The Denigration of Parenthood in the United States

The proper officers will take the offspring of the good parents to the pen or fold, and there will deposit them with certain nurses who dwell in a separate quarter; but the offspring of the inferior, or of the better when they chance to be deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should be.

They will provide for their nurture, and will bring the mothers to the fold when they are full of milk, taking the greatest possible care that no mother recognizes her own child … Care will also be taken that the process of suckling shall not be protracted too long; and the mothers will have no getting up at night or other trouble, but will hand all this sort of thing to the nurses and attendants.


The Republic

Plato’s perfect republic was one in which children would be raised more efficiently by the state than by parents. Then adults would be free to pursue their own interests. Plato’s Republic had parents without parenthood. Israeli Zionists in the early Twentieth Century thought the burden of childrearing and homemaking was the root cause of gender inequality. They emulated Plato’s Utopian form of childrearing in their communes and tried to eliminate parenthood.

Zionist kibbutzim replaced marriage with cohabitation. A couple shared sleeping quarters but retained separate names and identities. Children were reared in community-run children’s houses. Adults thought of kibbutz children as “joint social property” and were discouraged from developing close relationships with their offspring. Boys and girls were encouraged to think of the kibbutz itself as their parent. Thus freed from the domestic yoke, women engaged in productive work alongside men. Feminine clothes, cosmetics, jewelry, and hairstyles were rejected. In order to be equals, women had to look like men as well.

Similarly, royalty and the wealthy have always hired others to care for their children. This motif of delegating parenting now permeates our own nation. The marketplace values ​​only paid work, although it is encountering resistance from those who prize close relationships with their children. This resistance by parents led ultimately to abolishing the separation of parents and children in kibbutzim. Today kibbutzim support parenthood with parental leave, work adjustments to accommodate parenting tasks and family living. The society that once attempted to abolish parenthood became a strong advocate of parenthood.

A Snapshot of American Parenthood

Parenthood generally is not accorded a high value in the United States. Having a baby is a status symbol … caring for one is not. Unlike other Western nations, the United States does not recognize the economic value of parenthood. Many parents are diverted from childrearing to paid employment either by choice or by necessity in welfare-to-work programs. Childcare is regarded as a marketable educational function rather than a fulfilling developmental experience for adults and children.

In her book, The Outsourced Self, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California-Berkeley, Arlie Russell Hochschild points out that the rise of feminism coincided with a drastic lengthening of work hours and a steep decline in job security. In the United States those stressors have not been alleviated by social supports like paid family leave and universal childcare, at least not in comparison with most other Western nations. As a result too many family and community bonds are strained by anxious, overworked couples; too many family functions have been subcontracted; and too many children perceive themselves as burdens.

Our nation has viewed childrearing as a private matter unless it is terminated by death or abandonment or when parents damage their children by neglect or abuse. Otherwise our society has limited its role to public education. In many circles, parenthood has come to be regarded as an optional accessory rather than as a developmental stage in the life cycles of men and women. In his book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, Jonathan V. Last writes that pets now outnumber children 4 to 1 in the United States.

The disparagement of parenthood is felt particularly strongly by adults who place parenthood above employment away from home during their children’s early lives. The term “working” women and men refers to people who are employed away from home and implies that homemaking is not work or at least is less important than paid work.

What’s more, the economic benefit of the family has largely disappeared. Children are no longer economic assets and are costly liabilities instead. The growth of Social Security, Medicare and pensions has reduced the need for the support of one’s offspring in old age. More young workers are needed to support these programs for older citizens. Parents must produce the vital human natural capital that keeps our economic system going even as greater life options make nurturing the next generation less attractive. More adults are opting to not have children. Most importantly, later chapters of this book will show how public policies and workplaces stack the odds against those who choose to raise our nation’s children.

One result in all advanced nations has been a dramatic fall in birthrates often to well below replacement rates and rapidly aging populations. At the same time, the state of family life has become deeply problematic. High rates of divorce, out-of-wedlock births and increasing downward mobility of parents abound. Marriage is being replaced by cohabitation. Virtually unheard of thirty years ago, homeless families are commonplace today.

