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How economic anxiety and demographic changes turned ‘parent’ into a verb

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Woman playing board game with little girl
 (BRO Vector/iStock)

Excerpted from “Long Days, Short Years: A Cultural History of Modern Parenting” by Andrew Bomback, © 2022 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Over just a few decades, parents have increased the amount of time, attention, and money applied to raising children. A mother today who works outside the home spends a similar amount of time and considerably more money (inflation-adjusted) tending her children than a stay-at-home mom did in the 1970s. The usage graphs for the verb form of “parent” on Google Books Ngram Viewer could stand in for similar plots depicting hours per day or dollars per child spent by parents over the last five decades.

The verb form of “parent”—in particular, its gerund “parenting”—was first employed in the United States in the late 1950s according to The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. However, Fitzhugh Dodson’s 1970 book, “How to Parent,” is credited with introducing the verb to a wide audience, defined as “to use with tender loving care all the information science has accumulated about child psychology in order to raise happy and intelligent human beings.” The book became an international best seller and, in turn, irrevocably transformed parenthood from someone to be into something to do. Modern parents, who’ve had fifty years since the book’s publication to absorb the aforementioned “endless, anxious journey of guilt,” would likely be shocked reading “How to Parent” today. Dodson repeatedly advocates spanking and compares disciplining children to training and domesticating animals. These harsh precepts were advanced during a time, as Jennifer Senior points out in “All Joy and No Fun,” when “women were yanking off their aprons, taking the Pill, and fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment.”

A chart tracking how often the word parenting appears in books over the last century.
The Google Books Ngram Viewer charts the frequencies of any set of search strings using a yearly count of n-grams found in sources printed since 1500 in Google’s text corpora in English, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Russian, and Spanish. The x-axis denotes the year in which works were published; the y-axis shows the frequency with which the n-gram appears throughout the corpus. This usage graph plots the abrupt rise of “parenting” in works published between 1970 and 2000. (Courtesy MIT Press)

The verb form of “parent” entered common usage not because of Dodson’s particular parenting advice but because his book and verb promised empowerment, particularly to women who were leaving home for the workforce in increasing numbers. Raising children was now repurposed as a skill or science that could be learned, practiced, and eventually mastered. This transformation wasn’t limited solely to working mothers either. Around this time, the nomenclature for non-working mothers shifted from “housewife” to “stay-at-home mom.” Senior elucidates why this not-so-minor change in title reflected an overall new cultural emphasis: “The pressures on women [had] gone from keeping an immaculate house to being an irreproachable mom.”

Pressure, as Senior uses the word, is a euphemism for anxiety, which has been a driving force behind shifts in American parenting styles since the country’s inception. A theme emerges when exploring parental anxieties from generation to generation: parents have always focused their concerns on what they can try to control rather than what they know they cannot. Indeed, the awareness that so many crucial factors in a child’s development are beyond a parent’s control often fuels a parent’s anxiety about what is seemingly controllable. This is one area I can make a difference, so I better not mess it up. If we view the seventeenth-century Pilgrims and Puritans as the earliest American parents (recognizing, of course, the thousands of Indigenous parents already here at the time), we already see the pattern in place. The Puritans should have feared infection, the most likely cause of death for everyone in the family, but instead aimed their parenting efforts at rooting out corruption and sin in their children.


Long Days, Short Years

Three hundred years later, post-war parents were powerless against the threat of nuclear attack but could control whether their children ate enough servings of fruits, vegetables, bread, and dairy each day. Parents in the 1970s and 1980s seem, from today’s vantage point, irrationally obsessed with a fear of kidnapping, which may reflect a more deep-seated worry about whether the entry of women into the workforce was a form of child abandonment. The tendency for parents today to control their children’s time via over-scheduling of “enrichment” activities could be interpreted as a response (rational or irrational) to concerns about child safety, especially in light of the potential dangers lurking on nearby screens. The more likely drive toward the “concerted cultivation” of children, however, is a fear response to economic anxieties. The current generation of parents is the first to have less overall wealth, on average, than the preceding generation of parents. This trend is expected to continue, not reverse. And with rare exceptions, parents today are no longer training their children for a skilled trade or a place in the family business. The overscheduling of the middle-class child with violin lessons and Chinese language tutors and indoor soccer leagues may feel like, as Nora Ephron joked, “force-feeding it like a foie gras goose.” In truth, the (Ephron’s words again) “altering, modifying, modulating, manipulating, smoothing out, improving” efforts that embody twenty-first-century parenting are a fear-driven attempt to prepare children for the harsh economic landscape awaiting them at the end of childhood.

Anxiety alone does not explain the immersive, all-in approach to raising children that has made parenting a competitive and often unenjoyable sport. The demographics have changed too. Parents today are older when they first take on the role of mom or dad (the average age at first birth for college-educated women now exceeds thirty years of age) compared to their own parents and grandparents. And with older age comes fewer children, so that today’s kids can consume greater and greater quantities of their parents’ attention. I had three brothers and am hard-pressed to remember classmates who were only children; the few I can remember were the children of divorce, and most had half-siblings (and entirely separate families) against whom they were competing for their parents’ time.

Postponing parenthood also gives couples more years of childless freedom against which their child-rearing years can be compared. The before versus after contrast can be taxing on parents who may question why they relinquished this freedom to join the ranks of a stressed, exhausted, and often miserable cohort. Non-parents consistently report being happier, when quantified in studies, than parents. Interestingly, the country with the greatest gap in happiness levels between parents and non-parents is the United States, by a significant margin (the differences in such levels correlate, to some degree, with the availability of childcare and other nationally provided welfare benefits). Parental unhappiness may not be a new phenomenon, but open discussion about such unhappiness clearly has hit its stride in the modern era. Unhappy parents who believe that “better” children hold the key to unlocking a secret realm of family happiness are willing to try (and buy) anything to reach that goal.

Andrew BombackAndrew Bomback is Associate Professor of Medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the author of “Doctor.” His essays have appeared in the Atlantic, Los Angeles Review of Books, McSweeney’s and elsewhere. He lives in Hastings on Hudson, New York.



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