The Invention of Parenting

Even in our divided times, certain convictions still manage to find wide support. Here is one: parents should step forward and take on the work of parenting with deliberateness and care. For parents of faith, the importance of the task only increases. As one oft-repeated maxim puts it, “the most important work you’ll ever do is within the walls of your own home.”[1]

It is odd, then, to note that a hundred years ago, the term “parenting” was unknown. The Merriam-Webster dictionary dates the first recorded use to 1918, and even then, the word was little known until about 1970, when its usage soared. We are left to wonder: what exactly were mothers and fathers doing up until that time? What changed? How could this most important work go unnamed?

Mothers and fathers have surely long been caring for their children, providing them with shelter and clothing, teaching them various skills and, in many cases, enjoying warm and affectionate relationships with them. Were they not “parenting”? The rise in the use of the term, along with the profound concern for doing “parenting” correctly, coincide with several fundamental cultural shifts, and these shifts give us a clue.

Whence “Parenting”?

Perhaps most obvious and most important is the process by which nuclear families—family units made up of married couples and their children—gradually became significantly isolated from extended family and the larger community. Economic dynamics helped to set the stage. Nuclear families left behind “corporate families”—extended families organized around a family-owned business, usually a farm. In 1800, 90% of American families lived in this way, and corporate families remained important through the first half of the twentieth century. In this setting, while parents had a unique form of responsibility for, and authority over, their own children, there were myriad other adults who shared life with them as well. A grandparent was more likely to be on hand, conversing, correcting, or simply keeping an eye out. Farmhands, servants, and other adults, too, would be present in various ways. Even someone with little direct authority might gently remind a child: “Your mother won’t like that.” Parents, too, enjoyed the benefits of living in a community of people who knew both them and their children. All of this created a powerful web of relationships in which children grew up.

Gradually, though, a new reality took its place: nuclear families dependent on a single breadwinner, usually male. A postwar housing boom in the US then provided individual homes for each of these smaller family units—along with a very different setting in which children grew up. For a nuclear family in a suburban home, that larger web of relationships weakened or disappeared. Children might have had relationships with other adults, but they tended to be distant or temporary. A teacher might generously establish a real relationship with a student, but this went beyond her job description. Mothers and fathers, then, were left to fill the gap that was created. Parents were often the only adults available to their children for correcting, encouraging, instructing, supporting, and simply spending time together. Inevitably, the parent-child relationship in this setting involved greater expectations and a new intensity. Parents who tried to meet these new needs naturally felt two things: a sense of the magnitude of their task, and a need for new skills and insights that will allow them to accomplish it. They see, in other words, the need to become experts in “parenting.”

A second cultural shift was also rooted in economic realities. At the moment that “parenting” appeared, industrialization and urbanization had already changed family life in important ways. A breadwinner left the family home each day in order to do something very important: his job. But now, something new happened. The post-war boom gave way, and living costs rose, while at the same time, technologies of household convenience multiplied. More and more women joined the workforce, as well. By 1980, 50% of women were wage-earners, as well. For those who were not, a new phrase began to be used: “stay-at-home mom.” Pitched cultural battles over whether mothers should be stay-at-home moms, over whether economic realities required it, missed a more subtle shift. By the 1990s, devoting primary attention to raising children increasingly came to be imagined as something like a job. Media outlets began calculating the value of a stay-at-home mother’s labor. A recruitment slogan originally used for the Peace Corps—“the hardest job you'll ever love”—began to be applied to parenthood.

Imagining raising children as a job created a shift that affected all parents. The parent-child relationship now was considered in terms of hours devoted, formal training needed (but of course not provided), and forms of performance review that were vaguely but sometimes harshly applied. Mothers who also held wage-earning jobs were described as balancing two “jobs”[2]—and this of course helped to account for the exhaustion many were feeling. What had been a relationship, a deeply personal reality that was also connected organically to everyday life, now became something else.

A third cultural shift is perhaps the most troubling. If raising children became a job, then the children themselves became the object to which that work was applied, the commodity that was thereby produced. As the confident title of one parenting book published in the 1990s puts it, parents’ work became Training Your Children to Turn Out Right. Parents continued in feeding, clothing, correcting, and many other traditional responsibilities, but these now took place under a profoundly different rubric. In the last ten years, furthermore, this tendency to think of children as a commodity has found a new medium in the carefully arranged images of Snapchat or Instagram. But, as so many people currently sense, this is a deeply problematic turn. Whenever human beings are treated as a commodity, possibilities for various sorts of inhumanity naturally proliferate. Perhaps most insidious is the possibility that children will internalize this account of themselves and move into the world without a rich inner or relational world, imagining their very selves as products to be curated and marketed.

And, some fifty years into this experiment, even more fundamental problems with the grand project of parenting have begun to become apparent, too. First, research now suggests that it is very difficult to know how some of the parenting decisions we imagine to be most important actually affect children. Where a child attends school, for instance, or whether a mother works outside the home are factors not easily connected to any particular outcomes for her children. At the same time, studies conducted of twins who are raised separately suggest that many outcomes that seem to depend on parenting decisions—conscientiousness or “subjective well-being”—are profoundly influenced by genetic factors. As one expert put it: “Trying to predict how a child will turn out based on choices made by their parents is like trying to predict a hurricane from the flap of a butterfly’s wings.”

