The Rise of the Parenting Hate-Read

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Dec. 12 2013 5:00 AM

The Rise of the Parenting Hate-Read

We can't stop clicking on bogus parenting trend stories that make us mad. And the New York Times knows it.

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At the same time, as Ellery Sedgwick details in A History of the Atlantic Monthly, 1857-1909, elite literary magazines like the Atlantic were democratizing in an effort to succeed in “the new, more commercial, journalistic, mass-culture publishing environment of the early twentieth century.” An investment in “more active reportage on current cultural and social issues” at the expense of removed literary criticism inched the magazine out of the highest tiers of American society and into “the commercial mainstream.” The impulse for intellectual reflection complied with a thirst for “public exposure to new ideas”—the perfect recipe for the rise of the anecdote-driven but philosophically resonant trend piece.

The result? In 1932, Parents’ Magazine founder Clara Savage Littledale took to NBC radio to declare, “I Am a Failure as a Mother.” Throughout the 1950s, the New York Times churned out evergreen concerns like “How Much Should a Child ‘Achieve’” as well as more specialized trolls like “In Britain Daddy and Mummy Know Best.” As scientific breakthroughs that had nothing to do with “parenting styles” made our kids healthier than ever, parents were freer to take a turn for the myopic. By 1956, the Times was covering the rise of a “growing” confusion among parents, forced to pick through the reams of expert advice to settle on the best bet. “If being able to make choices about the way we shall rear our children leads to confusion,” parenting expert Edith Neisser told the paper, “then a degree of confusion is a great luxury and, mercifully, one we can afford.” In 1958, Anne Kelley took on the debate between suburban and urban childrearing and argued that a child’s wellbeing would not be secured by any adherence to or rejection of parenting trends but by the sheer will of individual parents: “The breadth of their experiences is determined more by the metabolism and muscle-tone of their parents than by group dynamics,” she wrote.

Instead of taking Kelley’s word for it, individual choice became the new cultural trend. An adaptive parenting industry arose to help treat parents buckling under the pressure of all these choices, and trend stories kept on the case. In the ’70s, the Times covered the parents who were flocking to new “parenting centers” to find relief from the “oozing guilt” of “Battered Parent Syndrome.” (“For so many years, everything has been the child,” one center founder told the Times. “Now it’s the parents’ turn.”) In the ’80s, the paper rebranded the diagnosis “Super Baby Burnout Syndrome.” By the next decade, the paper was thinking of the children again, reporting on the pain felt by kids who grow up with overachieving parents (thereby fanning more guilt for mom and dad). In this century, we were back to arguing for the dangers of not overscheduling the kiddos. Our children turned into the living, breathing results of a million little experiments, and their parents turned into insufferable basketcases.

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Or maybe none of this ever really happened! Maybe in the ’50s, as now, parenting trend stories were plucked from a few overheard conversations from a collection of weirdos then spun into societywide certainties that seem positively definitive when we peer back at them through the microfilm. (Dear God, what will future hate-readers think of the 2011-era parents who wouldn’t name their daughter Kalia because the Google search turns up too many strippers?)

But allow me to string together my own new—yet growing!—trend among the parenting trend stories. Just as commercial impulses encouraged magazines and newspapers to shift toward popular journalism as they entered the 20th century, 21st century platforms have embraced quick and provocative commentary to attract the most eyeballs on the freewheeling Internet, while struggling to retain paid subscribers with “premium” content. A new class rift has emerged, divided by a digital paywall. There are those people who pick up the New York Times on the stoop of their brownstone every morning and read it in peace at the breakfast table and those who bypass the paywall via a Twitter link (maybe even one from @NYTOnIt) then click back to social media to have a good, sinister laugh.

Meanwhile, as middle- and upper-class people are waiting longer to have kids, and having fewer of them, parents have grown into an even more elite interest group—the ones more likely to pay up. Hate-read publishers cater to them with catty stories about their catty neighbors and feed the Internet masses at the same time, by sweating the smallest possible stuff. Never breastfeed, or never stop? Hire a caretaker with a quinoa education, or an MFA? Instruct your diaperless baby to “urinate on the street between parked cars,” or, you know, don’t do that? These stories may add up to a lucrative model, but—in the 1950s as now—what’s good for business is not always good for parents. The fact that less well-to-do readers are busy cleaning up dirty diapers—and grappling with a country that fails to accommodate their basic needs as parents—only fuels reader resentment and powers us to rage-share.

The most outrage-inducing (and widely read) parenting trend pieces focus on “generally white, upper-middle-class people who have the ability to experiment and take financial risks in the raising of their kids,” Kabak says. The most modern of parenting luxuries is not just the ability to make choices about how we raise our children but to slip in and out of these myriad parenting identities like so many fur Prada coats. Most of us will never have the cash to fund that exercise, but we can afford to click through and read all about it.

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