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The Danger of Parents Who Police Other Parents

03/12/2014 01:11 EDT | Updated 05/12/2014 05:59 EDT

We planned a gymnastics party for our son's ninth birthday. Because the particular centre he wanted for his party did not have designated party rooms, we decided to have the 'cake, food and presents' part of the party back at our house. We asked parents to drop their children off at the gymnastics centre and pick them from our house once the party was over. We would shuttle the kids from the gymnastics centre back to our house for cake, food and presents. Given this arrangement, the invitation list was limited to the number of available seats in our vehicles.

RSVPs were straightforward (yes, my child can come; no, my child cannot attend, he sends his regrets) until one mother, I'll call her Elsa, phoned to tell me that yes, her son would come to the party but that she was "not comfortable" (exact words) with us driving her child from the gymnastics centre to our home. She offered no explanation but very politely told me she would drop her child off, then return to the gymnastics after the first hour of the party to drive her son from there to our house -- a distance of approximately 2.5 kilometers on dry roads.

What was I to make of Elsa's discomfort with us driving her child? I knew I shouldn't take it personally, but I did. Her decision bothered me. It was the lack of trust. Her actions implied judgment.

Now it is perhaps worth mentioning that Elsa and I were new acquaintances. Our kids had only recently become chums and this party was the first time we would actually meet. Knowing this, a level-headed person might say Elsa was just being properly cautious. After all, she knew nothing about me or my husband's driving habits, our propensity towards safety (although are there really any modern-day parents who don't take road safety seriously?), or what our vehicles were like in terms of safety-ratings, seating specifications, or road-worthiness. A level-headed person might simply recognize that everyone has different ideas about risk and safety and accept that Elsa, as a properly risk-conscious modern parent, was simply doing what 'good' parents today are supposed to do.

Fair enough. But what of the consequences of such vigilance towards our fellow parents? To what extent do these kinds of parent-against-parent preemptive risk aversion strategies threaten the fabric of mother-to-mother relations, the cohesion of parent communities, and the trust and goodwill we extend to the very world in which our children live and grow?

Fortunately, these kinds of questions are now being given their proper due, thanks to an emerging field of scholarly research known as parenting culture studies. A recently released book dedicated to this topic -- aptly titled Parenting Culture Studies -- discusses these very concerns, describing from an academic perspective how modern parenting is threatening to break down solidarity between parents and weaken the bonds between generations.

In contrast to much of the parenting literature bombarding our lives -- that steady diet of 'latest research' about the myriad things parents can and should be doing better -- Parenting Culture Studies often takes such parenting research itself as its object of investigation. It inquires critically into various areas of parenting science -- from breastfeeding, to drinking during pregnancy, to child development and brain science -- and demonstrates how important it is to distinguish between science, the pursuit and discovery of knowledge, and scientism, the interpretation and dissemination of science through a particular ideological lens.

Parenting Culture Studies understands that fashions in parenting are best understood as barometers of wider cultural trends; as scientism more than science. Its essays provide systematic analyses of various modern parenting characteristics -- our preoccupation with risk, our reliance on and definition of 'parenting experts,' the militancy with which we police women's perinatal behaviours, and our assumptions about what parents need to do and be in order to be 'good' parents. The essays help us to understand what's going on with modern parenting, how we got here, and what the consequences are.

We need more writing like this. We need more people asking critical questions about our modern parenting obsessions, shedding light on the perhaps unintentional but nonetheless negative consequences these can have. Because even though we say we shouldn't take it personally when another parent tells us he or she is 'not comfortable,' it is personal. And it always will be.

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