Lisa Belkin, “Let the Kid Be: Could the era of overparenting be over?”, NYT Magazine of 31 May:

… that is the way it is with parenting — which I bet was never used as a verb before the 20th century, when medicine reached the point where parents could assume their babies would survive. At its core, raising children is about instinct and biology, yes, but on top of that, we build an artificial scaffold, which supports what we have come to think of as parenting truths but are really only parenting trends.

Several things to comment on here: that “artificial scaffold”; the history of the verbing parent (and for a bonus, of the compound noun child-rearing); Belkin’s proposed explanation for the innovation of parent (with a counter-proposal from me).

1. That “artificial scaffold” is culture and custom, and it’s not some annoying overlay on the reality of human instinct and biology (our “true nature”), but goes a long way towards allowing us to structure the way we experience the world and guide the way we act in it. (Yes, culture and custom vary from group to group and change over time, and the way we experience the world and act in it are indeed subject to the constraints of “nature”. But culture and custom are powerful effects.)

Lactation and suckling come with the territory, but most nursing practices have a considerable cultural component. Similarly for sexual practices, dietary practice, and much more. All this is very old news. What Belkin has done with “parenting” is frame certain practices as a matter of fad or fashion (however widespread the practices might be among middle-class Americans) and so to devalue them. Of course, Belkin seems of be saying, these practices are going to change, because they’re just “trends”.

Well, everything changes (though not at the same speed in all contexts), and it’s no slam on some practice to observe that it’s in the process of change.

2. On to the verbing parent. The December 2007 draft revision of the OED has the transitive verb in figurative uses with cites from 1663, 1884, and 1908, and then with the “modern” use from 1975 on; and intransitive “modern” examples from 1970 on. Both uses are labeled as rare before the 20th century. Surely (I say, hopefully) some people have looked at this history in some detail. But in any case Belkin seems to be right about the relative recency of the usage.

In fact, the compound noun child-rearing (whether spelled solid, hyphenated, or separated) seems to be only a bit older than the verb parent, to judge from the quotes I was able to find in the OED on-line (there’s no sub-entry specifically for this noun). These appear in the ’60s (1960 in the entry for pro-life, 1964 in the entry for gooseberry) and continue through 2001 (in the entry for achieving).

Now, the verb rear used with direct objects denoting people (children, in particular) has a much longer history; OED2’s first cite is from 1590 (Shakespeare). (With direct objects denoting animals, the verb is attested from the early 15th century.) Raise ‘rear’ with direct objects denoting people goes back at least to 1744; the OED draft revision of March 2009 notes that it is chiefly U.S. and is often criticized (by people who maintain that you raise animals but rear children). But we haven’t lacked for ways to talk about child-rearing, even if we haven’t had the words child-rearing and parenting for very long. (Child care — as in Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care (1st ed. 1946) — has been around for some time, but with a somewhat different connotation.)

3. Belkin’s explanation for why the verb parent is relatively recent is implausible. Even when families lost many kids in early childhood (as my Swiss grandfather’s family did), a number survived. Sometimes a considerable number, all of whom required caring for.

There were certainly different schemes for child-rearing, among different groups and in different places and at different times. What might be distinctively modern is the idea that child-rearing is not just a matter of following cultural practices and customs (which people in the culture see as “natural”, “instinctual”, not needing defense or explanation, etc., and people pick up by following other people’s examples), but as a matter of acquiring a technique, something that requires explicit instruction and learning. So we get increasing amounts of advice literature on child-rearing (and classes in parenting, and so on), in particular advice from people who set themselves up as experts on the matter. Eventually, child care morphed into child-rearing and parenting.

This is all speculation on my part — more plausible, perhaps, than Belkin’s proposal, but still speculation. It could be mostly a matter of vocabulary change, rather than cultural change. Vocabulary change can be a sign of cultural change, but there often is no “deep” explanation for lexical innovation and spread.

One Response to “Parenting”

  1. Rich Says:

    Fascinating, thank you. Point 2 is particularly useful for me, as I am working on a study of a 1959 Shirley Jackson novel, The Haunting of Hill House, which engages with what we’d now refer to as “parenting.” I had been betting that that term dates from the 50s. And the fact that even “child rearing” isn’t much older is really astounding.

    I still suspect that both go back at least a bit farther. The OED picks up the earliest references it can find, but its search techniques can’t be infallible. Also, what’s picked up is the earliest reference in print; obviously for many terms there had been a prior life in verbal discourse.

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