In recent months, we have claimed that one of the most basic indicators of health in a culture is the flourishing of the vulnerable. In healthy societies, we’ve argued, the vulnerable are not exploited, the weak are not ridiculed, and the marginalized are not mocked; in short, the vulnerable members of a society are not primarily defined by their vulnerabilities, but by their membership within a community of neighbors, families, and friends.

Social health is also on display in the way a society protects, encourages, educates, and forms its young. For this reason, this week we bring you two pieces on parenting in our time.

We begin with a recent essay by Alison Gopnik for the Wall Street Journal. With an attention-grabbing title like “A Manifesto Against Parenting,” it is easy for readers to begin the piece on the defensive. Surely parenting is basic to humanity, right? A high calling that should be universally esteemed?

And yet, in Gopnik’s view, the term parenting itself is what needs defending. She begins:

A strange thing happened to mothers and fathers and children at the end of the 20th century. It was called “parenting.” As long as there have been human beings, mothers and fathers and many others have taken special care of children. But the word “parenting” didn’t appear in the U.S. until 1958, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and became common only in the 1970s.

From this basic insight, Gopnik goes on to argue that while “taking care of children has always been a central, and difficult, human project,” parenting should be understood as an alternative to, or deviation from, that norm. Parenting is, in Gopnik’s view, premised upon a kind of “expertise” wherein parents think “the right kind of ‘parenting’ will produce the right kind of child, who in turn will become the right kind of adult.” On this (largely upper-middle-class) view, the logic of parenting is fundamentally mechanical. Like manufacturing, it traffics in the language of inputs and outputs. And it creates widespread and overwhelming cultural anxiety: How much screen time? How much sugar? How much “Goodnight Moon Time,” as Robert Putnam has recently termed it, is enough?

Against this mechanistic model, Gopnik proposes an agricultural one. She says:

Perhaps the best metaphor for understanding our distinctive relationship to children is an old one. Caring for children is like tending a garden, and being a parent is like being a gardener. When we garden, we work and sweat and we’re often up to our ears in manure. We do it to create a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish.

Gopnik’s essay highlights some of the insights from the Fall 2013 issue of the Hedgehog Review. While the whole issue is worth your attention, Diane Hoffman’s piece, “Raising the Awesome Child” highlights one of the most unfortunate side effects of “parenting,” as Gopnik uses the term. As Hoffman shows, when parents view children as the products of a set of carefully chosen inputs (piano lessons instead of cartoons, Organic Cheddar Bunnies instead of Cheez-Its, and the like), parents become incapable of recognizing their children’s faults—or, more often, their mediocrity. As she puts it, looking at advertisements for childcare shows that “‘Sitter needed for 4-year-old boy twice a week’ has given way to ‘Sitter needed for precious, dare-devil, political (in a good way) amazing 4-year-old.’”

As Hoffman goes on to show, while parenting in our time appears to vary widely in style— attachment parenting, free-range parenting, and so on—the basic script of producing “good children” remains fairly stable. The basic question is: what is revealed when we examine our rival conceptions of the “good child?” In this way, parenting becomes a lens through which we can view a broader and perhaps more fundamental public debate. As Hoffman puts it:

The one theme that anthropologists who study parenting and childrearing agree on is that parents everywhere want to raise good children, and defining the “good child” is an inescapably value-shaped enterprise. Models that shape goals for development and practices oriented toward the goals are not simply the reflections of individual preferences (what may be called “parenting styles”) but are conditioned by the wider discourse on what constitutes a valued self in society…One might consider, for example, how selves are understood in relation to the natural world, how they relate to the spirits of deceased ancestors, how independent they should be, or whether they ought to have “free choice.” All of these ideas reflect culturally specific goals for personhood, grounded in a given place and time. 

Seen this way, paying attention to the ways we care for children provokes wider discussion about our deepest-held values and beliefs. When we refuse to displace our anxieties, fears, or hopes about the shape of a good human life upon our children by talking more about “the next generation” than our own, we are forced to unearth our own basic assumptions about what constitutes a good life, and a flourishing person.