The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 3 (Fall 2013)
Raising the Awesome Child
Diane M. Hoffman
Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.3 (Fall 2013). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.
Consult any online classified site these days, and you will almost certainly find ads similar to these two real examples:
Sitter needed for four AMAZING kiddies! 6-year-old girl: into music, art, playing, golf, soccer, baseball, surfing, skiing, baking, reading, and her new guitar. She’s sweet, sensitive, very smart, competitive, a little shy/introverted. 5-year-old boy: into soccer, baseball, playing, video games, ninjas, golf, tubing, surfing, bike, legos, dance, and guitar. He’s funny, extroverted, sensitive, helpful, playful, young & raw, and very smart…
4.5-year-old boy—Has a big personality, quiet in the beginning, but then really tries to shine/outdo his brother. Total daredevil, been on two downhill skis since he was 18 months old. Will do any black diamond, is a fantastic athlete, a very precocious kid with a fantastic vocabulary and sophisticated pallet [sic]. Plays the cello.
In other such ads for nannies, private tutors, and babysitters, you are likely to encounter parents describing their children as gifted, precocious, or incredibly smart. What is so interesting is that these amazing children seemed not to exist in America some 30 years ago. “Sitter needed for 4-year-old boy twice a week” has given way to “Sitter needed for precious, dare-devil, political (in a good way) amazing 4-year-old.”
In an earlier era, describing your own children in such superlatives would have been seen as gauche, at best. Now it is normal, even expected. A parent who avoids such language might be regarded as someone whose kids are simply failing to measure up—or worse, whose own parenting was failing to measure up.
What does the relatively recent proliferation of amazing children reveal about American parents and American parenting culture as a whole? To be sure, parenting in America resists easy characterization, in part because of this nation’s racial, ethnic, and social diversity. The existence of vastly different parenting styles and intense debates about what is best further complicate the picture. Yet if there is one thing studies have documented during the last 30 years, it is that Americans suffer from a common myopia: Others may have problems, but we are doing just fine, thank you. From Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon to a large and growing body of sociological and anthropological research, we have ample evidence that parents have distorted views of their own offspring’s capacities and accomplishments as well as their own parenting practices.1 Despite our much-vaunted diversity, parents everywhere in the United States tend to see their own kids and families as doing better than everyone else’s.
What does this focus on raising “amazing” children mean? How did the cultivation of such children become the agenda for so much of what is now called parenting? What are the implications for parents, children, and society? Those are the questions I propose to examine here—and, in doing so, show how parenting has become both a form of culture and an important domain of activity that transforms contemporary culture.
The Moral Career of Parenting
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.
The emergence of different varieties of parenting (for example, attachment parenting, intensive parenting, holistic parenting, and various media-fueled parenting styles such as “free-range parenting,” “tiger parenting,” and “helicopter parenting”) has been perhaps the most remarkable trend in popular parenting discourse in recent years. For some, the debates over parenting are polarizing, making what some call the hardest job in the world even more difficult: Whose advice should I follow? Is Ferberizing right for my sleepless baby? How about elimination communication to potty-train my infant?
To be sure, class differences, even more than racial ones, can affect the kinds of lessons parents teach about what it means to be an individual in society.2 For parents in the middle and upper-middle classes, on whom I shall focus here, the ideology of diverse choices in parenting is very powerful. The mantra is that no two families are the same, and, indeed, that no two kids are the same. Since what works with one child doesn’t necessarily work with the other, parents are expected to have a variety of techniques in their parenting arsenals. This supposed diversity exists against the backdrop of the parenting specialists who tell us that their advice is backed up by scientific evidence and is therefore better.
Yet apparent diversity masks what is in fact a convergence on a very limited set of assumptions about what makes a good child, and, more importantly, a good parent. Even when parents define themselves very differently or believe they are making very different choices with regard to parenting, they participate in a larger cultural universe of shared meaning that influences outcomes for children far more significantly. Parenting battles, it turns out, may be fueled by the fires of moral conviction, but the larger cultural wars over what makes a person and, ultimately, what makes a parent direct the most crucial action behind the scenes.
Defining the “Good Child”
Throughout much of human history—and in many places today—culture, tradition, religion, and many a mother-in-law have served as primary sources of moral authority in the task of raising children. The emergence of supposedly scientific or research-based approaches to understanding children’s development has come up against these ingrained beliefs and practices. The new position of the child sciences as a primary source of legitimate authority in parenting also highlights a paradox: though specific strategies or choices may be regarded as scientifically sound, they are defensible only in light of culturally defined ends or goals.
