Parenting in America   /   Fall 2013   /    Parenting In America

The Cultural Contours of Parenthood

A Bibliographic Review

Stephanie Muravchik

illustration from Journeys through Bookland: A New and Original Plan for Reading Applied to the World's Best Literature for Children (1922); flickr.

All kinds of people are parents—rich and poor, pious and secular, married and single. America’s parenting culture reflects these differences. Economic, social, and other currents pull it, and parents, in different directions. Yet parents in the United States are also shaped by a common culture that includes ingrained ideas about the nature of children and family life, and all Americans must contend with the cultural complexities and contradictions of modern parenthood. 

Children: Precious and Fragile 

It is now a commonplace that children are precious and vulnerable creatures, but sociologist Viviana Zelizer’s classic Pricing the Priceless Child shows how much of a departure this tender idealization is from the way children were viewed a century and a half ago. Parents who would not or could not support infant offspring paid hefty fees to leave them with “baby farmers,” under whose care the children often died. Few people wanted such castoffs. Only hale teenage boys could expect to be adopted, if only for the income their labor could contribute to a household. If a working child was run over by a carriage or train, courts would award the family a dollar or two to cover the child’s lost wages. 

Around the turn of the century, however, Americans began to reject such attitudes. The affluent insisted that children not work, and adopted abandoned babies who struck them as cute. The poor scrimped to buy insurance policies for their kids so that, if the worst of fates befell them, they wouldn’t have to be buried in the potter’s field. 

Before children were seen as precious, they were generally regarded as sturdy and resilient creatures and were permitted to roam urban streets in the course of their work or play. Prepubescent children handled heavy machinery, tended cantankerous livestock, cared for younger siblings, kindled fires, and cooked meals. The change in our sense of children’s fragility is captured by the historian Peter Stearns, who points to the recent practice of having students in high school health classes carry around raw eggs in preparation for the responsibilities of parenthood. Intense exposure to the idea that children are as delicate as eggs invariably leads to what Stearns calls “anxious parents,” a label that is also the title of his recent book on this subject. 

The new valuation of children originated in nineteenth-century middle-class families in which the mother—freed from the wage work and domestic labor that characterized the lives of poorer women—devoted her days to a relatively small group of offspring in her home. Historian John Demos refers to the household with this kind of home life as the “hothouse family.” Such environments gave rise to the perception that children’s complex and sensitive psyches required careful tending. Scholars have named this trend “therapeutic familism,” and parenting experts, child welfare organizations, schools, churches, and even the military have all had a hand in encouraging it. Parents are advised to nourish their child’s individuality and self-esteem. They help kids identify and express their feelings. They also see to it that their offspring are able to fully assert their power and autonomy.11xThe term is used in the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture report Culture of American Families. In addition to the titles cited in the bibliographies, see Ellen Herman, The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in an Age of Experts (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1995); James Davidson Hunter, The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age without Good or Evil (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000); Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminished Expectations (New York, NY: Norton, 1979); and Stephanie Muravchik, American Protestantism in an Age of Psychology (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2011).  So pervasive and persuasive is this approach to family life that, as ethnographer Nazli Kibria shows, it takes only a few years of living in the United States before young Vietnamese immigrants begin criticizing their parents for not being more egalitarian and outwardly affectionate. 

Given that most Americans now assume that children are priceless and fragile, it is no surprise that many have striven to remove all risks they might face. Ellen Herman’s excellent Kinship by Design shows how intolerance of risk, a belief in children’s value and vulnerability, and the importance assigned to a family’s emotional climate converged in the twentieth century to legitimize state intervention in what had once been the private business of adoption. Because adoption was viewed as a psychologically precarious way to form a family, experts and the state intervened to mitigate the risk. In many other ways as well, Herman shows, state intervention both “helps and disciplines” family life. 

But some scholars take a more jaundiced view, arguing that the state and medical experts often do more harm than good. Sociologist and public policy scholar Elizabeth Armstrong shows how experts misrepresent the likelihood of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) in babies whose mothers drank while pregnant. Their clumsy strategies needlessly  frighten all mothers and stigmatize pregnant women who consume alcohol while failing to alleviate the noxious synergy of factors such as poverty and isolation that leave an unfortunate small minority of infants vulnerable to FAS.