In addition to creating the childcare industry as a capitalistic supplement to parenthood, our society is imbued with materialistic beliefs that encourage parents to seek alternatives to caring for their children. One widely held belief is that both parents should be employed away from home on a full-time basis in order to generate enough income to pay for high-quality childcare along with luxury goods and services.

Another belief is that commercially fostered trends of consumption reflect success and sophistication. Parents are attracted to professional expertise and novel technologies that free them from menial chores like childrearing. When you can pay someone else to do a tedious job better, why do it yourself? Even when childrearing appeals to adults, the lack of social support for a task regarded as “caretaking” or “caregiving” rather than as an interactive growth process for children and adults undermines its value.

Because children are the raison d’être of parenthood, anything that undermines parenthood detracts from children’s developmental needs. Both obvious and subtle disparagement of parenthood adversely affects children.

Parenthood in Second Place

A civilization’s growing complexity brings competition among interests and activities. Childrearing is increasingly delegated to institutions, such as schools and childcare facilities. Rather than being the primary activity of adults, parenthood often is relegated to second place by necessity and by choice.

Because it is unpaid, parenthood does not have direct economic value while paying others to care for children does. Parents therefore seem to be more useful to society in the workforce where productivity can be valued in monetary terms. Hiring non-parents to care for children also creates jobs that increase the GDP. Still, childcare’s financial value is comparatively low and most is of poor quality.

Only 1 in 3 households in the United States has a child under the age of eighteen. A Gallup survey that found that employment away from home makes it easier for women to lead personally satisfying lives. It also makes raising children and maintaining a successful marriage more difficult when men do not value parenting and homemaking. Marriage and parenthood have been separated. Parenthood even seems to have become an obstacle to a successful marriage for some parents.

Jennifer Westfeldt’s movie Friends with Kids questions why people need to experience romance with the same partner with whom they raise children. “Best intentions aside,” Westfield says in a New York Times article, “having kids always changes your friendship … in a way that I think is painful for both of you.”

As with other civilizations, successive generations of Americans have been concerned about the deterioration of families as they adapt to new social conditions. In recent decades, consumerism has particularly affected family life. Following World War II, parents felt a strong commitment to give their children more material things than they had during their childhoods in the Great Depression. Overindulged children lost respect for parents and authority. The Vietnam War intensified the disillusionment of the young in their elders. Later decades were dominated by the Cold War and fear of nuclear attacks.

Now an anti-authority, postmodern philosophy permeates our society with its emphasis on self-assertive individualism. An ethos of avoiding discomfort and frustration has risen to the top. Both young and old adults can choose options that are “best for me.” The pursuit of perfection further intensifies this ethos.

Henry Giroux, professor of cultural studies at McMaster University, describes the growing commercialization of our everyday lives, the corporatization of education, the dismantling of welfare, the securitizing of public spaces and the privatizing of public services. This trend has made it more difficult to develop family-friendly social policies that support parenthood.

Parenthood is Not Seen as a Career

Most importantly, our society does not recognize parenthood as a career. It doesn’t formally acknowledge that childrearing is skilled, hands-on work in which parents and children bond and grow together. It automatically awards full parental rights to any genetic parent regardless of age or ability until the child is damaged by the parent’s neglect or abuse and parental rights are terminated by a court.

Nonetheless, parenthood is a lifelong career. Like any career, parenthood has its frustrations and rewards. Unlike any other career, it’s based on affectionate attachment bonds. For most parents, parenthood is just as important as a paid career. This is especially evident during a person’s later years. Louis Terman’s Stanford study of eminent women and men found that, as they looked back on their lives, they valued family relationships over their professional careers.

We need to face the implications of parenthood as a lifelong career. Family life is changing rapidly in the face of increasing maternal employment, father absence and cultural diversity. Many parents need more than one income to make ends meet. In some families parent-child roles are reversed. At the same time, children are being treated as commodities by reimbursed childcare systems. All of this takes place alongside increasing ambivalence about committed relationships and questions about who is the parent of a child conceived through IVF technologies.

