Parenting out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times

Parenting out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times

Parenting out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times

Parenting out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times


They go by many names: helicopter parents, hovercrafts, PFHs (Parents from Hell). The news media is filled with stories of well-intentioned parents going to ridiculous extremes to remove all obstacles from their child's path to greatness... or at least to an ivy league school. From cradle to college, they remain intimately enmeshed in their children's lives, stifling their development and creating infantilized, spoiled, immature adults unprepared to make the decisions necessary for the real world. Or so the story goes.

Drawing on a wealth of eye-opening interviews with parents across the country, Margaret K. Nelson cuts through the stereotypes and hyperbole to examine the realities of what she terms "parenting out of control." Situating this phenomenon within a broad sociological context, she finds several striking explanations for why today's prosperous and well-educated parents are unable to set realistic boundaries when it comes to raising their children. Analyzing the goals and aspirations parents have for their children as well as the strategies they use to reach them, Nelson discovers fundamental differences among American parenting styles that expose class fault lines, both within the elite and between the elite and the middle and working classes.

Nelson goes on to explore the new ways technology shapes modern parenting. From baby monitors to cell phones (often referred to as the world's longest umbilical cord), to social networking sites, and even GPS devices, parents have more tools at their disposal than ever before to communicate with, supervise, and even spy on their children. These play important and often surprising roles in the phenomenon of parenting out of control. Yet the technologies parents choose, and those they refuse to use, often seem counterintuitive. Nelson shows that these choices make sense when viewed in the light of class expectations.

Today's parents are faced with unprecedented opportunities and dangers for their children, and are evolving novel strategies to adapt to these changes. Nelson's lucid and insightful work provides an authoritative examination of what happens when these new strategies go too far.


When I was raising my children in the 1970s, there were no baby monitors to help me hear them cry in the middle of the night, no cell phones to assist me in keeping track of their whereabouts at every moment, and no expectation that I would know any more about their educational successes or failures than they, or a quarterly report card, would tell me. Indeed, although I thought of myself as a relatively anxious parent, I trusted a girl in the third grade to accompany my five-year-old son to and from school, and when he was in the first grade, I allowed him to walk that mile by himself. Moreover, although I thought of myself as a deeply engaged parent, I did not believe I needed to know what my children were doing at every moment once they had reached their teen years. And although I was as status conscious as anyone else and deeply interested in seeing my children get into “good” colleges, I never called a teacher to find out about a homework assignment or contested an assigned grade. In retrospect, and from the vantage point of watching my younger friends and colleagues with their children today, my parenting style seems, if not neglectful, certainly a mite casual.

I’m not alone in feeling that something about the parenting of young children has recently shifted in profound ways. The other day I ran into a woman I’ve known for years but hadn’t seen for some time. We compared notes. “Grandchildren?” I asked. “Yes,” she answered, “and moving back to live near me.” As I expressed envy because mine live four hours away, she expressed hesitation. She wondered whether she could participate in the rearing of those grandchildren according to the style her daughter, a successful attorney in her own right, had chosen. “No playpen,” I joked. “Right,” she said, “no playpen.”

Personal experience aside, contemporary popular culture is replete with descriptions of a new style of parenting that appears to prevail especially among elite parents who, supposedly, worry all the time about the safety of their children and who, it is said, hover over and monitor them more closely . . .

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