  • Armstrong, Elizabeth M. Conceiving Risk, Bearing Responsibility: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the Diagnosis of Moral Disorder. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
  • Demos, John. “Oedipus and America: Historical Perspectives on the Reception of Psychoanalysis in the United States.” In Inventing the Psychological: Toward a Cultural History of Emotional Life in America, eds. Joel Pfister and Nancy Schnog. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997, 63–78.
  • Herman, Ellen. Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
  • Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Culture of American Families. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2012.
  • Kibria, Nazli. Family Tightrope: The Changing Lives of Vietnamese Americans. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.
  • Stearns, Peter N. Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2003.
  • Zelizer, Viviana A. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985. 

Parents: Supported or Controlled? 

For more than 100 years, state and federal agents have supervised, regulated, and intervened in child rearing.22x Previously, families had not been free from interference, but were governed locally rather than at the state and federal levels. See for example, Nancy Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); and Helena Wall, Fierce Communion: Family and Community in Early America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).  Although done in the name of bolstering families, state intervention can weaken parental authority and leave a family worse off, as ample research has shown. Child welfare workers in the first half of the twentieth century were especially clumsy, often exacerbating the problems of family instability, poverty, and violence. They were more likely to remove a victim of sexual abuse from her home than the assailant, for instance, and they penalized single mothers forced to leave their children unattended while working to put food on the table. State intervention continues to have ambiguous outcomes today. Education scholar Robert Kunzman, for example, found that the homeschooling parents he interviewed were heavily invested in their children’s well-being but nevertheless felt the need to maintain membership in the Home School Legal Defense Association in the event of a child protective services investigation. Parents whose child-rearing practices fall outside mainstream middle-class culture—such as immigrants, people who are poor or working class, and conservative Christians—are well aware that they are the most likely targets of state intervention. White middle-class parents, by contrast, feel fortunate to be able to make most of the big decisions for their kids without state interference. 

The market often competes with the state to shape parenting. It sometimes loses. A century ago, the state began insisting on the withdrawal of children from the labor  force despite the protests of employers and parents. Often, however, the market holds decisive sway. Popular media and consumer advertising reach past parents directly into children’s lives. And employers structure family life on a day-by-day, hour-by-hour basis, requiring parents to forge a tricky “work-life balance.” Few scholars have examined this struggle with as much persistence and insight as sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild. She famously argued in The Second Shift that despite women’s massive entry into the work force, they still did the lion’s share of domestic labor, with maternal exhaustion and marital tensions the result. In The Time Bind, however, Hochschild wrote of her finding that even gender egalitarianism at home leaves working parents continually squeezed for time. This has led to a “third shift”: the time spent giving extra attention and soothing to children made fussier and needier by long, frequent separations from their parents. 

Paradoxically, even as parents are often described as increasingly constrained by state and market forces, they are also described as increasingly isolated. In a fascinating account by the historian Rebecca Jo Plant, readers can trace the origin of this development to a midcentury attack on the venerable tradition that regarded “Motherhood” as a civic institution in which women risked death to bear and rear a virtuous citizenry. By the latter decades of the twentieth century, “Mother” had been demoted to “mom,” a woman who had made a merely private choice to have kids. This cultural privatization is only part of the story. Today, parents are alone in many other ways as well: fewer relatives from outside the immediate family help care for kids, fewer neighbors lend a hand, and fewer families rely on religious congregations and other groups to reinforce parenting. In her widely cited book The Way We Never Were, historian Stephanie Coontz prescribes a bigger welfare state and more private and neighborly civic associations, which she sees as mutually reinforcing. More conservative scholars counter that the former can actually weaken the latter, and others point to the mixed results of state intervention.

  • Coontz, Stephanie. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1992.
  • Gordon, Linda. Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence, Boston 1880–1960. New York, NY: Viking Press, 1988.
  • Hochschild, Arlie Russell. The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home. New York, NY: Viking Press, 1989.
  • Hochschild, Arlie Russell. The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Homes and Home Becomes Work. New York, NY: Henry Holt, 1997.
  • Kunzman, Robert. Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2009.  
  • Lasch, Christopher. Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1977. 
  • Plant, Rebecca Jo. Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 
  • Popenoe, David. Disturbing the Nest: Family Change and Decline in Modern Societies. New York, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 1988.
  • Pugh, Allison. Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009.
  • Tubbs, David L. Freedom’s Orphans: Contemporary Liberalism and the Fate of American Children. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007. 

