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Paranoia: From Parenting to Politics

The struggles between trust and mistrust.

Flickr/János Pálinkás
Source: Flickr/János Pálinkás

American childrearing over the last few decades has transformed expected parental anxiety about the safety of one’s child into paranoia. It is a specifically Anglo-American assumption “that responsible parenting means the continual supervision of children,” says sociologist Frank Furedi (1). Many other societies allow (even encourage) more trust in the environment and more freedom to explore it. In many cities in Finland and Norway, mothers can safely park infants in their strollers outside the grocery store while shopping. Yet in the US such a caregiver would be arrested for neglect, as verified by recent news stories and an increase in legal action against parents who leave their child unsupervised

In his book, Paranoid Parenting, Furedi argues that parenting in modern America is “continually linked to the perception of crisis” (101). What was once called “play” is now defined as “at risk.”  He argues that socializing children consists “of inculcating fear into them.” Although statistics about crime show that our country has become increasingly safer than in the 1970s anxieties about the dangers to a child have become magnified. Parenting means constant supervision of a child and has led to restriction of outdoor activities and the structuring of free time so that an adult can monitor and regulate a the child’s behavior. This kind of watchfulness stifles creativity, a sense of adventure and prevents a child from developing more fully as an independent being. It sometimes promotes the self-centered child, setting up impossible expectations for the child’s intimate relations in later life.

Furedi gives several reasons for this new approach to childrearing, the first being our bombardment by media of stories of trauma and loss. For example, child abduction by a stranger is a rare phenomenon. But when it does happen, the news trumpets the headlines 24/7. “It's as if we're seeing people we know get abducted and murdered, or sold into the sex trade…all the time. So we hugely overestimate the actual risk,” states developmental psychologist Ashley Thomas.

There is a reason fairytales begin with first lines such as “A long time ago, in a land far away…” or  “Once upon a time, when pigs were swine and dogs ate lime and monkeys chewed tobacco…” Such introductions distance the child from the time, location and emotional impact of the narrative events that follow. By contrast, today’s technological advances—smart phones, laptops—collapse emotional distance and put us on-call most of the day and contribute to this pervasive vigilance. We log-on fearing we might miss out on something crucial, even another outlandish Trump tweet. In their book The Over-Scheduled Child, Alvin Rosenfeld and Nicole Wise remark that “the work-at-home technology that promised to give us more time with our families has actually infringed further” and inflamed unrealistic fears for our children’s safety.

The second factor leads to parenting paranoia, according to Furedi, is our cultural belief in “parental determinism,” the conviction that the parent is the dominant influence over an individual’s development. Yet after a child’s early years major factors continue to impact an individual’s growth as renowned psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson claims in his theory of personality. Erikson elaborates 8 stages of psychosexual development that unfold throughout a person’s lifespan, from birth to death.

Psychiatrist Stuart Ablon at Thinkkids, suggests that over the last few generations parents—especially mothers—have been imbued with omnipotence and assigned an impracticable responsibility when things go wrong. Mothers have been blamed for every misfortune of a child’s life from schizophrenia (resulting from the unempathetic mother) to autism (the refrigerator mother), to ADHD (the mother who can’t implement discipline, allows too much TV). A headline article in a special edition of Newsweek (1997) asserted, “Every lullaby, ever giggle and peek-a-boo triggers a cracking in his [the child’s] neural pathways, laying the groundwork for what could someday be a love of art or a talent for soccer or a gift for making and keeping friends” (cited in Furedi, 62). Gone are the days when a parent could simply love a child for who they are.

Surveillance of children and the pressure on parents to be perfect can lead to train of thought for well-meaning mothers and fathers that goes something like this: “I must be a good parent so that I can see myself and be seen as such.” Of course this is quite different from the kind of good parenting that naturally flows from genuine love of one’s child—who certainly knows the difference. But America is an Orwellian world for parents; Big Brother is watching how we are watching our kids.

Wikimedia/used with permission
Source: Wikimedia/used with permission

Another variable contributing to “parenting paranoia” is the general breakdown of our sense of community, what Furedi calls “adult solidarity,” which has gradually disintegrated in many parts of the country. With the geographic dispersal of extended family relatives who used to share our backyard and help watch the kids, now live further away. The writer notes that “In societies where neighbors and other adults assume a degree of responsibility for keeping an eye on children, attitudes toward their safety are far less obsessive” (35). Today, in America, instead of offering another parent assistance, news stories tell of adults reporting a parent’s “neglect” with calls to the police. Whereas once upon a time other adults lent a hand—now they point a finger. 

