Inside Story

They tuck you up

It might feel right, but is it good for the kids? Sara Dowse reviews two very different books about childhood

Sara Dowse 5 May 2011 2596 words

Condoleezza Rice with her mother, Angelena, in Birmingham, Alabama, in the late 1950s. AP Photo/Courtesy of the Rice Family

Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times
By Margaret K. Nelson | New York University Press | $44.95

Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family
By Condoleezza Rice | Crown Archetype | $37.95

“RAISING a child, Kathy and I agreed, was one of the most complex and rewarding things we would ever do. It was all about development: gross motor, fine motor, sensory, cognitive, social and emotional. The terms flooded into our lives and fascinated me. A budding human being was a creature teeming with life, with potential. And that potential needed the right conditions: loving parents, stability, a watchful eye, a firm hand when required, or a delicate touch. This was where the challenge and achievement lay — in taking responsibility for the creation of a happy, useful human being.”

These heartfelt words come from When Horse Became Saw, Anthony Macris’s deeply moving memoir about coming to grips with the emergence of severe autism in his only son. And while most of today’s parents will never know the extremes of joy and heartbreak Macris has known, I think they would endorse his attitude to child rearing.

I admit to being a less than disinterested commentator. My partner and I have nine children between us and are grandparents to a total of thirteen. That’s an awful lot of experience, but we both feel that in some ways it counts for very little. We have seen a huge attitudinal shift in the way our kids raise their kids compared with how we raised them. For them, Macris says it all — parenting is about creating happy, useful people. Not feeding, clothing and guiding them but creating them. No wonder it can be so daunting, demanding and all-consuming, and has old hands like us frequently biting our tongues. Make no mistake, this is touchy terrain.

Margaret K. Nelson is professor of sociology at Middlebury College, an American liberal arts college of high repute. Her previous works are about single mothers, working families and the provision of care. Who’s Watching? Daily Practices of Surveillance Among Contemporary Families, which she edited with Anita Ilta Garey, came out in 2009, and Parenting Out of Control contextualises this aspect of parenting in the wider issue of class. It’s an American book, with certain American idiosyncrasies, but much that she has to say on the subject will resonate here.

Intrigued by the emergence of what are popularly called “helicopter” parents (there’s even a Wikipedia page about them), Nelson and her research assistants interviewed ninety-three parents (mostly mothers) in thirty-seven locations across the United States. Most of the parents interviewed had at least one teenager at the time, and their stories are skilfully woven into the text.

Nelson does her best to be the neutral social scientist, but it’s soon apparent where her sympathies lie. The parents who are “out of control” belong to what Nelson calls “the professional middle class” (in my shorthand, these are the PMCs). Nelson groups her respondents according to their education: for membership of the PMC, a master’s degree or a PhD is the minimum. Middle-class parents have bachelor degrees, and what she calls the working class have only finished high school (though some may have taken university-level subjects).

Compared with the PMCs, the MCs and WCs in Nelson’s sample had more recognisable styles of parenting, to some extent forced on them by their limited resources. Unlike the PMCs, they tended to believe their kids already had distinct and differing personalities, and that their job was essentially to guide them through the difficult passage to independent adulthood — an approach not so different from that of their own parents. Moreover, they appreciated what their parents had tried to do with them, even if they bridled at their upbringing at the time. Not so the PMCs, who universally felt that their way of parenting was more concerned, involved, respectful and loving than that of their parents. (One woman went so far as to insist they didn’t love their children as much as she loved hers.)

Yet the poorer, less-educated parents seemed more savvy about their kids than their PMC counterparts. Paradoxically, although they spent less time with them, they appeared to know them better. They had more realistic expectations about their potential and the dangers that faced them. The WCs, in particular, had well-grounded fears about drugs, sex and violence on the street, and tried to prepare their kids for what they were bound to encounter. By contrast, the PMC parents were mainly worried about the sex and violence in the media. Both MC and WC parents were willing to try technological constraints such as blocking R-rated material on television and computers but, except for an extensive reliance on mobile phones, PMCs were appalled by the notion of electronic monitoring. They kept their children “safe” through constant connection, watching pornography with them if need be, discussing the issues and negotiating over what was and was not permissible.

