids.
    Kids who are managed have adults running the show and taking on most of the responsibilities.
    Kids who are raised are gradually taught to assume responsibilities and capabilities that will allow them to lead independent lives and be happy and healthy both mentally and physically.

    I worry MOST about the mental health of a generation of children with fears and anxieties created by their very own parents and communities. It is not *safeguarding* anyone to instill fear where there is no real danger, like walking to school. Yet schools are institutionalizing this fear at very early ages. This is the safest generation of children ever…and they have the biggest worries.
    What are we doing to them???

  17. Donna September 22, 2015 at 11:12 am #

    I think the answer is in the various changes in society.

    The first is our ability to control if and when we have children. Before the advent of highly effective birth control and advanced reproductive technology, kids were just viewed as a natural consequence of sex. Our grandparents and great grandparents didn’t sit around planning their families in meticulous detail. They got married and they had kids when they came because there wasn’t a whole lot you could do about it. Today we can plan if, when, how many and sometimes even the gender of our children. In many ways, that is great, but making something highly coveted and extensively planned also gives it an exalted status and puts substantial pressure on the parents for success.

    And success is defined very differently today. Today it is all about college educations and “white collar” careers. Gone are the days when simply working hard and supporting your family was considered success. Gone are the days when the average joe (ie not the extreme rarity of Bill Gates) could support his family well without said college education. And even if he can, we don’t consider him as successful as someone with a college degree and a white collar job. The numerous comments insulting Warren because he is just a tire mechanic, despite the fact that, if his own comments are to be believed, he owns his own business and is quite successful, indicates that.

    So we have more pressure and higher stakes which makes us insecure about our abilities to raise children properly and looking for guidance. At the same time, we have become extremely isolated. Few people raise their children in the same community in which they were raised and where they have extended family and other known elders. Therefore, the guidance that we seek has to come from somewhere else .. experts. And those experts would not get very far if they just said “You are doing fine and your kids will be okay.” So the experts harp on every little thing and we all buy into it because it is oh so much more important now and so it goes.

  18. Jenny Islander September 22, 2015 at 12:56 pm #

    @lollipoplover: I don’t have a problem with parenting methods as such. A method of parenting implies a list of options and a full toolbox, with options to consult other people besides the developer of the method because of course all children are individuals with individual responses. Parenting systems make me nervous. These are the ones that pronounce that all children of a given age are thus and so and shall be treated so and thusly or else DISASTER. Compare, for example, Dr. Sears’ method as outlined in his books and Ezzo’s system as outlined in his.

  19. Warren September 22, 2015 at 2:20 pm #

    Comes from the Age of Instant Gratification. People are no longer willing to learn as they go. Learn from mistakes. They want to research, make lists, and have all the answers before they even start. And like anything else out there in life, there are huge amounts of people out there willing to tell you how you should and should not parent.

  20. SKL September 22, 2015 at 3:33 pm #

    Freud. Who invented the idea that if you screw up potty training, your kid will grow up to be a sexual deviant. 😛

    No, seriously.

    I still can’t believe people listened and continue to listen to that guy.

  21. JR September 22, 2015 at 3:35 pm #

    I agree. When people began putting all their genetic eggs in a tiny basket, by having just one or two kids, those kids were suddenly far more highly controlled than kids from larger families, and somehow worthy of a far larger investment of time and money. “Concerted cultivation” vs. “Natural development,” according to the “experts.”

  22. JulieC September 22, 2015 at 3:45 pm #

    I wonder if some of this isn’t due to the stay-at-home moms who used to be executives of various kinds who need to throw all their energy into being the BEST parent possible and in a way, justify their new life. I’ve known more than a few moms who had some fairly high-powered jobs who turn motherhood into a new profession of sorts. They need to make sure everyone knows just how incredibly intensive and demanding being a parent is. I mean, it is, of course but our mothers made it look easy because they didn’t feel the same pressures to get the kids into the best preschool, the best college, etc. not to mention they didn’t need to be our constant playmates and supervisors.

  23. Papilio September 22, 2015 at 5:23 pm #

    @Vicki Bradley: “I think Vicky is on the wrong website”

    I think Vicky is in the wrong century…

  24. Donna September 22, 2015 at 10:04 pm #

    JulieC – I agree that that is part of the problem. The parents where my kid goes to school are so into parenting and I do think it is in part because they are all highly educated people who have scaled back their careers (sometimes just mom and sometimes both parents) to raise a family and so now treat parenting as their career. It also leads to them not wanting let their kids grow up because they then don’t know what to do with themselves.

  25. SanityAnyone? September 22, 2015 at 10:46 pm #

    The term “parenting non-expert” made me realize that perhaps the ultimate challenge we face, for which we can never adequately prepare and thus we must live by our wits, is the challenge of two big newborn eyes begging the question “now what?” Beginning at this moment we must muster all we know about problem solving, our values, resources, strengths and weaknesses. If we haven’t had the opportunity to discover and assimilate this information and test our limits, how can we guide another generation?

  26. James Pollock September 23, 2015 at 1:36 am #

    “Before I got married I had six theories about raising children; now, I have six children and no theories.”

    ― John Wilmot

  27. Joel Arbic September 24, 2015 at 2:28 am #

    Sounds like Ellie Lee of CPCS is right in line with FRK philosophies. Always happy to hear about any opportunity you have to get your message out to a wider audience. Keep up the good work Lenore and have a great trip.

  28. CaliForestGirl September 25, 2015 at 12:42 am #

    We would love to hear you when you come to San Francisco! How can we find out when and where?

  29. Puzzled September 25, 2015 at 5:01 pm #

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/08/07/get-your-teen-talk-dinner_n_7071438.html?sr_source=lift_facebook

    It appears Huff Post decided they needed to consult experts for advice on how to talk to your kids.

  30. Claudia September 26, 2015 at 12:43 pm #

    It’s very true that a problem, as Bob says, is no middle way point seen between orthodoxy/helicoptering and neglect. People throw the word ‘neglect’ around awfully easily, with an assumption that a parent who, say, lets a child go to a shop round the corner alone, or leaves kids in a car for a few minutes, has simply *no* thought for their children’s welfare, rather than considering that they may have made their own risk assessment and made a rational judgement call. I, for one, if I have to pop into a shop, might weigh the chances of my children getting hit by a car in the carpark if I take them out (possible, but unlikely) against ‘what if a paedophile kidnapper is walking past at that moment and spots my kids and breaks the windows in the middle of a busy carpark to abduct them and no one intervenes’?’ (theoretically possible, unbelievably unlikely).

  31. Linda Collins September 30, 2015 at 12:36 pm #

    Hello from London,

    I was glad to read that you will be speaking at the Battle of Ideas here in London in October. I have just recently moved from Maine to London and have been a follower of the blog for over a year. I have been fascinated to read articles in the local papers here in London about societal constraints to “free-range kids” and parents’ nagging fears. I have only been here a month+, so cannot fairly compare, yet, but am pleased that my 11-year-old daughter was eligible for a free Zip Oyster card that entitles her to free public bus use and reduced fares on tubes etc. The Zip Oyster arrived with a small carrying case that contained rules regarding good behavior and expectations for kids using the pass. No one looks twice at school kids using the buses by themselves which is refreshing.

    Have an enjoyable time at the event–not sure whether I can attend, but glad you called it to my attention.

    Thanks for all you do!
    Linda Collins