The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 3 (Fall 2013)
The Cultural Contours of Parenthood:
A Bibliographic Review
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.
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....