Having “a parent” in itself means nothing to babies, children and adolescents. Anyone past puberty can be a parent … a mother or a father, but to enter parenthood is to have a career with a lifelong commitment to a daughter or son. Parenthood means everything to babies, children and adolescents. They need competent parents who can handle its responsibilities. Unfortunately, our society does not distinguish between merely being a mother or a father and motherhood and fatherhood. Consequently, it fails to ensure that our children have competent parents.

The extent to which parenthood can be demeaned inadvertently by child development professionals showed up in an article in Zero to Three, a professional journal devoted to early childhood, that listed “the needs of infants.” On the list is Infants need a special someone. The word parent was replaced by special someone.

Contemporary ideas about childrearing place intense demands on parents and emphasize talented and independent children. Annette Lareau, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, notes that many upper-middle-class parents provide learning experiences for their children at an exhausting pace. In contrast lower-middle-class parents seem to believe that adulthood will come soon enough and that children should be left alone to create their own play. These children seem more relaxed and vibrant, and appear to enjoy more intimate contact with their extended families. Lareau commented:

Whining, which was pervasive in middle-class homes, was rare in working-class homes. Middle-class adolescents feel entitled to individual treatment … Working-class adolescents feel constrained …

The rewards of parenthood are easily obscured for contemporary parents who have not discovered the satisfactions and pleasures of parenthood. Instead, they try to “have it all now” for themselves and their children.

Plato’s idea of ​​raising children away from their parents was not realized in ancient Greece. It failed in all subsequent childrearing experiments from the Israeli kibbutzim to the People’s Republic of China. Even the wealthy who delegate childrearing often do not have rewarding family relationships. Still Plato’s ideal is taking hold in the United States.

What’s more our society doesn’t formally articulate parenthood standards except for adoptive and foster parents. However, our culture does hold expectations for people who give birth to a child. The vast majority of children are raised by parents who fulfill these cultural expectations by building and maintaining parent-child bonds, but an increasing number are not. Pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton and child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan suggested in their book The Irreducible Needs of Children that this underlies the general fragility of relationships in our society. Adults who did not have caring, intimate relationships with their parents find sustaining committed relationships, including with spouses and offspring, difficult.

Because committed relationships are vital to our society’s integrity and prosperity, we must articulate our cultural expectations of parenthood, the source of committed relationships. Implicit cultural expectations include a child’s moral right to competent parents and the obligation to respect and cooperate with the child’s parents. These cultural expectations have evolved into legal expectations codified in child abuse and neglect statutes. Because our society has not sufficiently valued parenthood, courts are sharply involved in articulating our cultural expectations of parenthood.

The Role of Courts in Defining Parenthood

Courts no longer hold that the human right to procreate also accords ownership of the child. When family matters are adjudicated, a variety of case and common law precedents define our expectations of parents based on our cultural values. Child abuse and neglect cases as well as divorce custody laws articulate these expectations.

In family courts, our cultural expectations of parenthood are to:

• Provide a home that legitimizes a child’s identity in a community.

• Provide sufficient income for a child’s clothing, shelter, education, health care and social and recreational activities.

• Provide the love, security and emotional support necessary for healthy development.

• Foster intellectual, social and moral development.

• Socialize the child by setting limits and encouraging civil behavior.

• Protect the child from physical, emotional and social harm.

• Maintain stable family interactions through communication, problem solving and responses to individual needs.

When we look at these expectations, we can see that we really do rely on parents to instill cultural values ​​so that children will become responsible citizens. The need to explicitly recognize the essential role of parenthood and to support parents in childrearing becomes clear. Parental incompetence at any point in a child’s development can have unintended long-term consequences.

Defining Parental Competence

Because we all fall short of our ideal images, most parents doubt their competence. An initial reaction to any discussion of competence might be to define ourselves as incompetent. This overreaction creates a reluctance to deal with actual parental incompetence since doing so might involve judging all parents. In fact the vast majority of parents are competent.

