The social norm of calling the authorities regarding the mothering of others

Mothering is not an activity just left to individuals or families; it is a communal activity that occasionally veers into differences of opinions and the actions of authorities:

I was beginning to understand that it didn’t matter if what I’d done was dangerous; it only mattered if other parents felt it was dangerous. When it comes to kids’ safety, feelings are facts…

This has actually been confirmed by researchers. Barbara W. Sarnecka, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Irvine, and her colleagues presented subjects with vignettes in which a parent left a child unattended, and participants estimated how much danger the child was in. Sometimes the subjects were told the child was left unintentionally (for example, the parent was hit by a car). In other instances, they were told the child was left unsupervised so the parent could work, volunteer, relax or meet a lover. The researchers found that the participants’ assessment of the child’s risk of harm varied depending on how morally offensive they found the parent’s reason for leaving…

It’s not about safety,” Dr. Sarnecka told me. “It’s about enforcing a social norm.”…

These women’s critics insist that it’s not mothers they hate; it’s just that kind of mother, the one who, because of affluence or poverty, education or ignorance, ambition or unemployment, allows her own needs to compromise (or appear to compromise) the needs of her child. We’re contemptuous of “lazy” poor mothers. We’re contemptuous of “distracted” working mothers. We’re contemptuous of “selfish” rich mothers. We’re contemptuous of mothers who have no choice but to work, but also of mothers who don’t need to work and still fail to fulfill an impossible ideal of selfless motherhood. You don’t have to look very hard to see the common denominator.

Social norms and expectations about roles are powerful parts of social life. Everyone has social guidelines to follow but the expectations can differ dramatically across groups. As the piece goes on to note, what individuals and society expect from fathers in similar situations differs.

This leads me to a few other thoughts:

  1. The appeal to third-party authorities rather than talking to the mother or just keeping an eye on the kids for a few minutes without alerting anyone reminds me of Baumgartner’s The Moral Order of a Suburb. She argues suburbanites help keep the peace by not interacting with each other. When they have problems, they may call the police or the city or some other party who can mediate in the situation. The same seems to be happening here.
  2. Part of the issue here is that these laws were enacted because there are situations where children can be helped. So, how exactly can the public be shaped to react when it is truly needed and ignore the situation when children are not really in danger? This is a big task and goes beyond the ability of laws and regulations to shape society. At the same time, I would not say that there is some zeitgeist that will just change. How people view mothering and the safety of children is dependent on numerous concrete actions and values.

Exploring why Americans think their children are at such risk

Virginia Postrel summarizes a recent study looking at how Americans perceive the safety of children:

The researchers suspected that overestimating risk reflects moral convictions about proper parenting. To separate the two instincts, they created a series of surveys asking participants to rate the danger to children left alone in five specific circumstances: a 2 1/2 -year-old at home for 20 minutes eating a snack and watching “Frozen,” for instance, or a 6-year-old in a park about a mile from her house for 25 minutes. The reasons for the parent’s absence were varied randomly. It could be unintentional, for work, to volunteer for charity, to relax or to meet an illicit lover.

Because the child’s situation was exactly the same in all the intentional cases, the risks should also be identical. (Asked what the dangers might be, participants listed the same ones in all circumstances, with a stranger harming the child the most common, followed by an accident.) The unintentional case might be slightly more dangerous, because parents wouldn’t have a chance to make provisions for their absence such as giving the child a phone and emergency instructions or parking the car in the shade.

But survey respondents didn’t see things this way at all. “A mother’s unintentional absence was seen as safer for the child than a mother’s intentional absence for any reason, and a mother’s work-related absence was seen as more dangerous than an unintentional absence, but less dangerous than if the mother left to pursue an illicit sexual affair,” they write. The same was true for fathers, except that respondents rated leaving for work as posing no greater danger than leaving unintentionally. Moral disapproval informed beliefs about risks…

“People don’t only think that leaving children alone is dangerous and therefore immoral,” the researchers write. “They also think it is immoral and therefore dangerous. That is, people overestimate the actual danger to children who are left alone by their parents, in order to better support or justify their moral condemnation of parents who do so.”

This reminds me of the trolley problem. While it doesn’t deal with risk, it hints at how morality is involved in assessing situations. Good parenting today includes avoiding intentional absences (and even these can be ranked). Leaving a child for unintentional reasons is not so bad. Both are of equal risk – just as saving five lives in the trolley problem regardless of how it is accomplished – but not viewed the same.

Generally, we have difficulty these days estimating risk. Are we more in danger from a possible terrorist attack (limited risk) or getting into a car (one of the riskiest daily behaviors)? We don’t always assess situations rationally nor do we have all the information at our fingertips. I don’t know that the answer is to suggest we should be more rational all the time: this is difficult to do and may not even be desirable. In this particular case, it might be more prudent to explore where these ideas of morality come from and then work to alter those. Alas, this is also likely a lengthy task.

