A White House tweet this week encouraged followers to “Spread the word about President Obama’s plan to provide high-quality preschool for every kid in America.”
Critics weighed in—as they did when Obama floated his “preschool for all” plan in January during his State of the Union address—decrying the proposal as expensive and attacking Obama’s claim that, “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on.”
Yet one important group of constituents has been quiet on the topic: parents. As a sociologist who researches parenting and family life, my educated guess that would explain that is that the majority of parents welcome Obama’s proposal as an investment in children and an acknowledgement that parenting takes more work than it used to.
In 1996, sociologist Sharon Hays coined the term “intensive mothering.” At that point in the 20th century, with more mothers in the workforce, it was no longer enough for a parent to meet a child’s basic needs, Hays argued; parents were now expected to also spend quality time with their children to support and cultivate their children’s talents and interests. Surveys on how people use their time support Hays’ thesis that parenting has become more intensive. Mothers and fathers now spend more hours doing things with their children like reading, homework, and participating in extracurricular activities than parents did in the 1960s.
Intensive mothering has typically been understood as a cultural phenomenon that reflects changing ideas about what it means to raise children and be a good parent. Yet throughout the 1980s and 1990s, while promoting “family values,” government policy whittled down much of the family social safety net, emphasizing individual parents’, not society’s, responsibility for the welfare of children. At the same time that social support for family life has diminished, anxiety about children’s safety and well-being has magnified, leaving many parents with the sense that they, and they alone, stand between their children and a dangerous, competitive, and punitive world full of high-stakes educational testing, police officers and harsh disciplinary procedures in schools, sex offenders, intense peer pressure, and more.
For the past several years, I have gone into the homes of a broad swath of parents to speak to them about the work of parenting. Parenting has gotten harder, I began to think, not simply because parents are imposing more onerous demands on themselves in an effort to meet new cultural standards, but also because they see few alternatives. In this high-stakes environment, individual parents are held accountable for ensuring their children’s safety and success, so it’s not surprising then that parenting has become more intensive.
More recently, my research with low-income black single mothers confirmed my hunch that parents are investing more time in their children because of increased cultural expectations but also decreased social support for family life. Black single mothers are marginalized by race, class, and gender inequities and have historically been framed in social policy and discourse as “bad mothers,” yet every interviewed mother described her intensive efforts to raise her children. Moreover, I came to see that these women’s mothering often takes place in impersonal, and at times hostile, bureaucracies—schools, social services, the criminal justice system—where they find themselves fighting for the rights and welfare of their children. One mother planned to homeschool her sons, despite her own precarious financial situation, to get them out of a school system she saw as racist. (One son was facing suspension for violating the school dress code by styling his hair in a Mohawk.)
The message of intensive mothering is clear: if parents want their children to thrive, they had better be involved in their lives—in their educations, their extracurricular activities, and their peer groups. And when children don’t succeed despite these efforts, a convenient explanation is at hand: parents are to blame. At the same time, parents are cautioned against going overboard, especially as children get older. Hence we hear terms in popular culture like “Velcro parents” or “helicopter parents,” which imply that some parents take intensive mothering too far.
It’s time to move beyond applauding or blaming individual parents for their efforts and start thinking about the kind of world we want to create for families. We would all benefit from a society in which everyone—from the government to corporations to communities—felt accountable for supporting and raising the next generation. Obama’s “preschool for all” proposal is a step in the right direction. Rather than squabbling about the cost, we should focus on ensuring that the program is in fact of the highest quality and treats every child equitably.
Guest contributor Sinikka Elliott is an assistant professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. She is the author of the book Not My Kid: What Parents Believe about the Sex Lives of Their Teenagers. Her research has also been published in numerous academic journals.