Peter Franklin

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

January 24, 2019

Things don’t always turn out the way you expect them to. Take the ‘permissive society’, for instance.

Since the 1960s, if not before, the nations of the West have become progressively more liberal in their social attitudes. Social conservatives warned that this would lead to disaster – and, for some people, especially the poorest, it has. Lives have been blighted by family breakdown, economic dependency, addictions and other social pathologies. However, society as a whole is still standing, and in many respects is remarkably conservative in its practices, if not its theories.

The college-educated, knowledge-worker class is still by-and-large committed to the marriage-based nuclear family, the diligent pursuit of sensible careers, prudence in personal finances and respect for the law in personal behaviour. Thus we can say that the social radicals of the Sixties were also wrong – with the 2020s fast-approaching, we’ve yet to decamp to hippy communes for a life of pot-smoking, polyamory and sticking it to the man.

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How, though, did we relax so many of the old social strictures without falling apart? Indeed, why are ‘young people these days’ more notable for their cautious responsibility, than their youthful exuberance?

One answer is “intensive parenting” — the subject of an article in the Atlantic by Joe Pinsker:

“Supervised, enriching playtime. Frequent conversations about thoughts and feelings. Patient, well-reasoned explanations of household rules. And extracurriculars. Lots and lots of extracurriculars.

“These are the oft-stereotyped hallmarks of a parenting style that has been common in upper-middle-class households for at least a generation…

“Intensive is the adjective that researchers, including Patrick Ishizuka, a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University who published the survey results late last year, use to describe this model of raising kids. “

According to the survey, “which polled roughly 3,600 parents of children ages 8 to 10 who were demographically and economically representative of the national population”, this style of parenting is “not just what the well-off practice—it’s what everyone aspires to”.

There are parallels here to marriage – something that is also widely aspired to even though it is not as widely practiced.

Pinsker advances one explanation for the rise of intensive parenting:

“It’s difficult to nail down precisely when it became the standard that so many American parents hold themselves to, but its approach seems built for an era of widening economic inequality, in which the downsides of a child falling behind economically are the largest they’ve been in generations.”

I’m sure that’s part of it, but I wonder if doesn’t also work the other way round – intensive parenting as a cause of, not only a response to, social inequality.

In a traditional, conservatively-minded society, social norms and standards of individual behaviour are reinforced by the whole of that society – by shared institutions and through the collective parenting functions of the community (“it takes a village to raise a child”). The harsh realities of life also have a disciplining effect (“if a man shall not work, he shall not eat”).

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In a modern, liberal-minded society, there is more leeway – material abundance is sufficient to pay for the consequences of irresponsibility and ill-fortune alike (indeed, distinguishing between them has come to be seen as illiberal). Villages no longer raise children – and as for telling off a child that isn’t yours, don’t even think about it. In regard to the shared institutions of the community – those are either much weaker than they used to be, like the churches, or they’ve become professionalised, like the schools – their in loco parentis functions a matter of policies and legalities, not the organic, instinctual transmission of values.

Community, defined not as an abstract political concept, but an everyday lived reality, has retreated from the formation of character in children. That task is left primarily to parents. Those with the time, energy, support and resources to make up for the retreat of community (not to mention the outright negative impact of popular culture) have done so. Others, while seeing the need, have struggled.

I’m not suggesting we simply recreate the societies of the past. Even if such a thing were possible, we wouldn’t want to bring back the cruelties and prejudices of those older, harder times. But in progressing, we need to remember what we’ve lost – i.e. the formal and informal systems of social guidance that once pervaded our culture, instead of being reserved to the homes, schools and career trajectories of the privileged.

We have privatised something that was once freely available to all – whether they wanted it or not.