Nancy McDermott

Nancy McDermott reflects on 10 years of CPCS

How did you hear about the work of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies?

I was fortunate to be involved with the CPCS from the beginning. Back in 2007 I attended the ‘Monitoring Parents: Childrearing in the Age of Intensive Parenting’  and have been affiliated ever since.  In those days, I was involved in running Park Slope Parents (PSP), an online parents’ community similar to the UK’s Mumsnet, in the borough of Brooklyn, New York City.

Park Slope was, and still is, one of the most desirable places to raise children in New York City. Because of this and because New York City is one of the world’s most important hubs for all things cultural, the people raising children in the neighborhood were some of the most driven and accomplished anywhere.  It was not uncommon to see movie stars, famous authors, CEOs, film makers and journalists among the parents at the playground, and this seemed to amplify the already intense childrearing going on in other parts of the country.

Parents in the neighborhood were putting so much thought and effort into parenting that they lost perspective. They formed strong opinions about things like whether it was better to wean babies on rice cereal, pears, or avocados, how much screen time was too much and bedtimes. They worried that  their nanny’s habit of eating McDonalds breakfasts might somehow lead to their child to choose fast food over Tofurky hotdogs from the co-op. The mere existence of differing opinions was imagined as “judginess” and became a serious source of tension and conflict between husbands and wives, parents and grandparents, and between other parents encountering one another in the neighborhood. The relationship between parents and non-parents deteriorated. A few bars and restaurants banned children and snarky local bloggers complained about parents and their “crotch spawn” It really felt like being at ground zero of some new and disturbing social phenomenon.

Is there a particular concept or idea from PCS that you have found useful in your own research?

One of the great things about the book, Parenting Culture Studies,  and the other works by CPCS and their associates was the way they frame these seemingly disparate phenomena within a wider culture of childrearing while avoiding the trap of blaming parents.  At a time when most critiques of parenting focused on parent’s behavior, the CPCS was very clear about the double bind of parenting culture, namely that parents were reviled for carrying through the imperatives of this new culture of childrearing. The book, Parenting Culture Studies laid the foundation for understanding so many things about this new way of raising children: the new role of science and expertise; the problems of deterministic family policy, the impact of parenting culture on adult identity and its pernicious effect on adult solidarity. It was this analysis, and some of the other insights gleaned from Jan MacVarish’s work on Neuroparenting and Jennie Bristow’s work on the generations that served as the basis for my own book.

In The Problem with Parenting I have tried to situate parenting culture within the context of the rise of Therapeutic culture and, most especially, the decline of the bourgeois family. In the course of looking more closely at the origins of parenting culture, the rise of Parenting with a capital “P” was more than just a routine evolution of childrearing. Parenting emerged during what Tom Wolfe dubbed “The Me Decade”, a time time when the communal, religiously inspired values of modernity and the Enlightenment were giving way to a new system of meaning. This new therapeutic culture placed self actualization, self expression and personal fulfillment above all else.

In retrospect, the institution of the family served as a bulwark against the full emergence of therapeutic culture because everything about its form and function arose out of an Enlightenment vision of the relationship between the individual and society. It was intensely child centered and future oriented. It balanced the needs of family members instilling children with the sense of being part of a greater whole. Its permanence  created an ideal environment for children’s natural growth and it helped to create adult solidarity in society more broadly. When families began to break apart in the 1970’s (a development that was itself a product of the growing influence of therapeutic culture) the new norms of raising children that emerged, especially in the last two decades of the twentieth century created an ever more therapeutic world view in each new generation. We now find ourselves in a paradoxical situation in which the nurture of an individual’s sense of self (usually in the form of identity) is held up as the common purpose of society.

How, if at all, do you think things have changed in the world of parenting since the publication of ‘Parenting Culture Studies’ in 2014?

The confluence of trends that put childrearing on the radar in the first few decades of the twenty-first century — the relative rise in the number of births among the educated and affluent and the consumer boom that helped to bring childrearing into the mainstream consciousness — has subsided, but  we can see the impact of Parenting in new extremes of childrearing and in other cultural phenomena. Some of the most important are:

1) The rejection of parenthood.

Raising children is no longer universally regarded as a good thing for society. And where children once embodied the future, they are now associated with unwanted obligations or in some case as an indulgence that threatens society and the planet. Though “the child” is still a potent emotional object, there is a growing anti-natal attitude among young people, who regard parenthood as a selfish choice. Indeed, at a time when marriage is seen as a route to self actualization and families are primarily about emotional satisfaction there is little to choose between children and pets. Indeed since 2014 there has been a boom in all things pet related, complete with doggie daycare, and dog strollers that resemble children’s pushchairs.

2) Hostility to social norms

From the 1970’s onwards, parents have been, perhaps understandably, ambivalent about social conformity. They aspired for their children to be “Free To Be … You and Me” and urged them to “be themselves”. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, this seems to have evolved into hostility to a culture that is hostile to any norms and values associated with the past. The clearest example is “Gender Neutral Parenting” in which the basic existential categories of male and female are reimagined as oppressive, externally imposed limitations on the development of children’s sense of self. Parents strive to deemphasize gender so that children will be able to choose their own gender free from the pernicious influence of society, with the predictable result that gender has been caricatured as a set of stereotypes that have been fetishized in gender reveal parties while leaving a generation of young people declaring themselves “non binary” because sex and gender no longer makes sense. This insistence on self-definition over social norms seems to have laid the basis for the broader explosion of identity as an organizing principle for social relationships.

3) The replacement of norms with bureaucratically imposed rules

As each new generation after the 1970’s has internalized the idea that norms are inherently suspect, social norms have lost much of their ability to govern the relationships between individuals. As norms related to  categories such as “male/female”, “adult/child”, “parent/child” , “mother/father” “sister/brother” have become become less meaningful or replaced with generic terms such as “sibling” or “care-giver”, the relationships between individuals are increasingly subject to bureaucratic regulation. Parents registering their children for school are designated “Parent/Guardian 1”, “Parent/Guardian 2” and asked to indicate which, if any family members are allowed access to their children. Consent training for children and young adults compensates for the inability of young people to negotiate intimate relationships while imposing a static formalistic standard for the most intimate of  human connections. Much in the way that the word “parenting” arose in the context of a disruption to childrearing norms, so the word “adulting” is a clue to this crisis of meaning.

4) The invasion of family life

It is astonishing to watch the borders of private family life dissolving. The conduct of family life has long been of interest to experts and policy makers, and subject to interventions by therapists, parenting coaches and experts, but social media seems to have accelerated the breakdown of the borders of family life as family members share ever more intimate experiences, or seek to curate family life for the consumption of others. The pandemic looks poised to open up family life even more. Remote working and learning have blurred the lines between home and work or school creating a window through which experts can peer in on family members’ unguarded behavior. Teachers are already complaining about what they see through the windows: smoking, raised voices, toy guns, etc. It is likely that intervention will follow observation.

Where to now? 

I came across the following passage in the introduction Christoper Lasch’s Women and the Common Life “. His daughter, Elisabeth Lasch Quinn writes “Lasch was one of the few historians who studied the roles that women, feminism, love, marriage and the family played in the history of the West, not only out of a passionate interest in these subjects but also out of a condition that cultural history could not be understood otherwise.”  It seems to me that parenting has never been primarily about the things parents do, and that CPCS has a vital role to play in placing the question of socialization and generational renewal at the heart of any discussion of children, adults and the future of society.