The Differences That Class, Sex, and Faith Make 

The institutions and trends I have described influence the way all American parents nurture their children. But differences in class, sex, and religious networks generate salient differences in the ways parents experience and react to similar institutions and beliefs. The most widely cited study of the effects of class on childhood is sociologist Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods. The middle-class parents she studied adopted a strategy of “concerted cultivation” under which they persistently sought to maximize their children’s self-esteem, intelligence, and skills. These parents constantly engaged their kids in lively back-and-forth. They encouraged their children to feel confident and entitled when dealing with figures of authority, one mother going so far as coach her son to prepare himself with a question for his doctor before a checkup. Lareau’s working-class and low-income subjects, meanwhile, believed that providing their kids with food, shelter, and love was by itself a sufficient challenge. Such parents saw little reason to spare limited energy for constant attentive chatter with their kids. And the only behaviors they could model for their children to prepare them for encounters with authority figures in medical offices or schools would be more suggestive of resignation and powerlessness. Class-based parenting cultures play out differently for mothers and fathers. Two distinct fathering cultures have emerged over the past half century. Related to therapeutic familism is the “New Fatherhood,” characterized by emotional intimacy and interpersonal engagement rather than authority and distance. Of course, involvement with offspring is not meant to replace the duty to support them. Throughout the twentieth century, breadwinning was essential to fatherhood, even as it came to seem insufficient on its own. The centrality of the breadwinner role is evident in the fact that married fathers today work harder and earn more than unmarried men or married men without children. Impressively, married fathers are also far more engaged in primary childcare than were their peers in the 1960s and ’70s. 

Working-class dads during the last 50 years have had to ignore or reinterpret calls for greater paternal engagement. In comparison to wealthier fathers, fewer marry or stay married to the women with whom they have children, which often leads to the loss of regular contact with these children. Because economic restructuring has made working-class jobs fewer in number and less remunerative, it is difficult for such men even to be “merely” breadwinners. In the many instances in which they are underemployed and estranged from their children’s mothers, these men are often unable to provide much material or emotional support. But in a fascinating recent study, Doing the Best I Can, sociologists Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson found that many men derided as “deadbeat” dads in fact long to be closer to their children, and even invoke “New Fatherhood” ideals. For example, a former inmate who had recently taken custody of his nine-year-old daughter expressed his gratification: “‘When I came home from prison, my older kids were all like sixteen years old. But now, I basically got a chance to see one of them grow up’.”

The fact that some trends have drawn fathers closer to their children while others have made them more remote is also true of mothers.33xFor a useful analysis and exhaustive overview of mothering studies in the past decade, see Samira Kawash, “New Directions in Motherhood Studies,” Signs 36, no. 4 (2011), 969–1003.  During the last 50 years, mothers have entered the work force en masse. Those who don’t work have more time to spend with their kids than those who do. But all mothers believe that their children need generous amounts of their parental engagement. So over the past few decades, both working and at-home mothers have spent more hours paying dedicated attention to their children.44xResearchers have emphasized “primary childcare” (e.g., bathing, dressing, playing with, or reading to a child) but have slighted “secondary childcare” (e.g., washing dishes, cooking, or reading the paper while chatting with children or helping them with homework), and ignored “tertiary” childcare (e.g., being “on call” while children drift off to sleep or play in the backyard). For studies that emphasize how much time working mothers still spend with their children, see S. M. Bianchi, “Maternal Employment and Time with Children: Dramatic Change or Surprising Continuity?” Demography 37, no. 4 (2000): 401–14; and L. C. Sayer, S. M. Bianchi, and J. P. Robinson, “Are Parents Investing Less in Children? Trends in Mothers’ and Fathers’ Time with Children,” American Journal of Sociology 110, no. 1 (2004): 1–43. One study that found “secondary childcare” to make up a substantial portion of all childcare is by Cathleen D. Zick and W. Keith Bryant, “A New Look at Parents’ Time Spent in Child Care: Primary and Secondary Time Use,” Social Science Research 25, no. 3 (1996), 260–80.  In her influential book The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, Sharon Hays sets out to investigate this conundrum. Women with means, she found, sometimes opt out of the double bind. Some of the more liberal among these subscribe to “attachment” parenting, characterized by frequent breastfeeding and delayed weaning, sleeping with their young child, and or wearing their infant in a sling.55xChris Bobel, The Paradox of Natural Mothering (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2002). Religious mothers are more likely than others to stay at home with their kids, and even homeschool them. 