This kind of parenting would be very time-consuming indeed. Yet incredibly, although a number of PMC families had two parents working, usually in high-powered, demanding jobs, they not only spent more time with their kids than MC and WC parents did, they spent more time with them than their own parents had, even when those earlier families conformed to the traditional breadwinner father, stay-at-home mother model. Nelson finds that two things tend to give in such a situation: the parents’ relationship with each other, and other social relationships. In other words, when helicopter parents pride themselves on being “friends” with their children, it often turns out that these are the only people they have time for. Nelson points to studies showing that PMC parents spend less time with each other than their parents did in 1975, and to the high incidence of divorce and separation among them.

Of considerable concern to me is that many professionally qualified women choose to stay at home with their children in order to avoid these pitfalls. This is one development that has had real traction in Australia, where policies introduced by the Howard government were designed to achieve this very outcome. Individual achievement and women leaders aside, policies such as Family Tax Benefit B and letting the market have a free run in childcare have seriously slowed the progress made over previous generations, and will have consequences for these women as they age.

And is it good for the kids? Nelson describes a typical morning on her Middlebury campus, where students into their twenties stroll to classes with mobile phones glued to their ears, in very many cases talking with their parents. Granted, technology makes this possible, but it’s worrying nonetheless. All the parents interviewed, whatever their class, approved of giving phones to their children, for safety reasons mainly. But the degree to which they were used to foster emotional connection was far, far greater in PMC families.

Nelson concludes that the offspring of helicopter parents are at risk, in effect, of arrested development. “Unless there are changes — in neighborhoods, in workplaces, in communities, in state actions — that demonstrate that child care is a community responsibility,” she writes, and as long as there is the “extreme income inequality” that makes the consequence of “failing” so dire, there’s a strong possibility that this sort of parenting will continue. It all depends on whether or not the kids of this generation will come to react against their upbringing and raise their children differently. For that to happen they themselves “will have to grow up enough to know their own minds.”

The fundamental issue is control. The PMC strategy of connecting, negotiating and talking through situations with their children represents a commitment “to psychological and moral training” rather than “physical constraint and clear limits,” a policy she suggests might be ultimately more “controlling” than setting firm parameters. The less-educated who were interviewed tended to be “sensible gardeners” of their children, inclined to believe that they come into the world with their own personalities and talents, and less apt to conceive of them as “creations.”

All this notwithstanding, and despite the catchy title and the comic-inspired cover, Parenting Out of Control is essentially an academic study, with the requisite detailed statements of intention and endless summings up. I found the reading pretty tough going but the content fascinating, and was grateful for the excellent index and appendices.

The pressure on American professionals to reproduce their class has had far-reaching social and political effects, most particularly on America’s public schooling, a phenomenon all too familiar in Australia. Poorer kids are the ones who miss out, but the children of the elite, embarked on an endless rat race, have their share of problems too. Beginning as early as preschool, the business of getting into the “right” school and ensuring that extracurricular activities will pave the way into a good college, make childhood and parenting a breathless round of sports, music lessons, volunteering and “experiences” of one kind or another. This would certainly lead to the anxiety referred to in Margaret Nelson’s subtitle, exacerbated to the nth degree by the excessive valorisation of “choice.” As for these being “uncertain times,” the assertion seems quite bizarre. Born at the fag end of the Great Depression, nurtured under a war economy and the ushering in of the atomic age, I can’t help feeling that Nelson’s elite has it fairly light in the anxiety department.

TAKE, by contrast, Condoleezza Rice’s childhood. Condi was never one of my favourite people; at the height of her influence in the second Bush administration I gleefully dubbed her “the Stepford wife.” That she was black and a woman meant little — to me, she embodied all the faults inherent in a meritocracy. But Extraordinary, Ordinary People has softened me and, if it hasn’t reconciled me to her politics, it goes some way towards explaining them.

It was E. Franklin Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie, published in 1957, that introduced this naive white liberal to the idea of an African-American middle class. Frazier offered a searing indictment of its conservatism, which he saw as a parody of the white middle class. The FBI hounded him as a communist, but the book had an impact. Electrifying when I read it, with hindsight I feel it’s too harsh — but, like much of the literature of the time, it had a point to make. The black middle class had been cautious, and to some extent subservient, but it too was swept up in the civil rights movement and made its contribution. Martin Luther King, after all, was a graduate with a PhD; his fellow civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy had a master’s degree from Atlanta University. Both would have qualified as members of Margaret Nelson’s professional middle class.