Competent parents quite simply are committed to parenthood. Their behavior shows that they care about their children. They restrain themselves from harming them. They do not neglect or abuse their children in a legal sense. The definition of competent parents flows from our cultural expectations.

Competent parents are capable of assuming responsibility for their own lives, sacrificing some of their interests for their children, providing limits for their children’s behavior and giving their children hope for the future.

They also have access to essential economic and educational resources, as will be elaborated in Chapter Ten. When necessary, society has an obligation to provide access to these resources. Just as there are dietary elements essential for physical growth, there are essential experiences for healthy personality growth. Children must learn to delay gratification, tolerate frustration, work productively and avoid harming others.

Young people acquire the values ​​and skills essential for success through parents who possess these qualities. This does not mean that competent parents are social conformists who raise conforming children to become conforming adults. Our democratic republic depends as much upon parents who initiate changes. Our way of life depends upon diversity in opinions and lifestyles.

Most importantly, wealth does not ensure parental competence nor does poverty ensure parental incompetence. The empirical fact is that children raised by competent parents including the poor and the physically handicapped seldom become criminals and / or welfare dependent.

Defining Parental Incompetence

A child’s congenital handicaps and the lack of socioeconomic resources can make parenthood stressful for even the most competent adults. Incompetent parents, on the other hand, can’t take responsibility for their own lives, much less for their children’s. In legal terms, they are unfit. Most minimize or deny their incompetence. Their lack of skills can stem from immaturity or from personality, developmental, mental disorders or addictions. Even with support and treatment, many are unable to change soon enough to raise their own children.

Because incompetent parents have difficulty controlling their impulses, they are vulnerable to substance abuse and alcoholism. They are insensitive to the needs of others and are unreliable. They do not form stable attachment bonds with their children. They alternately neglect or overreact to their children’s behavior with unpredictable and inconsistent cycles of indifference, idle threats and severe punishment. They have difficulty restraining themselves from harming their children.

Their children are confused when what happens to them bears little relationship to what they do. The parents’ erratic behaviors result in inconsistent childrearing practices. As a result, the children of incompetent parents are insensitive to the needs of others and behave unpredictably. These children often become adults who don’t control their impulses and who don’t care how their behavior affects other people.

Incompetent parents can be detected without subtle techniques or tests. No unbiased, fully informed person would have any difficulty identifying them. A conservative look at child neglect and abuse reports reveals that about 4% of all parents are incompetent according to the above definition. This represents 8% of one-parent and 3% of two-parent homes. Although small in percentage, the number is significant … 6.6 million. At least twice as many parents have not yet been adjudicated as abusive or neglectful.

Most people don’t appreciate the impact this comparatively small number has on our society until the number of incompetent parents is multiplied by the number of children they produce. At least 11 million children have been seriously damaged by abuse and / or neglect. A larger number have had their lives impaired enough to create later adverse effects on their own offspring.

Neglect by incompetent parents is more harmful than physical abuse. It eliminates any opportunity to develop the social skills children need to become responsible human beings. In contrast, children who are abused but not neglected may be able to relate to other people. In that way they may be able to acquire the social skills needed for productive citizenship.

Damage caused by parental neglect is clear in developmentally delayed babies whose “failure to thrive” stems from the lack of attachment bonds. These babies don’t feed properly and suffer severe enough delays in their physical, social and cognitive development to result in death.

The lack of prevention programs and the inability of child welfare services to therapeutically intervene with incompetent parents create situations our society no longer should tolerate. Two examples are provided below.


Mary was born to a sixteen-year-old alcoholic mother, who subsisted on Aid to the Families of Dependent Children and divorced twice before Mary was first brought to the attention of child welfare services at the age of 3 because of repeated allegations of parental neglect .

At the age of 9, Mary began to be sexually abused by an older brother. When she was 10, she was placed in a special class for the emotionally disturbed. When 13, she was brought to juvenile court because of alcohol and substance abuse and a year later placed in a county juvenile home. Her destructive behavior led to subsequent placement in two adolescent treatment centers.

