In late January, I acquired a dependent (see below). Winston, who friends have lovingly (?) dubbed “The Furricane,” is 25 pounds of energy and enthusiasm, which he alternately channels toward being adorable or a little monster.
Before I proceed, let me make clear that I strive not to become one of those people who treats their dog like a child. Or, worse, who compares dog parenting to human parenting. But! There are parallels, and I hope you’ll give me a pass just this once (okay, this is probably not the last time) to talk about them. Because my three months with Winston have given me new insights on the fire that fuels modern parenting.
You know those “helicopter parents” who hover over their children’s lives, terrorizing pediatricians, teachers, and anyone else who gets in their way? While the behaviors that make it onto the internet tend to be extreme (see: Operation Varsity Blues), the increasing intensity of parenting behaviors overall are well-documented in sociology.
Back in the early 2000s, sociologist Annette Lareau identified two distinct styles of parenting, based on years of observing families in their homes. The first, which she called “concerted cultivation,” was standard practice among the middle- and upper-middle-class families she studied. The idea was that children are like flowers who need to be carefully tended in order to reach their full potential. The parent’s role is to do that tending, by actively helping the child develop their talents and learn to advocate for themselves (e.g. by sharing their concerns with a pediatrician).
The second approach, favored by the less privileged in her sample, was dubbed “accomplishment of natural growth.” It’s a kind of laissez-faire parenting, where you step back and let kids do their thing. Your job as a parent is to keep your child safe and well-fed, but not to enroll them in a million extracurriculars or teach them to stand up for themselves with authority figures.
In the decades since Lareau’s book came out, the cultural headwinds have pushed more and more parents toward concerted cultivation (a.k.a. intensive parenting). Wealth and privilege are no longer the prerequisite they once were, either: these days, the ideals of concerted cultivation are largely consistent across social classes. Whether or not they went to college themselves, research suggests most parents agree that “good” parenting means proactively nurturing your children’s individual interests and talents. (Class still matters, however, in that wealthier and better-educated parents generally have more access to the know-how required to get their children into the advanced classes and the dollars required to sign them up for the “best” extracurriculars.)
What accounts for the growth of intensive/helicopter/concerted cultivation parenting? The short answer is that it’s complicated. But much of the discussion centers on macroeconomic trends. As you’ve probably heard by now, the American Dream is getting harder to achieve. American jobs are offshored or automated, and the Millennial generation is allegedly the first that will do worse than their parents economically. All of this adds up to increased anxiety for parents, who feel compelled to give their children an edge in a hypercompetitive world and end up channeling their fears into aggressive extracurricular schedules.
Okay, okay, you’re probably saying, but you promised me stories about the dog park! Right. Let’s just say that despite my best intentions, I am decidedly NOT a chill dog mom. I definitely do not trust that Winston will mature appropriately if left to his own devices. Nope, I read several books on dogs and dog training; hired a trainer for a few private lessons; signed him up for additional obedience classes; and overanalyze everything he does as a potential sign of his maladaptation.
It would be hard to argue that the macroeconomic situation is driving my misguided attempt to concertedly cultivate my dog. While I have many fears for Winston, one thing that does not keep me up at night is worry about his future financial prospects. Winston is unlikely to be much affected by the pending robot takeover, because as far as I can tell he has no hope of becoming an economically productive member of society. No, I think more proximate social and interpersonal dynamics are at work here.
In brief, I operate within a subculture of dog-owners who invest heavily in their furry offspring, and I expect others to judge me based on Winston’s behavior. I live in Somerville, MA, in a neighborhood peopled by graduate students, software engineers, and other somewhat bougie types. Most days, Winston and I visit a pop-up dog park housed on a local university’s athletic fields. He rolls around in the mud, and I make small talk with the other dog owners while secretly comparing Winston to the rest of the pack. Everyone finds him adorable, which definitely reflects well on me, and he is friendly with just about anything that breathes. But he has a horrifying tendency to eat his own poop (we’re working on this, I swear!) and sometimes gets bark-y if he feels left out of a doggy wrestling match.
These are normal puppy behaviors, and Winston’s generally acknowledged cuteness seems to absolve him of a multitude of sins. And yet I feel all his missteps acutely, as if they were neon signs declaring my failures as a parent. I buy him tasty treats and fun toys because I love him and want him to be happy, yes, but also because caregiving—whether for a puppy or a baby—is an inherently public endeavor. (Interestingly, my partner doesn’t seem to feel this anywhere near as acutely. He would like me to tell you that “when Winston succeeds, it’s 50% because we did something well. When he fails, we did our best, but puppies will be puppies!”)
There are limits to the puppy/baby parallels, and I’m not at all trying to suggest that economic anxiety has nothing to do with parenting trends. My point is rather that hyper-investment in one’s offspring is also a function of more proximate dynamics, including social comparison and fear of being judged. Once a critical mass of the neighborhood dogs are enrolled in obedience training, it gets harder and harder to opt out without looking like a negligent parent.
For your consideration: The best book I’ve read recently is Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom. It deals powerfully with issues of race and mental health, and is just generally a good story, but I was most moved by its depiction of religion and faith. I don’t think I’ve read a better fictional treatment of what it feels like to move away from one’s childhood religion.
p.s. Reply to this email with a relationship question, and I may include it in a future dispatch! Don’t worry, I will anonymize all submissions ☺