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May 14 / KobyO

Parenting is the New Politics

Parenting is the New Dieting Politics

Parenting is the new dieting. Tiger moms of last year, morphed into French moms of this year. And now French parenting policy is gracing the pages of the Gray Lady’s book review section. So perhaps its poignant that the French moms version of the parenting ideal seemed to reduce good parenting to teaching your child to pass the marshmallow test. The American middle class, at least from the view across the Atlantic, has given their children the keys to the house, the pantry, their lives it seems, even before they’re out of diapers, let alone eating solids. But at home, the book David Brooks pronounced as the most influential of the year, not even a full six week into 2012, argues that we need a broader class-inflected prism to understand how this all really works. Successful rearing isn’t part of a national culture, it’s part of a class culture. The key insight is that the top quintile of parents (socio-economically speaking) get it – they know the values (“marriage, industriousness, community and faith”) that build success and pass them along. The lower third doesn’t seem to be exhibiting them and is falling behind.

What to make of all this? Is it all about values that somehow can get condensed into a small rectangle of white, fluffy, sugary goodness? Or ones that fall into red state/blue state accounting? With less fanfare, one story-line that trickles through (and a mea culpa in advance for riffing off reviews) is the role of community and solidarity. No one in these narratives of perfect parenting does it alone. Parents letting their children cry to sleep at ten weeks know their neighbors are doing the same. The class-based version implies not only that the upper-educated are following the same script, but that they’re sharing pointers as well.

The unsung hero of community is sustained through the anonymous work of solidarity. It is far easier to set meal times for your child, as French parenting purports, when someone at the daycare center is doing it during much of the day. And it’s easier to send your child to daycare when it’s affordable. Murray’s ‘founding virtues’ of America are closely linked: marriage, industriousness, community and faith unravel when jobs are scarce and insecure. It’s hard to be industrious without a job, and it’s likely harder still to maintain marital bliss, and communal ties. Countries that do more to secure jobs and cushion the fall from one to another (or none) pay a price by having a less flexible workforce and higher welfare expenses. Yet, they make life easier for those caught in the lurch.

Less turbulence makes the often invisible framework in which our communities and families operate more stable and easier to sustain. The much praised values of the French middle class and highly-educated cut of Americans flourish in such arrangements. And they are likely far more susceptible when the world around them, of jobs, daycare, housing, you name it, looks like the washing machine on spin cycle. Perhaps most powerfully is that solidarity is itself a value – one that occurs not only on a policy level, but one we practice everyday in how we parent, care and tend for children in our lives.

Zooming from the macro to micro and from policy to parenting confuses us as adults, parents, citizens, and in the coming year, as voters as well. How then to relate it to kids? How do we think about everyday of parenting and caring for children as related to decisions we make as individuals, communities, and societies? Is there a moment in our day and routine that we can point to that is wholly decided by us? and one that is not? Can we share those moments with the children in our lives?

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  1. Lisa / May 21 2012

    thanks for this thoughtful piece, koby. i often wonder what it says about solidarity and community when many of the wonderful caregivers who help make middle and upper class parents so “successful” are themselves part of the lower third struggling with much more economic insecurity to raise their own biological children and grandchildren.

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