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. Models that shape goals for development and practices oriented toward the goals are not simply the reflections of individual preferences (what may be called “parenting styles”) but are conditioned by the wider discourse on what constitutes a valued self in society. Many of these discourses are not consciously or readily articulated but are reflected instead in themes, narratives, or symbol systems that develop around categories of selfhood. One might consider, for example, how selves are understood in relation to the natural world, how they relate to the spirits of deceased ancestors, how independent they should be, or whether they ought to have “free choice.” All of these ideas reflect culturally specific goals for personhood, grounded in a given place and time.
Anthropological research on how parents talk about their children reveals a variety of ways in which culture influences parental notions of what a good child is. A long tradition of inquiry in Japanese child-rearing, for example, has shown that the “ii ko,” or “good child,” has traits such as compliance, receptiveness, gentleness, and a certain capacity to be dependent. All of these taken together constitute a distinctly Japanese ideal of a desirable child. In a long-term cross-cultural comparative study, anthropologists Sara Harkness and Charles Super have observed how the childrearing discourse of American parents contrasts markedly with that of parents in Italy and other European countries. In the United States, parents talk about how intelligent their babies are, while Italian parents are likely to describe their children as even-tempered or simpatico. What is even more interesting were the different interpretations parents gave for the same behavior. In the United States, asking lots of questions is taken as an indication of high intelligence, but in Italy it is seen as an indicator of social-emotional competence. Harkness and Super find that, comparatively speaking, American parents have an “obsession” with cognitive development in their kids that overlooks so many other important qualities.3
To what extent does the question “What does it mean to raise a good child?” relate to questions of character, conscience, and qualities of moral intelligence? Is it really all about character, or is there a sense in which the good child is more about the highly successful, achieving child? In the United States, the ostensible discourse on goodness is framed most commonly in terms of qualities of character such as honesty, compassion, kindness, consideration, responsibility, and good judgment. What also stands out is the emphasis placed on explicitly didactic roles for parents. Parents try to teach kids to be moral not only by modeling correct behavior but by engaging them in explanations and reasoning about behavior. As parenting expert Thomas Likona puts it in Raising Good Children: From Birth Through the Teenage Years (1983), “We teach, directly, by telling…. We need to practice what we preach, but we also need to preach what we practice….
In other cultures, parents do not believe that talking to their kids about moral reasoning or explaining their behavior is the best route to teaching essential moral lessons. Children nevertheless grow up morally and perhaps with an even keener sense of how moral behavior is embedded in the context of human relationships. Anthropologist Jean Briggs’ studies of Inuit childrearing, for example, show that children acquire key moral understandings through stories, where children are confronted not with rational talk about proper moral behavior but by emotionally arousing dramas that teach fundamental aspects of relationships. As Briggs explains in Inuit Morality Play: The Emotional Education of a Three-Year-Old (1998), these stories often involve provocative moral dilemmas, such as the suggestion that a child might kill his baby brother so that he might have a shirt that belongs to the brother. There is an absence of explicit reasoning about what is right and wrong, and an emphasis on making the child confront challenging emotions. The telling of such stories is not limited to a child’s parent; any adult in the community may initiate these dramas.
If we take into account cultural variability in defining “goodness” in children and various methods of teaching “goodness,” we come to a deeper, less obvious cultural discourse that goes beyond instilling morals. For American parents, I believe, the “good” child is a cultural trope that reflects more about parental anxieties surrounding power, identity, and success than it does anything about the actual child. On one level, it is a response to a therapeutic, psychology-driven discourse about selves and emotions. On another, the ideal of the good child connects to a larger domain of social forces: risk, class threat, and how parents manage threats to their own identity as certain kinds of parents in society. What we define as “good” depends on how we aspire to see ourselves as parents.
On Regulating the Self via the Emotions
In studying the discourse surrounding child behavior management across time in popular parenting media, I have found that ideals of the good child frequently align with goals for emotional socialization. That is, parents desire to produce a child who is self-controlled, empathetic, caring, capable of self-expression, and authentic in his or her relations with others. The need for emotional regulation is fundamental to all of these desirable outcomes, and parents are supposed to play key roles in cultivating these qualities in their children.
In all societies, children are socialized to feel and express emotions in culturally legitimate ways. What appears to be distinctive about the United States is the emphasis on an explicit, highly cognitive emotional pedagogy, in which verbalization and attendant skills of cognitive processing (labeling, talking through, reasoning, strategizing) are of paramount importance. As a number of authors such as Furedi have remarked, this literature is saturated with an image of parent-as-therapist, in which parents “help” children label emotions and provide them with the correct interpretations of their emotions.
Helping kids develop self-control is also about parents being in control. The lesson here is that parents can’t teach kids how to handle emotions unless they model strategies for self-control: “Even though your son tore your pricey shawl while playing Batman, maintain a calm demeanor. Calmly ask him, ‘how did this happen?’”4 In other words, don’t let your child know that you have powerful negative emotions, ever.
