Intensive parenting

A relative sent me some information about the new American term the ‘sanctimommy’, which I hope to discuss soon. But looking at it, the concept only really makes sense against the background of the changing style of parenting/motherhood, so I want to start with a post about the rise of ‘intensive parenting’.

I’m not sure that intensive parenting is the best term (Annette Lareau, a US sociologist uses the term ‘concerted cultivation’ (http://crookedtimber.org/2006/03/12/david-brooks-on-unequal-childhoods/ – I haven’t actually read her book, since I’m too busy cultivating my child :D). The same phenomenon is being described, however: parents making concerted efforts to provide learning experiences and to develop their child. It tends to be caricatured as parents who spend all their time sending their school age children to extracurricular activity, but in fact it’s the attitude, more than the means taken to it, that are the key factor.

What is so interesting about this contrast with the alternative parenting style, which Laureau calls ‘Accomplishment of Natural Growth’, is that although one is now associated with the upper middle class and the other with working class children, this is a historically recent phenomenon. A lot of the comments made by middle class adults on these articles is that they too received this less intensive style of parenting as children. Intensive parenting is a relatively new parenting style, maybe not even a generation old.

Most articles I’ve seen discussing the concept of intensive parenting seem to denigrate it and see its roots as purely competitive. For example, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/4ab0242e-5aa8-11db-84ce-0000779e2340.html, promoting a book ‘The madness of modern families’ sees three reasons for the phenomena:

Reason one is that our generation believe they have almost total control of their lives. We choose when we get the car, get the mortgage, get the baby and, like a business project, we expect our children to follow our projections. A study by the government think-tank The Future Foundation confirms middle-class parents are bringing business-like attitudes to parenting.

Reason two is that we live in a self-improvement culture. Being “good enough” isn’t good enough any more, and we run ourselves ragged in pursuit of the unobtainable: 24/7 happiness, success and air-brushed perfection.

Reason three is that we are the most inexperienced generation of parents ever, with little contact with children before we hold our own for the first time. So when they do come along, we are paralysed into indecision by a tidal wave of “expert”, often contradictory, advice.

I would agree with the business-like attitude to parenting: we are probably still in the first or at most the second generation of middle class mothers who worked substantially after marriage, let alone parenthood. But this in itself isn’t the only change. (One thing that isn’t mentioned in this article is that intensive parenting is in some way the opposite of extensive parenting: it’s easier with a smaller family). But the emphasis in the article on expertise raises a question. Why aren’t new mothers going to the obvious ‘experts’: the parents and grandparents who raised them? Why doesn’t the search for ‘evidence-based parenthood’ stop there?

I think the reason is a broader social phenomenon: liberal sixties and post-sixties ideologies about feminism, nurture versus nature and the importance of child development. Some of us relatively new parents are still reacting to ‘pre-1960s’ parenting. I was born in 1965 and my husband in 1964, but liberal ideas had not made much impact in the rural areas we grew up in. The child-centred form of parenting I have adopted is a reaction to my own childhood, not a continuation of it. Similarly basic to intensive parenting is the idea of the potential of all children. Your child too can learn languages, play music, enjoy sport, succeed at school; it is not limited to those with unusual innate talents. This belief has been reinforced by academic studies which stress the importance of the environment for child development. It is noticeable that despite all the (middle-class) slurs on intensive parenting, it is the style of parenting that is the basis behind most attempts to improve the outcomes for deprived children (SureStart, BookStart etc). Intensive parenting, as I see, may have the systematic application characteristic of business-like attitudes, but it is applied to humanistic/liberal goals. It can, of course, be taken too far, but I don’t think the principle should be ridiculed as simply middle-class competitiveness. My hope, in my semi-intensive parenting, is for a child who has both broader experiences and opportunities and also greater happiness than I got from my ‘natural growth’ childhood.

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