Have Parents Outsourced Themselves Out of a Role?

In my first post on Jennifer Senior's All Joy and No Fun, I jumped into the middle, to Chapter 4, titled "Concerted Cultivation," and that is where I return today.

Senior borrows the phrase "concerted cultivation" from sociologist Annette Lareau, who used it to describe the time-consuming, savings-draining means by which parents try to prepare and refine their kids for the manifold possibilities of adult life. After all, if you're child can be anything (one of the tenets of the American creed), then you must prepare them for everything. The result? Club teams, summer camps, and obsessiveness about schedules that leave little time for unstructured activity or play. 


One of the sub-questions that emerges from this program of preparation, and the subject of my post today, is the status of parents. Senior discusses the Industrial Revolution's impact on the modern family. In the wake of industrialization, the family economy changed. Roles were reconfigured:

Before the Industrial Revolution, parents provided educational, vocational, and religious instruction to their children; they also tended to them if they got sick, helped make their clothes, and supplied the food on the table. But with industrialization, these jobs were gradually, one by one, outsourced to non-family members or entire institutions, to the point that the idea of the "family economy" practically ceased to exist. The sole job of parents became the financial and physical security of their children....

Today, we are far less clear about what "parenting" entails. We know what it doesn't entail: teaching kids mathematics and geography and literature (schools do that); providing them with medical treatment (pediatricians); sewing them dresses and trousers (factories abroad, whose wares are then distributed by Old Navy); growing them food (factory farms, whose goods are then distributed by supermarkets); giving them vocational training (two-year colleges, classes, videos). What parenting does involve, however is much harder to define. 

Essentially, chapter 4 poses this crucial question: In the modern world, what do we expect from parents? As teachers, coaches, tutors, institutions and even software have assumed what used to be inherently and almost exclusively parental tasks and responsibilities, what's left? 

In short, lots of things. Crucial things. Really, really important things.

And to begin to explain what I mean, let me share this anecdote:

A few years ago, one of my students was struggling to pass my Scripture class. I met with him and his mother, and I asked him about his nightly routine. With impressive transparency, he said he did his homework next to his computer and cell phone, and he’d often be instant messaging and texting while trying to complete his work. Sometimes he’d turn on the television and have it running in the background.

With just one question, we had identified the reason he was failing my class, and something approaching an epiphany, for him, began to dawn. The distractions had scattered his attention span. He had to eliminate distractions.

Although he bore much of the responsibility for those distractions, I cut him some slack: He was only 15 or 16. Adults struggle to eliminate temptations; why wouldn’t he? 

Beyond that, though, the conversation left me with this question: What was the status of his parents? Did they know his study routine? Why weren't they checking up on him, removing the television and cell phone, ensuring that he was completing his work?

It is that encounter that begins to shed light on the vital need for attentive, committed parents. On the whole, the students who do well—those who obtain good grades and consistently manage the challenges of young adulthood—have parents or guardians who ask the key questions long before teachers do, and who take rectifying action without delay.

But that is just the start. I work in a community with really strong parent engagement, and from them, and from my own parents, I've seen first-hand how, even in the midst of the temptations to outsource, mothers and fathers have urgent roles, responsibilities they cannot delegate.    

In my next post on All Joy and No Fun, I'll elaborate upon what I mean.   

Related Posts:

The Child Who Cannot Fail?


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Women served as deacons in Europe for about a millennium in a variety of ministerial and sacramental roles.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 15, 2019
In preparation for the gathering in Abu Dhabi, I find myself asking why my conversations with the future Pope Francis so powerfully affected both of us.
Abraham SkorkaJanuary 15, 2019
Photo: iStock
Included on the list is John T. Ryan, S.J., who from 1989 to 1994 was an associate editor for development at America.
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 15, 2019
Did you ever wonder why Jesus was baptized? What sins did Jesus have to repent of? Nothing.
James Martin, S.J.January 14, 2019