Second, although there are likely many factors at play, parenting seems to leave parents exhausted. It has become a simple truism to say that “parenting is hard.” Reports of “parental burnout” are everywhere, with one source defining it with casual certainty: “Parental burnout is the physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that one feels from the chronic stress of parenting.” The most important question is what is to be done.

How Then Should We Raise Our Children?

It is not a question that is easy to answer. The cultural shifts described here, the economic realities, will not simply be reversed. There is no return to 1924. There is always, however, the possibility to re-root ourselves and to move forward. In this case, I believe that we have resources both old and new to bring to bear. In my recent book, Parenting: The Complex and Beautiful Vocation of Raising Children, I have outlined some of the directions I believe to be most life-giving.

First, I argue, we must prioritize and commit to genuine community, even when that requires creative new forms of community. Life in the Church, after all, is a life in community, and, even more than that, a life of communion. Early Christians are described as “devoting themselves to fellowship” and as selling possessions in order to provide for the needs of others in the community. Jesus himself most often described the gathering of his followers as a family. The Church is not simply a collection of all those who are reconciled to God in Christ; rather, this connection to God yields immediate and indispensable connection to one another. We are called to mutual dependence, to care and concern, to love.

Profound possibility is found when that which parents need most is precisely a form of an extended family, or a village. In some places, we can see these efforts already. Parents are seeking connection and collaboration. More and more people are recognizing that truly supporting families will mean not simply another program, but deep forms of solidarity that are both practical and spiritual. Specific initiatives have to be imagined and carried in specific contexts, but whether we share meals or share childcare, whether we come alongside families in moments of crisis or connect younger parents to mentor couples for the long-term, there are ways for the Church to support parents that could transform their experience of child-rearing.

It is worth noting that the call is not simply for parents to find friendship with, and mutual support from, one another—valuable though that may be. Part of resisting isolation is the affirmation that children are not the sole responsibility of their parents. Mothers and fathers have a very particular role in guiding their children, in making the decisions that will govern their children’s lives. But they simply cannot do it alone. In that sense, the Church’s children belong to all of us.

This context of support and connection allows us to recommit ourselves to respecting the full human dignity of our children. Our sons and daughters are persons, not commodities, and the greatest call we have is not to make sure they “turn out” in the ways we want them to, but to live together with them in love, sharing joys and sorrows, and trusting God for the outcomes of their lives.

This can allow for a profound change for parents, too. Contemporary practice of parenting too often comes to feel like nothing more than racing to check off the tasks on endless to-do lists. When they are young, it is feeding, bathing, trying to get them to sleep. Later, it becomes school and a whirlwind of activities. There are schedules and forms and reminders. In the end, it can feel like parents doing nothing so much as managing their children for eighteen years.

I suggest that a more fruitful model is that of apprenticeship. Imagining this traditional way for young people to gain skills, from bricklaying to painting, allows for a subtle but important shift. As I summarize it in Parenting:

[Apprenticeship] can include teaching, but it simply does not rest on constant, explicit instruction. And interestingly enough, the focus of the master is not even on the apprentice in a direct way. Of course, the master will keep one eye toward the apprentice to see what it is that she does well, or even to offer a word of correction. There is a fundamental way, however, in which the two are faced together toward the thing that they are doing—together. It may be a subtle difference, but there is something important in this model: the child is not a product, but a beloved person.

And when parents raise their children in this way, not only will their children benefit, they themselves will likely find less anxiety and more joy along the way.

With the resources of real community in play, and with a model of parenting as something like apprenticeship, it is easier to see that parenting is simply not most helpfully imagined as a “job.” Of course parents must take up certain habits and master certain skills, but to reduce parenting to those misses the point. Ultimately, we could say that parents are called to give to their children not simply time or energy, but themselves. And really, what else could befit the mystery of what our children are: whole human persons who have been entrusted to our care? It is an endeavor both intimate and transcendent.

In all likelihood, the term “parenting” is here to stay. But parenting is something we can begin to reinvent from within. It will not necessarily be easy. Resisting the world always requires commitment, creativity, and, ultimately, conversion. For the sake of children and their parents—and ultimately all of us—though, it is well worth undertaking.

[1] Harold Lee, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee (2000), 134.

[2] Harvard Business Review Press recently offered a title that tries to coach white-collar parents in coordinating the two jobs: Parents Who Lead: The Leadership Approach You Need to Parent with Purpose, Fuel Your Career, and Create a Richer Life. Stewart D. Friedman (Author), Alyssa F. Westring (Author), 2020.

Jan Miense Molenaer, Self-Portrait with Family, 1635; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Holly Taylor Coolman

Holly Taylor Coolman is Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College. Her areas of specialty include Christian accounts of Judaism, as well as the family, especially adoption. She is the author of the recently published Parenting: The Complex and Beautiful Vocation of Raising Children.

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