My bad mother is your good mother

In parenting culture, there is no "normal"


Amy Benfer
October 23, 2009 4:20AM (UTC)

We like to think of "good parenting" as a set of rules built in common sense and human decency, the kind of thing that should be universal, rather than subject to fashion or trends. Yet scratch the surface and all of us know that is manifestly false. The single biggest thing upper-middle-class suburban parents of "Mad Men" and John Cheever stories (with their highballs, drunk driving and wayward dry-cleaner bags) may have in common with their '70s counterparts (peddling "Free to Be You and Me" and natural foods) or today's much-maligned "helicopter parents" (obsessing over private preschools and stranger danger) is that each group was probably more complicated than their stereotype. And when you extend those differences across class, region or even country, the differences become even wider.

For this reason, I was fascinated by two pieces this week: One in Time magazine on an Italian family accused of child abuse for coddling their 12-year-old son too much; the other, a piece in today's New York Times about how yelling seems to be replacing spanking among affluent, educated parents. Taken together, these two stories seem to point to the way culture shapes our perception of what "normal" parenting standards look like.

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Child abuse, by definition, most often involves parents who neglect or hurt their children. But one Italian family -- a mother who was raising her young son in an extended family with the child's grandparents -- is being prosecuted because their love for the boy was deemed "so intense, it could be considered a form of child abuse." How intense? According to prosecutors, the boy -- aptly named Luca, which fans of '80s music might remember as the name of the title character in Suzanne Vega's song about an abused child -- was not allowed to "play with other children, go to church, participate in sports or leave the house before or after school." Also, he was sent to school with his food pre-cut into "bite-sized portions" and was so "physically and psychologically stunted from such around-the-clock doting" that, according to the lawyer on the case, "he had the motor skills of a three-year-old child."

It's hard to tell from the details given whether this is the case of a (perhaps criminally) over-zealous prosecutor or a genuine case of parents inflicting harm on a child. (If it were the latter, the operating term wouldn't be too intense "love," but the kind of "control" that is an aspect of many abusive relationships -- well above and beyond the level of control that is an aspect of healthy parent-child relationships.) But what is interesting about this case is that it taps into a cultural fear that is apparently widespread in Italy: that overly indulgent mothers are raising a nation of sissified "mama's boys" -- called mammone in Italian.

The fear of the overbearing, castrating mother reached its apotheosis in the United States in the '50s and '60s, when stay-at-home mothers were the preferred middle-class norm. Their darker version was the mother pathologically attached to her sons who, in extreme cases, could even be blamed for "turning" her son into a gay man. (Both "Rebel Without a Cause," released in 1955, and "Psycho," released in 1960, owe a great deal of their plot to playing on the Freudian fears of the time.) In the post-feminist years, our bad mothering narratives have shifted, if anything, toward the dangers of too little mother love (though, mark my words, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the latest crop of stay-at-home mothers brings back a new, surprising version of this fear).

But in Italy, the fear of the emasculating power of mother love is still going strong. A full 37 percent of men between the ages of 30 and 34 still live at home with their mothers, according to a study published last year in Psychology Today and quoted in the Time article, and two Italian economists tell the magazine that they have found parents who "will actually pay their grown children not to move out." (This was particularly interesting to me, because my boyfriend grew up in a close-knit Italian-American family in New York, in which the family tradition was for children to live at home, often through their 20s and early 30s, until they were married or bought a house. Both of us had always assumed this came out of the New York immigrant tradition, but it was fascinating to think that the roots might go even deeper than that.) In this, Italian parents differ dramatically from parents in other parts of Europe, according to Henriette Felici-Bach, a Paris-based child psychologist who specializes in ethno-clinical psychology, a field that looks at cross-cultural differences in human development. "In Germany, children are educated early on to [execute] a task on their own from beginning to end. In Southern [European] countries, children are dependent on what people tell them to do." This makes a kind of practical sense, according to Felici-Bach: Italy was traditionally a "poverty-stricken place with weak governments, meaning the family was the only source of protection and economic support for people." When you can't rely on Uncle Sam to take care of you, you can always rely on Mom.

Although this generation of American parents has taken a lot of flak for closely supervising their children (see: "helicopter parents"), the parenting model we hear most about is closer to that of northern European parents. Sure, kids may walk to school less often and have more supervision of their homework and scheduled activities, but the major goal of professional-class parents tends to be toward breeding intellectual curiosity and independent thinking, with the ultimate goal of sending a kid off at 18 to live semi-independently at the college of his or her choice (even if Mom and Dad do stalk them on Facebook). But this isn't always true across class lines. To speak in vast generalizations (the only kind available when speaking of great swaths of people, though these conclusions are supported by the work of many sociologists), professional-class American parents tend to be more likely to emphasize internal standards, self-directed learning and critical thinking, and be more tolerant of nonconformity and egalitarian about gender roles; whereas working-class parents tend to be more likely to emphasize external standards, deference to authority and conformity. (As a not-completely-random aside, this made me wonder if the fashion for rewarding underachieving students with cash payments for improving their schoolwork, which I wrote about a few weeks back, might have something to do with educators' canny -- or prejudiced -- view that working-class kids are more likely to identify with a clearly defined external reward for achievement.)

Just reading those comparative lists of traits, one might be tempted to further classify the former as the values of more liberal, educated parents and the latter as the values of more conservative, traditional parents. But given that researchers themselves are almost always, by definition, members of the professional class, one has to wonder if there's no small amount of class bias involved in even the way one frames the question. Just as a German parent might look at an Italian parent as an excessive coddler and an Italian parent might see a German parent as excessively cold, what a parent sees as "enlightened" can easily be seen by another as "overly permissive."

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Which brings us to spanking. Although it was a common practice among even middle-class parents at mid-century, physically disciplining one's children has been frowned upon by middle-class parents for at least a generation and is, for the most part, verboten in this generation of American parents. But Amy McCready, the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, tells the New York Times today, "I've worked with thousands of parents and I can tell you, without question, that screaming is the new spanking." According to one survey quoted by the Times, two-thirds of parents reported that yelling at their kids was their greatest source of parental guilt, and according to another, 88 percent of parents reported "shouting, screaming or yelling at the kids at least once (though it didn't specify how many did it more often) in the past year."

My first reaction was: Only once? I'm not much of a screamer (though my mom, who adamantly opposed physical discipline, certainly was), but it still seems rather far-fetched to think that any parent could refrain from raising one's voice 100 percent of the time (and to be honest, I had a rare-ish shouting match with my daughter this morning when I was trying to get her out of bed for school). But the Times piece seems to suggest that yelling is a hallmark among this generation of high-achieving parents. And this makes me wonder: Are we yelling more because we are spanking less? Or is yelling just one more thing to be added to the list of things parents can't do without feeling guilty about it?

Parenting has many moments of undeniable frustration, anger and hostility, and it seems counterintuitive to expect that a "good" parent is one who is able to repress those feelings in every instance. What's more, it's hard to imagine that a parent who could wouldn't produce the unfortunate side effect of raising an emotionally stunted zombie (though another cultural stereotype, that of the emotionally repressed WASP, certainly comes to mind).

So are good parents ones who express their feelings, or teach their children emotional restraint? Ones who shelter their children from harm or give them the means to protect themselves? Ones who sacrifice a good part of their adult lives to tending to their children, or ones who model strong independent adulthood? Parents, as individuals, differ from one another as much as one would expect from any group of diverse adults. But societies undeniably construct models of bad, better and best behavior. And as much as we like to think of grand categories of universally "good" human behavior, these models seem to be as much situational as anything else. When affluence and safety are taken as a given, it may make more pragmatic sense to encourage risk-taking in a child; when resources are scarce, thrift and tradition might give that same child a better chance. Weirdly enough, the analogy that comes to mind is the history of drugs: When women were expected to stay home and care for children, they were given Valium to calm them and speed to pick them up; when they were expected to juggle many roles, anti-anxiety meds ruled the day. Sure, parenting is about knowing yourself and your child. But maybe it's an awful lot more culturally constructed than we like to think. 

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Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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