by Glenda Wall
23rd July 2021

There has been much research over the last 30 years to suggest that what is considered ‘good’ middle-class parenting in much of Europe and North America has become more time-consuming, intensive, emotionally demanding and child-centred. This has happened for a number of reasons.

Part of it has to do with increasing concerns about children’s safety and future success as our society has become much more preoccupied with risk avoidance and parents’ responsibilities in this regard. We have also become more individualistic as a society as the social safety net that characterised the welfare state was largely dismantled, and individual responsibility, self-management and adaptability to change became emphasised both politically and culturally. In the words of Elizabeth Beck-Gersheim, a German sociologist, life has become a planning project and parenting is a part of that project. It is up to individual parents to avoid and manage risks to their children and carefully plan for their success in life, and expert advice is meant to educate parents so that they can do that. If parents fail in this duty, the state has been increasingly intervening in punitive, rather than supportive ways; a response that disproportionately targets marginalised parents. Underlying this rationality is an understanding that parents not only have a great deal of individual control over their own outcomes, but also over their children’s future outcomes.

Along with these social changes we have seen, since the 1990s, much more focus on building children’s brain potential and on the academic achievement of children, as parents worry about their future prospects in what we are told is an uncertain and rapidly changing world that requires agile individual adaptivity. Thus, the task of managing children’s intellectual achievement has taken up more space on the parental list of duties. At the same time, we have also seen increasing warnings by experts of the dangers of overparenting and the effects that it might have on the independence and capabilities of young adults to manage their own lives. This has led to an increasing focus on the need for ‘good’ parents to build resilience in their children, in addition to the other, often contradictory, expectations parents face.

Much of my research has focused on the cultural understandings that childrearing experts draw on and perpetuate in their advice, and the implications of these understandings for both parents (especially mothers who are held responsible for the majority of intensive parenting responsibilities) and children. Most recently I have examined expert advice that is aimed at educating parents on ways to manage and protect their teenage children online. As in other contemporary childrearing advice, young people are presented here as being very vulnerable to risk, and lacking agency, capability and judgement. Parents, on the other hand, are presented as being almost omnipotent with respect to control over their children’s safety and behaviour, so long as they follow expert advice and remain vigilant. This understanding of the parent–child relationship is a very one-way one. Parents are seen as providing the structure and inputs that shape their children’s values and behaviour, while children are presented as passive and malleable.

One of the problems with these representations of parents and children, aside from exhaustion and burnout for parents, is that the amount of control that we, as parents, actually have over our children and their outcomes is questionable, especially as they get older. The widespread social assumption that we do, though, sets parents up for failure or guilt when things don’t go as planned, puts a lot of pressure on children to be happy, smart and on the path to success, and isn’t respectful of the capabilities, competence and capacity for judgement that young people themselves possess.

The view of parenting portrayed in the material I examined was a very instrumental one; a view that positions parenting as a set of skills and interventions, rather than as part of a two-way relationship we have with our children. Peppered throughout the material were many examples of advice telling parents, in minute detail, how to relate to and talk to their children in order to achieve desired behavioural outcomes, as though parents didn’t already have longstanding relationships with their children. This view of parenting positions parents as detached from their children and acting in the role of teachers or therapists, ignoring the many other aspects of the complex relationship that exists between parents and children.

There were also contradictions in the advice material that reflected the conflicting expert advice both to parent intensively and to step back from overparenting. Here, this took the form of dire warnings about the widespread nature of cyberbullying, and the very serious mental health effects that it had on teens. Knowing exactly what your teens were doing online and who they were doing it with was associated with responsible parenting and was presented as requiring a lot of self-education and constant vigilance. Alongside this, though, were also many warnings not to invade your children’s privacy or jeopardise the trusting relationship that parents should ideally have with their children.

Much of the advice was, in fact, on ways to establish a close and trusting relationship with children so that children would treat parents as their primary confidant(e) should anything go wrong, and so that children’s values could be more easily shaped by parents. This absorption of parental values, in turn, parents were told, would allow children to regulate themselves and be able to manage their own risks when parents were no longer there to oversee them. It would, in other words, build resilience in children. This conception of resilience, though, is one that not only requires a great deal of time and energy on the part of parents to foster, but is also one that meshes with a neoliberal view of social life that prioritises individual responsibility and control.

Overall, the parenting advice examined here thus fails to recognise the realities and difficulties of everyday life that parents face along with the deeper aspects of the parent–child relationship that shape parents’ and children’s experiences. It also ignores the many structural barriers that parents from marginalised groups face, and places unrealistic expectations for individual success on parents and young people alike.

Certainly, advice literature would be more helpful if it acknowledged the difficulties of parenting and the need parents have for social support. For this to happen, however, we need cultural and political shifts in our society. On an individual level, what we can do as parents is to recognise that expert advice is often not helpful, and that when things go wrong the problem may not be with us, but with unrealistic expectations in our culture and in expert advice.

Many things that happen to us and our children are not within our individual control, and greater recognition of this will lead us to be less exacting with both ourselves and other parents. We can also give ourselves permission to just be with our children and not feel obligated always to capitalise on teachable moments or take advantage of every possible extracurricular activity. Finally, we can acknowledge that we can’t be constantly vigilant and available to our children while still looking after ourselves.

Glenda Wall, Professor of Sociology, Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada.


Families, Relationships and Societies cover

Read ‘Being a good digital parent: representations of parents, youth and the parent–youth relationship in expert advice’ by Glenda Wall as part of Policy Press’ Families, Relationships and Societies journal, available here.

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