In 2001 Professor Frank Furedi wrote ‘Paranoid Parenting’, arguing that a ‘culture of fear’ pervades parenting today, with parents perceiving their children as vulnerable, and as being perpetually at risk from several threats: from strangers, traffic, toys, and from the threat of falling behind in their development.
Parenting today has become an ordeal in which parents obsess over every detail of their child’s development, one in which they try to assess the risks of every activity and try to reduce these risks through surveillance and control (preventing them from taking risks in the first place).
Parents are now reluctant to let their children do unsupervised activities, such as walking to school on their own, for fear of them being abducted by strangers, and they are scared to let them go on school trips which involve long journeys, because of fear of traffic accidents or the possibility of them having moments when they might evade adult-supervision.
When purchasing products for young children, the safety of those products is also a concern – what are the risks of the child being injured or choking when playing with a toy, for example.
Parents are not only scared for their children’s safety when they go outdoors, they are also scared when they go online -virtual spaces are perceived as places where children may be prone to pedophiles, for example.
The causes of Paranoid Parenting
The most obvious cause is the exaggeration of the extent of stranger-abductions, and anything negative which happens to children in the news.
A less obvious cause is the growth of an ‘expert culture’ which has grown up around childhood, so that now there are a multitude of child-development professionals. There is an increasing norm in which parents are expected to defer to the authority of experts, rather than find their own way to parent.
The problem is that many of these experts have contradictory and unclear advice about what good parenting looks like, hence it just increases parental confusion.
A final reason is because the increase in alienation of parents – they have less power in the world of politics and work, and their children have become the main place where they can construct their identities, project their power and their dreams onto – so they are precious indeed!
The consequences of Paranoid Parenting
The increased control and surveillance that comes with Paranoid Parenting is a reduction in the amount of opportunities for children to develop independently – thus children remain children for longer because they are not allowed the freedom to take risks and make indpenedent choices that are required for transition to adulthood.
Another consequence is that children become more afraid themselves – with the constant messages that the world is risky, they become risk averse – and more vulnerable and anxious – paranoid parents create anxious kids. They inadvertently harm them.
Evaluating Paranoid Parenting
It’s now 20 years since Furedi wrote Paranoid Parenting, but today it seems more relevant than ever.
The video below involves an interview with Lenore Skenazy, the author of Free-Range Kids, who was dubbed ‘America’s Worst Mum’ when she let her 9 year old ride the Subway on his own, and made a video piece about it.
Note that her son had been asking to do this, and was familiar with the subway, so this was a rational ‘learning task’ for her son to do on his own!
This led to lots of TV appearances in which Lenore got demonised as the worst mum in America – she says in the interview that the TV hosts would often ask her ‘but what would you have done if he had never come back?’ and points out that this isn’t really a question, because they know how she’d feel – what they are doing is reinforcing the view that being a parent today involves going to the ‘worst case scenario’ – imagining the worst thing that could happen to your child and then concluding that they must always be under supervision, because that’s today’s norm, to be ‘Paranoid Parents’.
In the video and in this article there are several examples in the United States of the Police being called because of kids being unsupervised – in one example a teenage boy was chopping wood in his own yard with an axe, someone saw it, called the police, and they confiscated the axe, returning it to his parents.
The message is to not let your kids do anything that might help them develop as autonomous human beings, instead they should be doing ‘more homework’, and most definitely under surveillance.
Signposting and Related Posts
This material is mainly relevant to the families and households module in A-level sociology.
- This can be used to criticise the ‘March of Progress’ view of childhood,
- It’s also related to Toxic Childhood.
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