Expert on Family and Child in Society Comments on Parental Approaches to Risk and Safety

September 11, 2014
cartoon showing parents supervising children in bathtub, with lifeguard

Most people are familiar with the parenting notion that “it takes a village.” That village, it seems, is disappearing. In recent years, “parenting [has become] very privatized,” said Markella Rutherford, associate professor of sociology, in an interview on NPR station KQED's program Forum. “Parents have always been mainly responsible for ensuring their children’s well being, but now they’re feeling solely responsible.”

Rutherford joined Forum's host Michael Krasny for a show examining how today’s parents evaluate risk and safety concerns for their children and what has changed from previous generations, exploring the question: Are kids today too overprotected?

“It’s not just that parents are remembering the past differently,” Rutherford said. “They really are acting differently toward their children.” According to Rutherford, this reflects a shift that began in the 1980s. High profile abduction cases and the establishment by President Reagan of National Missing Children’s Day in 1983 are emblematic of the zeitgeist of that time. Around then parenting advice began recommending that parents never let their children out of their sight, Rutherford found, whereas previously independence and free movement in public spaces was encouraged for school age children.

Interestingly, Rutherford pointed out, the contraction of freedom outside the home has been accompanied by, in general and particularly for middle class children, greater freedom in the private sphere. “At the same time we see children’s freedom in public being curtailed, there are new ways we think about autonomy... that emphasize private expression of freedom,” she said. Families tend to be less authoritarian and more egalitarian. Where in the past parents might have found children’s self-expression to be cheeky—or intolerable—they now are more likely to engage that in order to foster self-confidence and self-worth.

Rutherford is a cultural sociologist who is interested in childhood, family, emotions, social inequality, and consumer culture. She is the author of Adult Supervision Required: Private Freedom and Public Constraints for Parents and Children (Rutgers University Press), which draws out the larger cultural implications of how Americans imagine children's autonomy.

“I point out how assumptions about childhood autonomy are reflective of the ways we conceptualize the self more generally,” Rutherford said of her work. “The self has become an increasingly therapeutic project at the same time that the meaning of self as a public entity in the project of citizenship has grown ever more uncertain.”