Last week, in her New York Times op-ed, “What Black Moms Know,” Ylonda Gault Caviness contrasted the child-rearing style of white mothers (over-achieving, over-permissive, over-anxious) and black mothers (confidently laying down the law, sometimes by force). She also drew a linguistic contrast: “Our charge is to raise — notice I did not say ‘parent’ — our children in a way that prepares them for a world that, at best, may well overlook their awesomeness.”
Caviness’s aversion to parent is just the latest example of resistance to a certain use of parent (often, but not always intransitive) and its corollary, the gerund form parenting. The terms are specific to the 20th century, especially its latter half: The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for parenting is 1918, but it was most popular in the 1970s and onward, and to parent in the intransitive form first shows up in 1970. To be sure, both terms owe their rapid growth to a very 20th-century notion of what it means to raise children. Parenting has come to imply, as Caviness’s article suggests, a higher calling that’s also a grueling pursuit — and something that often has little to do with one’s actual offspring.
The word parenting first appeared at a time when ideas about child-rearing were quickly changing. The Victorian ideal had been moralistic and mother-centric, but the turn of the 20th century brought a new rush of scientifically qualified experts like G. Stanley Hall (“Adolescence”) and L. Emmett Holt (“The Care and Feeding of Children”) as well as federal policy initiatives like the Children’s Bureau. Women were encouraged to view child-rearing as a scientific pursuit, in part to make up for their lesser social position. “The notion that there is a science of [child-rearing], and that science will be evolving and we will get objectively better at doing it, that’s 20th century,” said Ann Hulbert, author of “Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice about Children.” The OED’s 1918 citation for parenting, from The Washington Post, reflects this idea, with some of Caviness’s scornful edge. It’s a comic sketch about a father named Mr. Jarr, whose so-called philosophy of perfect parenting means letting his kids do whatever they want.
Until the second half of the century, though, parent or parenting were still rarely used. Mid-century experts like Benjamin Spock and Bruno Bettelheim used child care (as in Spock’s “Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care”) or child-rearing more commonly. (Parentcraft, a word OED cites in the early 20th century, unfortunately never caught on after that.) In 1970, however, Fitzhugh Dodson published “How To Parent,” a sort of anti-Spockian guide to a more authoritarian approach — and the OED’s first reference for the intransitive form of the verb. Parenting begins to dominate in the child-care literature around the same time: In Google Books search results, parenting begins to spike around 1970 and is still climbing.
At the time, parents were sorting out the post-60s confusion of more women returning to the workplace and a much broader range of possibilities for what a family could look like. Parent and parenting are gender-neutral, taking the focus off mothers, and as a single word, parenting modifies (as in single parenting, co-parenting, surrogate parenting) more easily than child-rearing or child-care. The first wave of parenting manuals in the 1970s and 1980s often used the term in relation to shifting cultural mores and new forms of families: “Parenting Children of Divorce”; “Parenting in a Multicultural Society”; and “Single Parenting: A Wilderness Journey.”
But parent and parenting seem to have stuck for another reason, too. Despite the contemporary move toward the somewhat oxymoronic “child-centered parenting,” the word also puts the focus very firmly on the parents themselves — and, often, the anxieties parents feel over their ability to parent. As the 20th century progressed, parents absorbed an increasingly broad range of responsibility for their children’s well-being, happiness, and futures, said George Mason professor Peter N. Stearns, author of “Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America.” School (and the college admissions process) was more demanding, social expectations rose, and parents were, increasingly, both busier in two-income households and more anxious about their children’s success, far beyond the child-rearing years. “This isn’t just a fact that you are raising a child. This is a skill set, which one can improve, work on, do well, or not do well,” said Anne Curzan, an English and linguistics professor at the University of Michigan.
Since the 1990s, as parenting has become an increasingly time-consuming and overwhelming task, the word has became attached to a number of identities, some of them trademarked: attachment, helicopter, free-range, slow, over-, or the recent portmanteau sharenting or oversharenting, for parents who go wild with the Instragrammed baby photos. The modifiers add a layer of anxiety for parents trying to define a “parenting style” — or avoid being labeled with one that’s considered an insult. (As Hulbert writes in “Raising America,” “Who on earth has a consistent ‘parenting style’ . . . ?”) It’s probably not surprising that in search results, the words most likely to appear closely before or after parenting over the past 20 years are style, skills — and stress. Child is farther down the list.
The overloading of “parenting” has led to decades of backlash, of which Caviness’s article is only the most recent example. Discussing several “graceless” new words in a 1985 Nation article, Lynne Sharon Schwartz wrote, “Parenting refers to the tasks women and men undertake upon producing children, once so self-evident as to require no gerund.” In his 1989 book “Six-Point Plan for Raising Happy, Healthy Children,” tough-love parenting guru John Rosemond wrote: “In the years since World War II, we have become increasingly, and neurotically, obsessed with the raising of children. . . . Along the way, child-rearing has become ‘parenting’ with all of its high-pressure implications.”
But the hatred of parenting has the irritated sting of a snake biting its own tail. Very few parents are untouched by the social pressures implied in the word, and its not-so-evil undercurrent is a very universal desire to do well by our children. Whether you parent, rear your children, or (horror of horrors) oversharent, you are probably doing just fine.
Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.