‘Parenting’ through the (only very recent) ages

What are we going to do with the new Google tool? Consider “parenting.”

I remember reading a column by the Times’ Lisa Belkin last year, in which she wrote about the decline of over-parenting and the rise of the hip new nonchalant parenting. It’s a series of fads, she said. “After all,” she wrote, “that is the way it is with parenting — which I bet was never used as a verb before the 20th century, when medicine reached the point where parents could assume their babies would survive.” It bugged me at the time that the NYT couldn’t supply her with an intern to actually run down the term so that she didn’t have to “bet” on when it appeared.

But more importantly, modern medicine would only be part of the story. You would have to suspect a constellation of factors, including falling fertility, increasing educational investments, more higher education for parents/mothers, the modernization of medical and psychological expertise, the secularization of science — anything else? Anyway, I like the idea that parenting as a concept is relatively new. And she was right.

Here’s the Google trend for the word “parenting” in books in American English from 1920 to 2009:

It’s enough to make you think it’s a weird data artifact, like Google just has more books after 1965. But no. Consider it with the terms “mother” and “father.”

Can it be a coincidence that parenting (now scrunched way down at the bottom of the graph because the scale changed) appeared and spread just as “mother” was becoming more common in books than “father.” (About 10 years before “women” surpassed “men,” incidentally.) What does it mean?

I don’t know. But, consistent with the cultural shift idea — fewer, healthier children and richer, more educated parents — parenting was introduced with reference to its discrete qualities as a modern activity. According to the OED, parenting (“the activity of being a parent; the rearing of a child or children”) appeared in the Washington Post in 1918, with: “the philosophy of perfect parenting.” (OED reports it appeared in Britannica’s Book of the Year in 1959: “the supervision by parents of their children.”)

The academic database JSTOR has a use of the term from 193o, but that’s in reference to biological procreation, not rearing. The first time it is used in the sense of “rearing” is in the Social Service Review in 1952 in an article about foster care: “It is impossible in a changing world to expect to find a perfect or final solution to the difficult problem of sharing the parenting of children between child-care agencies and inadequate own parents.” It starts appearing routinely in the core journal Marriage and Family Living in 1953, as in this from 1954: “Sibling rivalry is one of the commonest evidences of poor parenting.”

Really? Good kids with good parents don’t have sibling rivalry? Wait a minute. That should mean sibling rivalry has declined as a concern since parents’ education increased and standards rose after, say, the 1940s. Oops:

As usual, the ratcheting of standards (which may or may not be good for kids), starts among the well-off, and turns into a standard to be enforced upon those below them in the social order, who are left to scrape together a few bucks for some cheap advice if they want to keep their kids:

Aside (h/t Karl Bakeman): People don’t have to have their “own” children to be parents, of course. In fact, according to Lisa Hymas in Grist, “Deciding to be childfree doesn’t have to mean forgoing all the joys and oys of parenting.” She is referring to people who co-parent the children of others, like padrinos (godparents) in Mexico — seriously involved (e.g., paying for college). This is what Erica Jong meant recently when she wrote about “cooperative child-rearing.” Hyman writes:

Could co-parenting be both an environmental and a feminist answer to the question of how to raise kids in challenging times? Could it work for you? Should we set up a matching service for harried parents and kid-loving GINKs [green inclinations, no kids]?

How we turn this into a mechanism for increasing inequality between children and families remains to be seen.

9 thoughts on “‘Parenting’ through the (only very recent) ages

  1. I wonder if the how-tos of “parenting” increased in relation to the formation of agencies that gave parents the fear that they would be judged for their parental performance, i.e. more parental oversight, more rat-raced “parenting?”


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