What parent is capable of such perfect self-control? Since when did anger become so problematic, and how did the genuine expression of emotion in all its nonverbal depth and complexity get reduced to therapeutic talk and deep breathing? The ideal of the good, emotionally regulated child/parent effectively becomes a kind of cultural symbol for aspirations, ideals, and values of personhood that may not be attainable. Emotionally regulated parenting is a potent metaphor for the cultural contradictions inherent in the construction of persons—tensions between desired and real selves, between self-understanding and self-presentation, between inner experience and its verbalized representation, between self-assertion and compliance.
These paradoxes are seen in other goals for parenting/personhood, including both autonomy and authenticity. In reality an “authentic” self either does not exist or cannot be authentically (freely) expressed. This is the underlying lesson of such parental admonitions as “No, you really didn’t mean to say you wanted to hurt Johnny, let’s think this through....” 5 We are, in a sense, set up for failure when it comes to socializing children, because our ideals for authentic emotion are systematically undermined by the very practices that are supposedly designed to cultivate them.
When I interviewed mothers in an upper-middle-class community for a study on approaches to child discipline, one theme came through loud and clear: Parenting, for these moms at least, is a highly contentious and competitive activity. Many described their experiences confronting “an element of extreme mothering,” “over the top” mothering, or mothers who “take it to the CEO level.” One compared the atmosphere to “cults.” Another said, “I never realized how competitive it is…. You just get these looks from some moms. I sometimes feel it’s a little bit like junior high school all over again…”
Faced with such competitiveness, mothers felt driven to define themselves and their parenting approaches as unlike those of all other moms. They consciously defined themselves as different from “mainstream” parents. Yet, ironically, this notion of being different from everyone else is the very thing they all had in common. Further, their actual discourse on emotional and behavioral management, construed as either individually unique or shared within a very small group of their like-minded friends, was to a large extent borrowed from the expert-guided child-science establishment they decried as “mainstream.” While identifying with “holistic” mothers or Montessori-inspired mothers, they still participated in mainstream assumptions about power, autonomy, self, and emotional management widely promoted within the popular, expert-guided parenting advice literature.
So, what are we to make of this? On one level, it reflects the extent to which multiple layers of cultural practice and value surround parenting. A mother’s decision to “Ferberize,” use a family bed, or be a holistic mother was important to her own definition of who she was as a parent but ultimately relatively inconsequential when seen against the larger universe of cultural meaning and practices that shape selves in society. This was what the psychological anthropologist Thomas Weisner found after decades of studying two very different groups of parents, mainstream and countercultural. Despite real differences in cultural attitudes and parenting strategies among parents, actual outcomes for children were not noticeably different. Across both groups, the same cultural conflicts occurred, pointing to what Weisner considered to be a “more widely shared middle-class pattern for relationships, understanding of the self, independence, and styles of verbal negotiation.”6
As other anthropologists have pointed out, these deep-rooted ideas of thinking, being, and acting supersede the apparent diversity among individuals and communities. Some of the most hotly contested parenting choices in the United States today (such as co-sleeping) are loaded with moral weight and supposed consequences for children. But empirical work has proven them to be insignificant in terms of measurable outcomes for children. What matters more, apparently, is how these choices fit into parents’ own identities as “good parents.”
For the moms I worked with, the urge to define oneself as different reflected a need to enhance their own position relative to that of other parents. While children’s well-being was supposed to be at the heart of parenting, the adults’ own identities as certain kinds of educated and socially privileged parents was more the issue. Their parenting choices were not just about individual preferences. A decision not to send a child to a daycare with plastic toys, for example, though appearing to be about the child’s welfare, was really about the social class and educational status of the mother and her desire to be a particular kind of mother who is “better” than mothers who don’t care about the potential health risks of plastic toys.
At the same time, mothers’ preoccupation with their own parenting identities reflects a central paradox of the larger culture: what people think they value in theory is not what they value in practice. This may result from holding values that are mutually contradictory or tacitly undermined by cultural practices. When given free reign to talk about any issues concerning parenting within their community, mothers in my study did not talk about their children’s well-being or whether their parenting choices were good or bad for their children. They talked instead about their own identity struggles and feelings. They described how the social pressures around parenting had made them feel attacked, beleaguered, or unsupported in trying to be the kind of parents they wanted to be. The good child, notably absent as an independent concern, was enmeshed so deeply in aspirations for being a good parent that it had become, for all intents and purposes, invisible.
