Seminar 1

From child-rearing to ‘parenting’: what’s new about contemporary parenting culture?

8th and 9th January 2009. University of Kent


Abstracts and papers

Presentations (on YouTube):

Seminar summary

Seminar theme: The notion that there is something distinct about the way that Anglo-American culture now views the task of child-rearing has emerged as an important theme in sociology.

According to Furedi, for example, we live in an age of ‘paranoid parenting’. In his 2001 book of this name he explained that, as compared to the past, children are deemed peculiarly at risk from an ever expanding range of dangers. As a result, the task of child-rearing has expanded significantly:

Parents today are continually advised to supervise their children. An inflated sense of risk prevails, which demands that children should never be left on their own…The demand for constant parental supervision creates and impossible strain on fathers and mothers…One of the big myths of our time is that mothers and fathers spend less time with their children than previously. The new cultural norms demanding the constant supervision of children represent a major claim on the time of parents.

A linked development, argues Furedi, is the growing consensus that it is what parents do, and fail to do correctly, which is the origin of most social problems. ‘Parenting’ has, for this reason, been turned more than ever into an object of policy making and expert advice:

It does not take long for parents to realise that everyone today seems to hold strong opinions about the problems of raising a child. While the politicians regularly  hold forth about what they believe make as ‘good’ or ‘responsible’ parent, there is an industry of experts who bombard us with ‘helpful’ insights drawn from the science of child-rearing…Paradoxically it seems as if the only people who feel unconfident in their opinions about what is good for children are parents themselves. The role of bumbling amateurs has been assigned them by the self appointed experts.

Other analyses have detected similar developments. While her claim is that motherhood remains at the centre of the reconstruction of the ‘good parent’ Sharon Hays also considers the expansion of child rearing, and validation of the oversight of experts in this task, as noteworthy. In her work The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (1996) Hays set out what she calls ‘intensive motherhood’, a cultural norm for mothers that has some key features:

Good motherhood involves devoting large amounts of time, energy and material resources to the child;

Good motherhood requires that the child’s needs are put first: mothering must be child-centred;

It is required of the good mother that account is paid of what experts say about child development. It is not enough to ‘make do’ and do what seems easiest.

‘In sum’ she argues, ‘the methods of appropriate child rearing are construed as child-centred, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor intensive, and financially expensive…the ideas are certainly not followed in practice in every mother, but they are, implicitly or explicitly, understood as the proper approach to the raising of a child by the majority of mothers.’

Parental risk aversion, parenting experts, and the politicisation of the family have all be identified as features of our past (see for example Christina Hardyment’s Dream Babies: Childcare Advice from John Locke to Gina Ford (2007) andPolitics of Motherhood: Child and Maternal Welfare in England, 1900-1939 (1981) by Jane Lewis). The sort of account briefly discussed above points, however, to a new categorical distinction between child-rearing, and ‘parenting’. It suggests that the latter activity is now constructed in a particular way, and involves a different set of cultural norms and customs to those prevalent in the past.

Recognition of this development reaches far beyond the academe. Whether it is the object of endorsement or criticism, it is generally recognised that the role and definition of what makes for a ‘good parent’ differs from the past. This idea forms the starting point idea for this seminar series, and in future events we will look in detail at aspects of it – risk and parenting, policy and parenting, and motherhood and fatherhood are our future seminar themes. This first event aims to provide an historical dimension and thus context for our deliberations. In this light participants will discuss research that considers what is distinct about our parenting culture in the present.

We will discuss research about constructions and representations of parents and parental behaviour and responsibilities in institutions including the media and the law. We will also consider the development of a key idea which forms part of contemporary parenting culture, namely ‘bonding’. And we will look at how our culture differentially views, and influences the lived experience of, certain groups of parents, including teenage parents and parents of disabled children. We will also discuss plans for the rest of the series.

Leave a Reply