Intensive mothering is largely dependent on fathers who are breadwinners. It is an approach that is unavailable to low-income moms, many of whom must work to help their families make ends meet, often going it alone. Sociologists Edin and Maria Kafelas persuasively argue that poor single moms emphasize how precious their children are to them—a sentiment that is, if anything, strengthened by the challenge of raising them alone and on a shoestring. For such mothers, children are the chief source of identity and meaning. These moms struggle hard to provide the basics, and they take great pride in their successes. Their points of comparison are the other mothers around them who fail to meet such challenges and the many fathers who do not even try. Low-income mothers cannot practice homeschooling, concerted cultivation, or attachment parenting. The most successful and ambitious often need to leave their kids with relatives as they log long hours in low-wage jobs and vocational training. But they talk about “being there” for their children with the same pride and intensity expressed by better off mothers.

Demography is not destiny. Levels of religious belief and involvement are crucial independent variables, cutting across cleavages of race, class, ethnicity, and sex. The power of religious observance is especially important since it seems to promote positive outcomes for children. Although much research remains to be done, parents’ religious involvement does appear to promote engagement and affection, even as it also may promote greater hierarchical authority and even corporal punishment.66xSee also James Ault, Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church (New York, NY: Knopf, 2004), a poetic and unusually sensitive ethnography that finds that one of the allures of fundamentalism is its power to effect positive transformations in marriage and parenting among working-class Americans. For example, when the sociologist Bradford Wilcox compared fathers who were active mainline and evangelical Protestants to more secular fathers, he found that the former spent more quality time with their children, yelled at them less, and hugged them more. Active evangelicals were the most likely to insist on their authority as head of the household and to spank their kids, but as a group they also stood out as the most engaged and affectionate dads.

  • Cherlin, Andrew, Cross-Barnett, C., Burton, L. M., and Garrett-Peters, R. “Promises They Can Keep: Low-Income Mothers’ Attitudes toward Motherhood, Marriage, and Divorce.” Journal of Marriage and Family 70, no. 4 (2008): 919–33.
  • Edin, Kathryn, and Kefalas, Maria. Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005. 
  • Edin, Kathryn, and Nelson, Timothy. Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013. 
  • Fox, Liana E., Han, Wen-Jui, Ruhm, Christopher, and Waldfogel, Jane. “Time for Children: Trends in the Employment Patterns of Parents, 1967–2009.” Demography 50 (2013): 25–49. 
  • Griswold, Robert. Fatherhood in America: A History. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1993. 
  • Hays, Sharon. The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996. 
  • Lareau, Annette. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (2nd ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011.
  • Mahoney, A., Pargament, K. I., Tarakeshwar, N., & Swank, A. B. “Religion in the Home in the 1980s and 1990s: A Meta-analytic Review and Conceptual Analysis of Links between Religion, Marriage, and Parenting.” Journal of Family Psychology 15, no. 4 (2002): 559–96. 
  • Wilcox, W. Bradford. Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 

Conclusion: The Cultural Contradictions of Parenthood

Two paradoxical trends emerge from the literature on parenting, partly accentuated by differences in scholarly interpretation but also rooted in real changes affecting the American culture of child rearing. Some scholars accentuate the ways parenting has become more socialized as experts and the state intervene in family life. Others, by contrast, emphasize how parenting has become more privatized and isolated. While there is ample evidence of both trends, scholars may never come to a consensus on many of the questions raised by these conflicting currents, including the one of whether the state aggravates or mitigates the conditions of isolation many parents seem to find themselves in. 

Although less intensively studied, another set of conflicting trends comes through in the research on the amount of time families spend together. Many parents spend fewer and fewer hours with their children—some, such as “deadbeat dads,” to the point of abandonment. Yet many others are devoting more and more of their time to their children, a trend epitomized by the phenomenon of “attachment” mothers who believe that their children should rarely, if ever, be separated from them. The relationships between these divergent trends, and their consequences for children, are just beginning to be studied.