Class and status anxiety partly explain this behavior. Individually, mothers talk about the pressures to “get parenting right,” but there are larger forces at work as well. As sociologists Lois Weis and Michelle Fine argue in Harvard Education Review (Summer 2012), while privileged parents have always worked to secure benefits for their children, they experience great insecurity in their efforts to pass their social privilege on to the next generation, and struggles for class position are more intense and explicit than they have been for previous generations. Weis and Fine are specifically concerned with class battles that emerge in secondary schooling as parents work to get their children into elite colleges, but parenting itself is also implicated. Anxieties over getting parenting right are about parental identities, but in the long run, the latter are important because of the ways in which they intersect with the transmission of intergenerational privilege. Struggles to be a good parent reflect anxieties about the production of good—successful—children who can maintain or enhance parent and family status within contested social fields.
On Connecting the Good Child with the Real Child
Clearly, parenting is not just about the welfare of the child. Nor should one expect it to be. The welfare of the child is always implicated in the welfare of the parent. But there is also at the same time a curious silencing of the child’s voice, even when it is supposedly celebrated. When parents assume they have a right to provide the child with the proper interpretations of the child’s emotional life because the child is supposedly “incapable” of doing so, parental perceptions of what and who children are can easily slide into mere affirmation of parents’ own beliefs, desires, or perceptions.
Connecting visions of goodness (for both children and their parents) with the realities of cultural practices requires first that we see ourselves more clearly as who we are. That requires insight into the ways in which our culture encourages us not to recognize ourselves. Yet acquiring such insight is particularly difficult among Americans who are reluctant to acknowledge that others’ perceptions are often the best check on our own self-perceptions.
The decline of truly shared and communal responsibilities for childrearing is a key component of our cultural predicament. Because of deep concerns about privacy and the limits and rights of social authority and responsibility, one of the unquestioned presuppositions governing adult-child relations in society as a whole is the notion that only parents have the right to tell their children what to do, as long as the parents are not engaging in abuse or neglect or breaking a law. Norms of parenting in many communities in the United States have moved away from what were commonly accepted and valued practices of diffuse authority and communal discipline—the expectation that other mothers, for instance, would make sure everyone’s kids behaved well at the bus stop. Many mothers’ emphasis on their differences from other moms—even within the same community—is part of this problem. By seeing themselves and their offspring as so different from others, parents undermine any capacity for shared responsibility and for any sense of self that is more realistically connected to the concerns and perceptions of others.
Obviously this may not be true for all parents at every time and place, but beyond limited arenas highly regulated by law (such as schools or childcare facilities) our culture at large does not provide the supports for authentic engagement with other people’s children. Social pressures, legal liabilities, cultural consensus on individual differences, and ideologies of parenting itself work together to undermine the important role of those other than parents in raising children. And so, in the absence of valid sources of self-critique from others outside our own limited worlds, we are left wanting in ways to connect our ideals to practice.
Our hyper-intensive parenting culture actually diminishes the ability of parents to see their own children with anything approaching a healthy realism or objectivity. Without fully recognizing it, parents are subtly indoctrinated into seeing their children as reflections of their own superlative parental intentions and efforts. All of those “amazing” children who abound in communities of privilege symbolize a contemporary culture of parenting that places far greater value on parents’ own self-beliefs about who they are as parents than on their children’s attainment of true autonomy or authenticity. In this world, difference itself has become a mark of privilege, perhaps the supreme badge of privilege. Needing to believe their parenting choices are different, parents have lost the clarity to see their children or themselves as the people they truly are—or are striving to be.
- See, for example: Mark J. Penn with E. Kenny Zalesne, Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes (New York: Twelve, 2007); Harold Stevenson and James Stigler, The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994); Joseph J. Tobin, David Y.H. Wu, and Dana H. Davidson, Preschool in Three Cultures (New Haven: Yale, 1989); Carl Desportes Bowman, Culture of American Families: A National Survey (Charlottesville: Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, 2012).
- See, for example: Adrie Kusserow, American Individualisms: Child Rearing and Social Class in Three Neighborhoods (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004); Annette Lareau, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003). Kusserow in particular argues that there are varieties of individualism (“hard” and “soft”) that are aligned with social class differences.
- Nicholas Day, “No Big Deal, but This Researcher’s Theory Explains Everything About How Americans Parent,” Slate (April 10, 2013): <http://www.slate.com/blogs/how_babies_work/2013/04/10/parental_ethnotheories_and_how _parents_in_america_differ_from_parents_everywhere.html>.
- An example of advice from Vicky Mlyniec, “Blame Games,” Parenting Magazine, (June 2006), 175.
- Kusserow uses this example in her discussion of teachers trying to get a child to process his feelings.
- Thomas S. Weisner, “Culture, Development, and Diversity: Expectable Pluralism, Conflict, and Similarity,” Ethos Vol. 37, No. 2 (2009), 181–96.