The stories that news headlines tell might suggest that parenting in contemporary society consists of scrutinizing how much helicoptering is too much, worrying about screen time, and lamenting the vast chasms of inequality that result in so many different kinds of childhoods. Many of these stories are true, some are based on rigorous social scientific research, and a few may even call people into action to create social change so that parents and children thrive rather than suffer. But if all we did was examine what’s going on with parenting today by looking at news media, we’d miss important new research findings that complicate all of the often-oversimplified headlines.
Because I was dissatisfied with how I saw parenting depicted in our social and news media feeds, I gathered a group of stellar researchers and practitioners to tell a detailed, timely, and untold story about the topics contained in the headlines. The result is a book that I edited entitled Contemporary Parenting and Parenthood: From News Headlines to New Research. Each chapter, authored by stellar researchers and practitioners in sociology, psychology, and economics, starts with a provocative news headline, and then delves into what the research says about how parenting is really happening in contemporary society. Imagine a headline saying “This is bad for your kids!” Now imagine a fantastic collection of chapters that scrutinize what “this” means, what “bad” means, and whose kids we’re really talking about. This post summarizes the key general takeaways from this new collection of research findings, with links to the web pages of authors whose work is featured.
Let’s start with the notion that parents are evaluated more than ever, and more visibly than ever, based on how much (and what kind of) effort and intentionality they use in their parenting. The concepts of helicopter parenting, intensive parenting, and concerted cultivation need to be complicated (and actually, differentiated from each other) in light of new research findings, even as the existence of helicopter parenting constitutes a type of moral panic (albeit one that reproduces privileges among those elite parents who preserve their privilege to hover even if they’re critiqued). If we only focus on some sort of universal hovering technique of all parents in all places, we miss variations within families (maybe each child requires different hovering techniques, maybe each developmental stage does, too). And we miss the fact that age of children and parents matter (maybe some parents’ efforts to hover enough so that kids thrive into their adulthood may end up making those kids be so successful that they fail to come home for the holidays, thus oddly disappointing the aging parents). So, not all hovering looks the same, is performed the same way, or has the same impact.
When it comes to how well parents are doing, there’s plenty of research out there that examines the fact that parents are less happy than non-parents, some of which is interrogated in the book. What’s important to add to this is an elaboration that it is due to a lack of available family friendly policies that this gap is particularly pronounced in the U.S. And even in countries where progressive policies may be enacted, there can be a cultural lag whereby people are reluctant to take advantage of the policies for fear of being stigmatized. And what about time that parents may be able to spend doing leisure activities? Turns out that overall leisure has declined and a bigger share of mothers’ leisure time is now spent with children. So, the story we can tell about parental well-being in the U.S. especially is that we lack supportive policies, and even in the face of supportive policies, gendered cultural values about who is supposed to parent impact likelihood to take advantage of policies as well as who gets to be present during leisure activities that are not part of the calculation of work-family balance.
Any story of contemporary parenthood requires a focus on social inequalities. In addition to the gender inequalities noted above, any family studies book will highlight how parents’ and children’s lives are impacted differently based on group status. Of course socioeconomic status impacts parents’ access to valuable resources. But parents and teachers also play a role in how children interpret their own living conditions, including when children living in poverty may have mixed ideas from, on one hand, family and neighbor stories about how hard it is to make ends meet, and on the other hand, teachers’ voices saying how important it seems to work hard to get out of poverty or fellow classmates’ voices talking about how important it is to have the latest video game or shoes. In addition to social class, one of the ways that intentional efforts by parents to turn their parenting into a concerted project that has been largely absent from past research relates to immigrant status. For example, visa restrictions that disallow paid employment impact how much parenting becomes an intense part of life that otherwise would be filled with paid employment in a home country. And what about immigration as it may relate to adoption? When we think about becoming parents, it is more crucial than ever to remember that crossing national borders in an adoption process can also occur when immigrant parents are deported and children are left behind to be fostered, a situation that challenges traditional notions of children’s rights and parenthood. Clearly race and immigrant status matter in the lived experiences of today’s parents and children. In fact, talking about race with children varies depending on parents’ race. White parents are more likely than non-White parents to avoid talking about race with their kids, in part because they have the privilege to ignore this – a result of still-present colorblind ideology. As more conversations occur about privilege in our society, it will be important to investigate how and whether this racialized form of parent-child communication may change. And finally, when it comes to inequality, the notion of who is legally allowed to partner and parent matters. Since same-gender marriage is legal, researchers will need to continue to investigate ways that children of these parents are faring well (which they are). This is especially crucial, because, despite the legality of family formation in this way, cultural values associated with heteronormativity and repronormativity prevail, even when people imagine their own LGB children’s future parenting and family lives.
In no uncertain terms, and despite unequal access to resources, cultural support, or family-friendly policies, people still overwhelmingly want to parent, and they want to see their children become parents, too. Importantly, in all of these research findings, the specific groups studied have experiences that intersect with other inequalities. It is never just about class, citizenship, race, gender, age, or sexual orientation. It is always about all of these.
What a rewarding adventure it has been to be the curator of this collection of new takes on not-so-new questions about parenting and parenthood, all of which have been presented here in a far-too-cursory manner. If family scholars and practitioners wish to have their work be part of the national (and international) conversation about what’s best for families, look no further than the latest research that these authors have conducted.
But always look beyond the news headlines.
Michelle Janning is Raymond and Elsie Gipson DeBurgh Chair of Social Sciences, and Professor and Chair of Sociology at Whitman College. Her research connects material culture and spatial design with family roles and relationships. She is the author of The Stuff of Family Life: How our Homes Reflect our Lives (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017) and Love Letters: Saving Romance in the Digital Age (Routledge, 2018), and is the editor of Contemporary Parenting and Parenthood: From News Headlines to New Research (Praeger, forthcoming). In the book discussed in this post, Janning also includes a chapter on the role of technology in contemporary parenting. Her work is featured at www.michellejanning.com.