When 15, Mary was sent to a state correctional facility and thereafter to a state mental hospital. After her release at 18, her first child was born. She subsequently was married and divorced three times. Her second child was born when she was 20. When her children were 2 and 4 years old, child welfare services intervened and placed the children in foster homes. Mary entered two alcohol and substance abuse treatment centers and did not complete treatment. She was arrested several times for drinking while driving, once in a near-fatal accident and later for the sale of illegal drugs. She sought and obtained the return of her children after serving three months in jail. Within two months Mary resumed drinking. Her children were placed again in foster care at the ages of 4 and 6. By that time their behavior problems necessitated psychiatric treatment.

When 25, Mary was sentenced to prison because of drug dealing. Her parental rights were finally terminated, and her children were placed in adoptive homes where they continued in psychiatric treatment and special education.


BethAnne was a 16-year-old bipolar child sexual abuse victim and crack-addicted prostitute with a pattern of threatening to kill her mental health worker. Child welfare services did not intervene until months after she left her baby with an ex-boyfriend’s sister and an attempted murder charge was made against her.

We must recognize that not all people who conceive and give birth are competent parents. Identifying incompetent parents before they damage their children must be a high priority. Those who cannot be competent parents need relief from the responsibilities of parenthood through expeditious termination of their parental rights followed by adoption.

The Roles of Parenthood

Our society has a vital interest in ensuring that all children have competent parents. The two roles of parenthood, motherhood and fatherhood, should be thoroughly understood as part of this process.


A society’s attitude toward motherhood is influenced by its attitude toward children. One consequence of juvenile ageism fully described in succeeding chapters is the devaluation of motherhood and of caring for the young. Welfare-to-work policies require mothers to take low-paying jobs even though maternal care during the first year is less costly than publicly funded childcare. Employment therefore is cast as more important than parenting. This is true even though parenting can reduce public expenditures and is in the interests of babies and mothers. More broadly, motherhood brings one of the most difficult decisions in a woman’s life … stay at home, pursue a career or do both?

Often motherhood is seen as something that interferes with paid careers. Linda Hirshman, an emeritus professor of women’s studies at Brandeis University, believes childrearing is not fulfilling for educated women. She is concerned about the current trend in which women are leaving the workforce to become full-time mothers.

Hirshman believes that the family with its repetitious, socially invisible tasks is a necessary social institution but that it does not allow women to flourish. Careers in business or government, after all, offer money and professional advancement as markers of success. Hirshman suggests that women devote their first few years after college to preparation for paid work. She wrote:

Expensively educated mothers who stay at home are leading lesser lives. They bear the burden of work associated with lower social classes: housekeeping and childcare.

According to Leslie Bennetts, journalist and author, employed mothers are best for children. They exemplify resourcefulness and independence, and they demonstrate the virtue of engaging in work one loves. She suggests that women lose their humanity if they don’t fulfill themselves through paid careers. In The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, Elizabeth Badinter holds that an exalted view of motherhood can have the effect of controlling women and seeking to reconcile them to a lack of independence and frustrating their individual talents and ambitions. In contrast novelist Lisa Jackson said that empowering yourself does not have to mean rejecting motherhood or eliminating the nurturing or feminine aspects of who you are.

The demeaning of motherhood is also reflected in the dramatic changes in women’s labor force patterns over the last twenty years. Many more mothers now work full or part time. The wage gap between men and women has narrowed but persists. According to the U.S. Census Bureau 2010 American Community Survey, the median annual wage for men was $ 45,672 and for women $ 35,553. Mothers earn about $ 1.50 an hour less than childless women. If they continue to be largely responsible for childrearing, mothers won’t catch up. Since most women have children, this penalty continues to contribute to workplace inequality.

Still the Barnard College Parenting Young Children Study revealed that most mothers felt overwhelmed by the conflicting demands of raising children and employed careers but desired to do both well. When one had to give, most mothers were not willing to sacrifice the interests of their families.