 

“Why Parents Can’t Resist Buying…the Hottest Gifts”

A sociologist discusses the compulsion parents across social classes feel to purchase the season’s hottest gifts:

After observing and interviewing children and parents from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, Pugh published “Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture” in 2009, which explored commercial culture and how it relates to economic inequality and community. Since then, the spending trend hasn’t let up – even through the recession – and she typically fields media calls around this time of year on the topic.

Parents often have trouble deciding what to do in response to their children’s “I want’s,” Pugh found when she studied a range of families in Oakland, California. She found that both affluent and low-income parents disliked the pressure they felt to buy the most popular gifts for their kids; affluent parents were worried about giving in to materialism, while low-income parents knew that popular items cost money they would prefer to spend on household essentials…

Affluent parents often said they were uncomfortable about buying the latest popular items and they didn’t want their children to be so materialistic. Nevertheless, even if they decided to forego a certain product – which Pugh calls “symbolic deprivation” – they bought a lot of other things for their children that they thought added to what’s perceived as a good childhood.At the other end of the spectrum, lower-income parents were willing to forego some basic needs at times to buy products for their children, to show that they were capable of fully caring for their children – which Pugh called “symbolic indulgence.”

Wanting to belong – or on the flip side, not to be left out – is a powerful human motivator. And what American parent wants to be held responsible for their kid not fitting in? Arguably, this sort of logic drives much consumerism: as a number of scholars have shown, companies decades ago shifted advertising from emphasizing what products could do to what lifestyles were associated with having the product. Do you need the latest smartphone because it has such revolutionary technology or you do you want to be seen as part of a certain group? Do you need the clothing with the brand label to signal your status or to cover yourself?

It would be interesting to follow some of these same families to see how these choices about buying the hottest gifts influences children. Does it lead to more materialistic attitudes and behaviors? Do families who do not purchase such items encourage different kinds of behaviors?

Tracking American parenting through the New Yorker’s cartoons

Two sociologists examined over 6,000 New Yorker cartoons that involved parenting:

In their study, “The Parent Trap: What New Yorker Cartoons Reveal About Competing Trends in Childrearing,” Tabor and I.U. assistant professor Jessica Calarco looked at 70,439 cartoons to identify and index about 6,000 cartoons that related to children or parenting…

The most negative portrayals of children were found in the ’20s and ’30s, but also in the 1990s and first decade of the new millennium, the pair discovered. Some of the drawbacks focused on the financial burdens caused by children. Others noted how parents sacrificed much of their own lives to make things better for their children…

“You’ll see the least-critical cartoons in the ’40s and ’50s,” Tabor says. Those decades showed lots of cartoons featuring parents proud of children’s accomplishments, such as playing a musical instrument or getting good grades in school. The 1970s and ’80s also saw an uptick in cartoons that were more positive about child rearing. The 1960s featured cartoons showing the positives and negatives for parents…

“Our data suggest that when cultural standards increase child-rearing’s degree of difficulty, and especially when parents are judged harshly for failing to meet those cultural standards, the decision to become a parent becomes a much more difficult one,” the study concludes. “Faced with these mounting pressures, would-be parents feel compelled to either keep up or opt out. And as more parents opt out, society sees an increase in the number of individuals and families who decide to be ‘child-free.'”

I assume the academic article discusses this but I imagine there are at least a few intervening variables:

  1. The gatekeeping done by the editors at the New Yorker. Cartoons, like other magazine content, likely has to go through an approval processes. The cartoonist could want to present a particular narrative but that doesn’t necessarily mean the magazine would go for it. So, who were the editors making these decisions and what influenced their perspectives on parenting?
  2. The New Yorker appeals to a particular audience. According to 2012 Pew Research data on American’s news sources, 41% of their readers earned more than $75,000 and 64% had a college degree or more education, and 57% of readers are Democrats. (The magazine leads the pack in the most educated and is nearly the most Democratic. Do these cartoons then reflect an educated, monied, liberal perspective on parenting?

Still, going through 6,000 cartoons over time from a prominent source could lead to some interesting findings. And given the number of New Yorker cartoon books out there, why not have one dedicated to just parenting?

The four cultural camps of American parenting

A sociologist argues there are four cultural parenting camps in the United States:

The Faithful, who make up 20 percent of American parents and are largely white and middle class, believe strongly that “God’s timeless truths” about sex, marriage, and life remain as true today as they have always been. They seek to defend these truths in the broader culture and, failing that, aim to “buffer themselves from progressive currents enough that their families will remain faithful to their traditions.” Their most important parenting goal is “raising children to reflect God’s will and purpose.”…

The Engaged Progressives, who make up 21 percent of American parents and are whiter, better educated, and more affluent than the population as a whole, march to a very different beat than the Faithful, at least ideologically. They steer clear of organized religion, believe strongly in the virtues of personal freedom, choice, and tolerance, and seek to form their children into independent-minded adults. But these individualistic values are also tempered by a commitment among progressive parents to the “golden rule” and the values that go along with this rule: honesty, openness, empathy, and compassion for the vulnerable. Their cultural commitments point them in a Blue direction (82 percent reported they would not vote for the Republican presidential nominee).

Ironically, whatever their ideological differences with the Faithful, Engaged Progressives live lives that look surprisingly like their ideological opposites. Although they have fewer children (2.46) than the Faithful, they are almost as married (80 percent are married), about as likely to have stay-at-home-mothers when preschool children are in the home as are the Faithful (58 percent compared to 65 percent), and they also highly engaged parents, enjoying—for instance—more meals with their children than the average parent. So, in pursuit of progressive ideals, Engaged Progressives rely on largely neotraditional strategies: namely, marriage and an intensive parenting style.

The same cannot be said about the other two cultural camps of American parents detailed in the report: “the Detached” and “the American Dreamers”, who make up, respectively, 19 and 27 percent of American parents. Although a slight majority of the Detached are married (67 percent), this largely white, largely downscale group of parents feel incapable or unable to exert much of an influence on their children’s lives. They spend comparatively little time interacting with their children, do not eat daily with their parents, are disconnected from the religious and civic fabric of their communities, and instead allow the television and other outside influences to set the cultural agenda for their children. Indeed, Bowman contends that the Detached parents “lack the vision, vitality, certainty, and self-confidence required to embrace any agenda” for their children. Not surprisingly, this camp has little interest in or involvement with politics.

By contrast, the American Dreamers—who are disproportionately working class and minority—have high hopes for their children. Politically, they are divided, with black and Hispanic Dreamers tilting Democratic, and white Dreamers titling Republican. They believe strongly in education, their children are optimistic about their educational prospects, and they want their children to make good on the American Dream. But given that marriage is fragile in this camp (only 64 percent are married), they have less income and education than most parents, and they are more likely to hail from communities with anemic religious and civic institutions, it’s not clear that American Dreamers can make good on the big dreams they have for their children.

A few thoughts about this:

1. Read the PDF report here and see more about the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia here.

2. Sociologist Annette Lareau suggested in Unequal Childhoods that social class led to two parenting styles: concerted cultivation and accomplishment of natural growth. Are Lareau’s two styles spread across these four new categories or was Lareau missing something big?

3. There are some interesting implications here for the culture wars. The suggestion in this article is that both The Faithful and The Engaged Progressives follow similar patterns even if they hold to different ideologies and tend to fight among themselves. Is this because of social class? Education? Race? Current or lingering effects of religion? Living in suburbs and/or wealthier areas?

4. When I see typologies like this, I always wonder about how many categories can and should be created. Is four cultural family types enough or too many? A lower number seems better for having more coherent categories and it is easier to discuss the findings. However, if there are actually smaller clusters of families, then more types may be needed to be more precise and better describe reality.

Parents who share about their kid’s success may be engaging in a helpful networking strategy

Sociologist Annette Lareau argues that parents who make their kid’s accomplishments known may be engaging in important networking activity:

Parents today are more anxious about the economy and their children’s futures than their predecessors, says University of Pennsylvania sociology professor Annette Lareau, and that can complicate the bragging versus sharing issue.

But she also points out that talking about your child’s extracurriculars is an effective networking strategy.

“It takes a lot of informal knowledge to have your kids in organized activities,” she says. You need to know about sign-up dates, carpool opportunities and how competitive, challenging or welcoming an activity will be.

“Mothers are very dependent on other mothers to share information,” Lareau says.

In this view, mothers and parents are sharing information about their own kids in order to build relationships with other parents as well as learn more information about social and community opportunities. Perhaps the bragging doesn’t haven’t to be overt but it is signalling to other parents about the abilities of their children and could lead to specialized information that could help their children even more. If you think your kid has special talents, then you would want to talk to other parents who have traveled similar paths and already some of the legwork.

More broadly, I wonder how much social networks are implicated in the Matthew Effect (“the rich get richer, the poor get poorer”), whether we are talking about children or people of different backgrounds and opportunities. It certainly plays a role but how much (i.e., could we put a percentage on it)?

“The mothering you see today in America is culturally and historically unprecedented”

A sociologist suggests mothering is done very differently in America:

“American parenting is child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, financially expensive and is expected to be done by mothers alone. And it is impossible to do alone,” said Sharon Hays, a sociologist at the University of Southern California. “The mothering you see today in America is culturally and historically unprecedented. We expect selfless devotion to what we interpret as the child’s needs, wants and interests at every moment of the day. And with the vast majority of mothers working, that puts them in an impossible paradox.”

While the intensity is at its most acute in the middle and upper-middle class, she said, her studies have found that low-income parents feel the same parenting pressures, compounded by the guilt of having neither the resources nor the time to meet them.

The rest of the article talks about why this is: we have structured society in such a way so that the brunt of child care is borne by individuals, not society, and with our cultural gender norms, women are left with much of the burden.