Monday, July 12, 2010

There is no "me" in "mommy"

This article on helicopter parenting, which was reprinted in our local paper from The Washington Post, has me pondering, yet again, this question:

How is it possible for there be a "me" in "mommy"?

The article, written by sociologist Margaret Nelson, reports on Nelson's research on the effects of hyper-involved parenting on the parents themselves. Nelson points out that a lot of the popular attention (like the Time magazine cover, above) has been focused on the effects on children: "Critics fret that the children of helicopter parents will lack maturity, self-reliance, self-esteem and good old-fashioned gumption."

As a college professor, I confess that I see this in too many students. Certainly not all - and those are the ones whose parents I want to meet at commencement - but still too many. As a parent, however, I feel that critics too often display little understanding about the pressures of parenting today. Esp. for women.

Nelson emphasizes that helicopter parenting is classed: "Compared with professional, middle-class parents, parents of lower educational and professional status are more likely to impose nonnegotiable limits on their children's behavior." In other words, strict rules and bans, including the use of blockers on their TV's and their computers, versus supervising and monitoring, which some parents might describe as exploring and discussing together.

A temptation might be to label middle-class parenting as misguided. However, I will counter that middle-class parents and children might likely see advantages and gains - for example, in school. Linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath, in her 1982 article, "What No Bedtime Story Means: Narrative Skills at Home and School," considered the classed differences in parent-child interactions around books and reading. Although in 1982, "helicopter parenting," at least as a term, had not been invented, Heath notes that middle-class parenting was oriented differently, with long-term consequences: "As school-oriented parents and their children interact in the preschool years, adults give their children, through modeling and specific instruction, ways of taking from books that seem natural in school and in numerous institutional settings such as banks, post offices, businesses, and government offices" (Brice 318). Working-class parents placed as much importance on books and reading and school as middle-class parents. However, middle-class parent-child interactions around books were not focused only on reading them, but also on talking about them. In fact, this might be the critical difference:

In doing the latter, they repeatedly practice routines that parallel those of classroom interaction. By the time they enter school, they have had continuous experience as information givers; they have learned how to perform in those interactions that surround literate sources throughout school....

They have learned how to listen, waiting for the appropriate cute that signals it is their turn to show off this knowledge (Brice 324).

The connection that I want to make here is that middle-class parenting appears, in fact, to "work": Brice found that middle-class children, overall, did better in school, which is seems a taken-for-granted truism today. On the children of working-class families, Brice found: "Their initial successes in reading, being good students, following orders, and adhering to school norms of participating in lessons begin to fall away rapidly about the time they enter the fourth grade" (Brice 331). Not being a specialist in education, I cannot say for certain, but if you believe what you read in the newspapers today, then this might be as true as ever in 2010.

So, we can decry helicopter parenting, but it seems hard to fix what apparently is not at all broken.

Is it not broken? Really?

The kind of involvement that exploring and discussing together is intense. Nelson observes: "Helicopter parenting is, to put it mildly, more time-consuming and more emotionally demanding than other parenting styles." She adds: "Mothers who try to live up to the new parenting standards of the professional middle class seem to have few options: They can overwork themselves, or they can leave the workforce."

Sister, you are singing my song.

Not only that, but having been brought up with a certain degree of benign neglect, I want to be less hovering as a parent, but I find it challenging to put into practice - and it is not just my own "psychology," a concept about which I will save my harange for another day... To start examining the structural reasons why, like the kinds of literal policing that surrounds parenting today, you might visit my friend Lenore Skenazy's blog, free range kids.

For me and for too many other parents, Nelson notes, the overwork means not less time with / for the children or at work - in fact, time studies show that working parents today spend more time both with their children and at work than in the past. Instead, it means less time with spouses and partners (not so good for marriages), other family members and relatives, and friends:

The time married parents spend visiting with friends and relatives outside the nuclear family has declined dramatically: Married fathers spent almost 40 percent less time and married mother spent almost a third less time socializing in 2000 than they did in 1965.... Parents seem to have few opportunities to pursue friendships unless they are friendships that take little extra time (as with co-workers or other parents on the sideline of a child's sporting event).

I found myself nodding as I read this last bit. For me, being able to maintain friendships with little extra time is part of the appeal of Facebook, and why I finally gave up my resistance to joining. Now, I can read the "walls" of friends from college and graduate school and past work lives, and they can read mine, and we occasionally can offer a "like" or a "comment" on each other.

Even in a relatively small community, like where I live now, too many conversations start with apologies for not being in better touch. However, as I walk Beanie to school or pick up Bubbie from day care or escort them to their various and sundry activities or just browse around, along with StraightMan, at the local farmers market, there is also the smile, the nod, the wave, and the brief exchange that I can share with the broad category of people whom I kind of know: Some friends and some friends-like. (Which the likes and comments on Facebook simulate...) All of us seem to be digging in, at least for the foreseeable future. Paradoxically, I might not have extra time for the active pursuit of friendships, but it seems that over time, people can become friends, too. Or at least I am beginning to appreciate and imagine the possibility.

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