American consumer culture opportunistically targets adults with insecurities about parenting and spins these vulnerabilities in to moneymaking ventures, perpetuating cycles of shared paranoia. Best-selling books abound with parenting advice on even the most mundane issues. For the "the right way" to hug your child read here

Parents often find themselves caught in a cultural double-bind: while pressure is applied for perfect parenting, intrusions of the so-called “experts” undermine parents' authority with the child and further destabilizes their confidence. In his book The Culture of Narcissism (1979), Christopher Lasch wrote about the danger of emotionally overloading the parent-child connection, a bond that Furedi claims is far more burdened today.

Wikimedia/Used with permission
Source: Wikimedia/Used with permission

Pediatric psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott developed the concept term "good-enough" mothering to refer to a type of emotional care and support—a maternal environment that facilitates safety, care, and psychic growth. This idea of the good-enough parent was designed to validate the ordinary mother and father and defend their integrity against the encroachment into the family of commercialism and professional “experts.” He championed the natural instincts of ordinary, reliable, devoted, and healthy parent. Winnicott, too, realized the commercial market coming between caregiver and child was insidiously detrimental to parent-child relation and ultimately to the development of society. Mothers, he claimed, are always more instinctually attuned to the needs of her baby than experts. In his words, there are “very subtle things that the mother knows intuitively and without any intellectual appreciation of what is happening, and which she can only arrive at by being left alone and given full responsibility” (Winnicott, Babies and their Mothers London,1988, 64) 

In today’s America, Winnicott’s good-enough mother is never good enough.  As a nation, we are so accustomed to the distorted image of a perfectible reality that we believe it is a goal we should strive for in our childrearing. “Hothouse children” are the inevitable product of this kind of "hyper-parenting." Childhood is boot camp rooted in competition and commerce, burdened with premature expectations and the pressure to perform—rather than just be.

Finally Furedi argues today’s mode of childrearing “is directly linked to the emptying out of adult identity.” Who am I? What does it mean to be American? These questions have become more complicated with changes in the nuclear family that have occurred over the last 30-40 years including a dramatic rise in divorce (the U.S. has the highest of any industrialized nation), blended families of both gay and heterosexual design, and children born out of wedlock (more than half of all African-American children). In the past, people derived a sense of identity from their faith, family, and clear divisions of domestic labor. (Perhaps sexually-specific bathrooms helped fortify a stable sense of identity?) Add to this unsure emotional footing the insecurities of globalization, mass immigration, and American fears of terrorism since 9/11—all have contributed to a radical shift in many peoples’ sense of belonging.

We struggle with more uncertain attachments than in decades past. Furedi points out, “we feel our uncertainties about adult identity most intensely in our intimate encounters” (117). With the institution of marriage failing half of the time, the child has become more of a medium for self-definition for the adult—a pseudo-romantic partner that provides validation for the self. The uncertainties surrounding adult identities motivate parents to put expanded emotional capital into their kids. As Furedi puts it, “at a time when very few human relations can be taken for granted, the child appears as a unique emotional partner…unlike marriage or friendship, the bond that links a parent to child cannot be broken.” What this author describes is a form of psychological projection, a displacement whereby confusion about American adult identity is displaced onto anxieties about the protection of our kids. If we don’t know who we are—at least we can be certain about our children. And we unwittingly (unconsciously) transmit adult fears, anxieties and ambitions to them.

This obsession with avoiding childhood risk, which includes our hysteria over physical contact (good touch and bad touch from adults) leads to a poisonous atmosphere of distrust and fear. It corrodes the emotional bond between generations. When any touch by an adult contains the suspicion of sexual abuse and any bruise on a child portends physical abuse, the emotional connection between the generations is weakened.

Perhaps this American style of parenting feeds into the paranoid style of American politics that Richard Hofstadter wrote of in his famous essay from 1964. American politics has long been an arena for paranoid thinking, a “sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,” declares Hofstadter.  This paranoid frame of mind has been a motivating force in our nation’s politics since its birth, he writes—and we see it today in our new immigration policies. How we parent creates relational patterns between child and adult that are later acted out in the arena of politics and other aspects of public life.


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Furedi, Frank. (2002). Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best For Your Child. Chicago, Chicago Review Press.