Rice spent the better part of her childhood in Birmingham, Alabama, arguably the most racist city in America. Her parents, John and Angelena, belonged to that first generation of middle-class blacks to go to the colleges that were the preserve of “blue bloods” — descendants of freed slaves with “bloodlines going back to doctors and lawyers of the late nineteenth century.” The Rices saw education as essential for ameliorating the abasements of their second-class citizenship. As their daughter puts it, “The White Man” had all the power. “Certainly, in any confrontation with a white person in Alabama you were bound to lose. But my parents believed that you could alter that equation through education, hard work, perfectly spoken English, and an appreciation for the ‘finer things’ in ‘their’ culture… ‘[T]hey’ might not like you but ‘they’ had to respect you.” The institutions Rice’s parents attended, segregated as they were, did much to instil dignity and pride.

They were both teachers, and John Rice, a preacher, became a university administrator. Their only child, Condoleezza (the name was concocted by Angelena from the Italian musical term for playing sweetly), was lavished with attention, although with both parents working, this also came from extended family members. With this important distinction, and the fact that she once was spanked, Condoleezza’s upbringing was not unlike that espoused by Nelson’s PMC parents. She was treated with respect, almost as an equal, and participated in regular family discussions on a wide range of issues. If ever there was a product of Hillary Clinton’s dictum that “it takes a village to raise a child,” Condoleezza was it. Except for the fact that Condoleezza’s village was an enclave.

It’s easy to forget today that as recently as the 1960s there was only one restaurant in Birmingham where blacks were permitted. When John Rice enrolled in a summer program at New York University, the family travelled with him, but there was nowhere they could eat until they reached Washington, and they had to make sure not to travel in the dark. Lynching was frequent (the last in Alabama was in 1981), homes were bombed right through the 1950s and 60s, and the violence increased as segregation was attacked. “By 1962,” Rice writes, “my parents’ attempts to shield me from the hostility of the place in which we lived were no longer succeeding. Birmingham would shortly become ‘Bombingham’; it was a very scary place.”

It came to a head in 1963. Condoleezza had turned eight the previous November, when the black boycott of downtown stores was already under way, but her memory of that year is seared into her consciousness. With winter and spring came the voting-rights actions, the sit-ins, the marches; on 16 April Martin Luther King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and that September, two of Condoleezza’s friends were killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing.

Rice gives King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference their due, but reserves special praise for Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who led the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People before joining up with King. He and John Rice were friends, and Condoleezza remembers their many evening porch conversations determining tactics and strategy. In the end, fearing for the safety of his parishioners, John Rice decided not to join Birmingham’s famous Southern Christian Leadership Conference march but formed a street watch instead.

The point of the recollection is twofold. Rice is at pains to insist that Birmingham’s middle-class blacks supported the actions wholeheartedly, even when for one reason or another they felt they couldn’t take part. (“If everyone who says he marched with King actually did,” her father said, “there wouldn’t have been any room on the streets of Birmingham.”) And it was because of his watch that she became a “fierce defender” of the Second Amendment, upholding the right of citizens to bear arms. John Rice and his friends stockpiled them, waiting for Bull Connor (Birmingham’s inaptly titled Commissioner of Public Safety) and his hoons.

As ever, the issues on the ground were more complicated than standard reportage would have us believe. As for Condoleezza, I was reminded that for many years most African Americans supported the Republican Party; after all, Republicans were the party of Abraham Lincoln. John Rice’s politics partly explains Condoleezza’s embrace of them, though she, like him, would have voted for Bobby Kennedy if she’d been given the chance.

Extraordinary, Ordinary People is an absorbing memoir, and I’ve only picked out the eyes. It tracks Condoleezza’s development from precocious child to aspiring figure skater to foreign policy expert, then on to college administrator, national security adviser and America’s sixty-sixth secretary of state. No slouch herself, it’s to her parents she refers when she writes of extraordinary people, all of her people in fact, in what was a most extraordinary, extraordinarily uncertain time. •