In Mass Career Customization, Cathleen Benko and Ann Weisberg show how today’s career path no longer means a straight march up the corporate ladder, but rather a combination of climbs, lateral moves and planned descents. According to Syliva Ann Hewlett of the Center for Work-Life Policy, 37% of all professional women leave employment at some point to rear children. Even more have flexible schedules, but only 40% of those who return to employment find full-time jobs. Even then, employment usually comes with a loss of earnings. This pattern has been exaggerated by the recession that began in 2008.


The need to establish paternity for newborns underscores the vulnerability of fatherhood. In our society, almost 40% of all babies are born to unmarried mothers. To try to ensure that the babies obtain the support of both parents, federal policies encourage establishing paternity as soon as possible. This increases the likelihood that the baby will have a lasting relationship with the father and that child support will be paid. Different jurisdictions vary widely in rates of establishing paternity and in child support awards.

The form fatherhood takes also varies more widely than motherhood. Fathers are involved with their children in three ways:

• Living with their children.

• Visitation with their children.

• Responsibility for their children’s support without a relationship.

A University of Michigan Institute of Social Research study revealed that at some point in their lives, half of all children don’t live with their biological fathers. During a thirty-year period, 28% of the men who lived with the mothers at the time the children were born moved away. Men who cohabited with the mothers were more than twice as likely to live away from the children as married men. Forty-one percent of black fathers do not live with their children compared to 24% of white fathers.

The casual, unrealistic attitudes fathers can hold toward conceiving children is revealed by two young fathers:

20-year-old Anthony explained, “I’ll use a condom with other girls, but not with my special girlfriend. Pregnancy, like, is for her. Still marriage is a big step. I might have a baby with her, but I haven’t found Miss Right yet. ”

19-year-old Carmelo sold drugs so that his 2-year-old daughter could have “everything I wanted her to have. I felt like if I had a kid, it would settle me down.” He took a GED course for a few months and spent less time hanging out with his friends. His girlfriend Shana thought getting pregnant would force Carmelo to stay around. She ended up on welfare after Carmelo left her.

Can Parenthood be Valued Again in the United States?

Social progressives look to Scandinavia as a model for child wellbeing. If the United States adopted Sweden or Norway’s generous family benefits, they argue, we too could achieve low rates of child poverty, adolescent pregnancy and single parenthood. Social conservatives point to Sweden as a cautionary example of how generous social welfare policies weaken marriage and the family.

Neither side tells the whole story. Scandinavian cultures are child-friendly in the sense that children have basic rights. Their cultures stress an individual’s responsibility to the common good of society compared to the American emphasis on individualism and on adult rights that tend to regard children as the property of their parents.

Child poverty barely exists in Sweden, and adolescent birthrates are very low. Few babies are in childcare because mothers have one year of paid family leave following childbirth. The Swedish marriage rate is one of the lowest in the world while divorce rates continue to rise. Sweden leads the Western nations in cohabitation. Breakups for these couples occur twice as frequently as in marriage.

The Swedish approach includes policies that many social conservatives would embrace such as strict limits on abortion, a six-month waiting period before divorce and a ban on IVF procedures for single women and anonymity for sperm donors. Still, the United States and Sweden are among the developed nations with the lowest percentage of children growing up with both genetic parents.

Despite these commonalities, the two societies are very different. Sweden is communitarian, comparatively ethnically homogeneous, socially cohesive and resolutely secular. America is individualistic, ethnically diverse and strongly religious. Though Scandinavian family policies might be models for a more child-friendly society, we cannot simply adopt their social policies and achieve the same results. The common good is a paramount value in their cultures… individualism is paramount in the United States.

Where does this leave us?

In the United States, anyone past puberty can be a parent, but parenthood is a lifelong commitment to a son or a daughter. Only competent adults can handle its responsibilities. Work is defined in our capitalistic economy as a paid activity. Unpaid activities like childrearing are not regarded as work. This obscures the fact that childrearing has immense financial value. In the long run, parenthood is more important to our society than paid vocations. Although not recognized as such, parenthood is the career that benefits everyone.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *