An article, by Diane Hoffman, in The Hedgehog Review looks at current parenting practices in America, although it can apply to Canada and many other industrialized nations; what is most interesting and revealing in this well-written article is how Hoffman has shown that the word parenting, a verb, was non-existent a few decades ago.
People were parents, and some were better at it than others, not so much a skill as a way of being. Today, however, in an age of introspection and self-consciousness, things differ.
Parenting is fundamentally a late-twentieth-century invention. The transformation of the noun parent into the verb parenting could even be said to encapsulate a whole set of ideas that has changed parenthood into an expert-guided, knowledge-based activity, infused with the science of child development. Modern parenting has also put an unusually heavy burden on mothers and fathers by making them into something close to the sole caretakers of children. This is a decisive break with most pre-modern societies, where that responsibility was—and in many societies still is—shared by a variety of surrogate parents, particularly siblings.
Furthermore, parenting today takes place in a culture that is defined strongly by concerns with risk and blame. The perception that threats to children’s well-being lurk virtually everywhere has led to what British sociologist Frank Furedi calls “paranoid parenting” in his 2008 book of the same title. Unfortunately, more supervision doesn’t necessarily produce better or safer outcomes for children. Recent studies show that hovering parents can produce children who question their own capacity to deal with risky situations.
At the same time, parenting has become ever more subject to scientific scrutiny. The target of endless advice and increasing regulation, the practices of parenting and their putative consequences are now bound up with educational strategies, social policy, and national as well as international development agendas. Parenting is at the center of a global discourse, with important consequences far beyond the confines of the family.
The moral narrative of risk and blame that underlies parenting is also manifest in the many ways parenting has become politicized in modern societies. Parenting practices, particularly those of minority and low-income families, are increasingly identified as the source of many contemporary social problems, from delinquency to school failure. The proposed solutions—providing the poor with better parenting techniques, for example, so that their kids can do better in school—place the burden on parents and their supposed class and cultural deficits rather than on the social and economic inequities that continue to exert exorbitant effects on the lives of the less advantaged.This is right on the mark. Today, many parents have become so nervous and bear so many unnecessary burdens on whether they are good parents, that they often have undermined their intelligent thoughts and inclinations. They have given over their role to the experts, who often do not have any more better advice than the parents themselves. The continued and constant self-evaluation becomes tiring, and with good reason. Parenting is not a science—and it can never be—since it cannot follow a scientific method based on repeatable results for all cases.
Children, being human and young, don’t tend to always follow the expected or desired outcomes of parents and those in authority. They are often self-indulgent, impetuous and temperamental, lacking in self-control for reasons that have everything to do with the normal stages of child development. This is the way it has always been, and short of a general drugging or narcotizing of children (e.g., giving them all large doses of Ritalin), it is the way it always will be. It’s time to accept certain salient facts about children, namely, that they act childish and not as adults, and not as some adults and teachers would like or expect them to act.
There is more that burdens today’s parents, including our therapeutic moralizing culture, which needs to “assign blame to parents” for producing children that don’t meet societal norms. (If blame needs to be assigned, I can think of some government policies that need more scrutiny.) As a parent myself I understand such emotions and views, yet look at these in light of reason and normal expectations, and reject the countless books and magazine articles on parenting for the reasons spelled out in this fine and well-reasoned article. Being a parent is difficult enough without having one book or another telling you that you are doing it all wrong.
Truly, there is no one book, no one model of parenting, just as there is no one kind of child. Most children turn out like their parents, genetics playing just as much a role in shaping human development as parents do. (And, yes, science informs us that there are toxic, incorrigible children, a combined result of genetics and the child’s inability to conform to societal norms.) There are no perfect children; there are no perfect parents. There are parents who try their best, under the particular circumstances they are in and with the abilities they have. The need to conform to a curriculum or to pedagogical guidelines might seem right to a few, but it is nonsense and wasted energy when it comes to being a parent. In many ways, we as a society have allowed both competitiveness and our fear of failure to restrain our natural abilities to take care and guide our children.
Most parents want to pass on certain values to their children, seeing in these values the ways to success and happiness; this is apparent in all cultures, Hoffman writes in this essay: “The one theme that anthropologists who study parenting and childrearing agree on is that parents everywhere want to raise good children, and defining the ‘good child’ is an inescapably value-shaped enterprise.”
Parenting has always been a difficult, often thankless role, but more so today. To a large degree, it takes a kind heart, a listening ear, loads of patience, and lots of love. It also takes a sense of humor and a good sense of self. So, forget the parenting manuals; they are made, possibly with good intentions, but you know where good intentions often get you. We have become too uptight as parents and have forgotten that we are also individuals in our own right, often highly educated and holding responsible jobs, who are entitled to have a life, too. Too much self-sacrifice leads to resentment.
That’s all for now, my friends; take a deep breath and exhale. As for other parents, your thoughts are always welcome.
You can read the rest of the article at [Hedgehog Review].