Parenting in America   /   Fall 2013   /    Introduction

Introduction: Parenting in America

Joseph E. Davis

Illustration © Mikaela Fuchs.

Parenthood has been a topic of lively debates in recent years. The so-called “mommy wars,” for example, pitted career versus stay-at-home as contrasting poles in a struggle over the definition of the “good mother.” Another highly visible dispute, over how best to produce good—or at least successful—children, has “tiger mothers” squaring off against “simplicity” parents, advocates of a strict “Chinese way” against the more laidback “wisdom of the French.”

The popular debates have been largely conducted by and for the affluent and in terms of parenting philosophy. The philosophical differences are certainly important, as is the diversity in household forms and parenting practices across social groups and class positions (see Muravchik’s bibliographic review). But concern with difference can easily obscure or miss the social changes of recent decades that have, across the board, made raising children far more demanding and complicated. Especially significant has been the decline of a shared background of common culture. The signposts and shared norms that defined parenthood have been disappearing, as has a sense of communal responsibility for child rearing. Even the shared sense that childhood should be an apprenticeship for adulthood has waned (see Cross’s essay). These attenuated circumstances are having a wide and inclusive impact on the emotional terms of parent-child relations and the meanings of children in their parents’ lives (see Bowman’s essay).

Where common cultural patterns once prevailed, new ethical standards and responsibilities have entered. “Parenting,” a new concept, is parenthood in something like engineering mode (see Hoffman’s essay). Parents are expected to conduct themselves like professionals, rejecting informal knowledge for informed choices that optimize every facet of their children’s well-being and life chances. Under this regime, even the most mundane practices and decisions, from meals to bedtimes, take on ethical freight, subject to risk-benefit calculations, scientific findings, and expert recommendations. The intensification of parenthood has also brought wider scrutiny, leading to more competitiveness among affluent families and more state intervention in the child-rearing practices of the poor. No wonder feelings of uncertainty, impotence, and guilt are so pervasive (see McClay’s essay).

Our public debates have focused on the proper means of parenting; it is time to consider the ends.

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