The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 3 (Fall 2013)

Holding Them Closer

Carl Desportes Bowman

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.3 (Fall 2013). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2013

(Volume 15 | Issue 3)

Nearly 30 years ago, sociologist Robert Bellah and his team of co-authors in Habits of the Heart (1985) described the American parenting ideal as the production of independent children who “leave home,” both figuratively and literally. To never leave home, they wrote, violated the cardinal American virtue of self-reliance, contradicting self-understandings that individuals should “earn everything we get, accept no handouts or gifts, and free ourselves from our families of origin.” The essence of parenting was preparing children for just such a separation, reflecting the American belief that a meaningful life could be had only by breaking free from family and giving birth, in a sense, to oneself. “However painful the process of leaving home, for parents and for children, the really frightening thing for both would be the prospect of the child never leaving home.” Successful launching was the quest, and the empty nest, even though it required adjustment, the reward. If these were the habits of the parenting heart in the 1980s, American parents clearly have had a change of heart.

Consider these recent findings from the Culture of American Families Survey, conducted by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Two-thirds of American parents of school-age children now say they would “willingly support a 25-year-old child financially” if needed. Two-thirds say they would encourage a 25-year-old to move back home if he or she had difficulty affording housing. Parents still hope, of course, that their adult children will attain financial independence, but this aspiration is no stronger than the hope that children will retain “close ties with parents and family”—both are considered “essential” by about half of American parents. The quest for long-term connection with children has taken central stage. Parenting is still about formation, but its overriding concern has pivoted from formation to connection. One has only to consider parents’ responses to the statement “I hope to be best friends with my children when they are grown” to know something new is happening at home. Almost three-quarters of today’s parents of school-age children (72 percent) agree that they eventually want to be their children’s best friends; only 17 percent disagree. The successful formation and launching of children still matters; it is just that parents don’t want to launch them very far.

Ambigious Adulthood

With this as their goal, it is no wonder American parents increasingly welcome twenty-something “boomerang children” back into “accordion families.” Compared to a generation ago, increasing numbers of adults in their twenties and thirties regularly call home to their parents, and regularly call their parents’ households “home.” American parents, meanwhile, more than parents in some nations, have felt the need to justify welcoming adult children back—as helping to finance a child’s schooling or the purchase of a separate residence, for example. But the practice has become so commonplace that justifying narratives are less and less necessary; the stigma attached to living with Mom and Dad is waning. Sociologist Katherine Newman suggests in The Accordion Family: Boomerang Kids, Anxious Parents, and the Private Toll of Global Competition (2012) that the very notions of “adulthood” and “independence” are increasingly ambiguous. Criteria such as residential independence, the creation of a new family, and economic autonomy have given way to something more elusive: You become an adult when you feel like one. It is the self-perception of autonomy and freedom that matters. Adulthood has become a subjective category.

Or the criteria may simply have changed, with young adults substituting personal autonomy (in their purchases, leisure pursuits, and lifestyles) and popular cultural knowledge (of the sort derived from exposure to popular media) for traditional signs of adulthood. Consider these findings from the Culture of American Families Survey. The typical older teen (16–19) has both a cell phone and a social networking account. She texts and talks with friends on her cell phone multiple times per day. She spends an hour or two daily on the Internet and streams videos several times a week. And she gets together with friends with no adult supervision about once a week. (It is important to note here that the Culture of American Families Survey is a nationally representative study of parents of school-age children. So these findings present parents’ understandings of what their children are doing.) What is more, the social backdrop for her semi-autonomous and plugged-in world often includes parents who themselves have positive attitudes toward the new technologies or, if not, at least accept them as the wave of the future, a wave their child cannot miss. So beyond the subjective feelings of adulthood, older teenagers’ very real freedom in consumption and leisure choices, their media connections with the world beyond the home, and the cultural knowledge that accumulates from these activities and links reinforce their perceptions that they deserve to be treated as adults.

Something unacknowledged in their rush to “adulthood” is not only their lack of economic independence but also their incompetence in practical matters. Older teens—legally “adults”—may mock their parents’ ignorance of the latest web trends or media celebrities, but they are often stumped by things their parents, at the same age, would have considered basic: changing a tire, replacing a button, ironing clothes, applying for a job, and the like. A recent analysis of such practical torpor by psychologists Joseph Allen and Claudia Worrell Allen goes so far as to suggest that 25 years of age is the new 15. In Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old (2009), they note, “We’ve worked with macho teenage boys—high school seniors who were more than able to take their licks on an athletic field or jousting with peers—who were reduced to near paralysis when told to go to a shopping center on their own and approach store managers about possible job opportunities. So far removed and so beyond them did the adult world seem that these teens felt unable to enter it alone, even in the most rudimentary ways.” Other researchers have pointed to the incomplete development of the adolescent brain as the source of adolescent troubles, but the Allens instead highlight the insular nature of the adolescent world. Adolescents, they contend, grow up in a peer-dominated bubble, cut off from adult contacts, adult roles, and the adult world in general (other than their parents). This leaves little beyond their gadgets, studies, and peer-centered activities to serve as the basis for a broader sense of life’s meaning and purpose. What is more, the values absorbed from their media-defined world contrast markedly, the authors contend, with the traits valued by their parents and the adult world in general.

Overall, the Allens suggest, this adolescent bubble makes it harder for young people to engage in more meaningful pursuits or to make more significant contributions, leaving them to study, text, and tweet into the wee hours of the night. For their part, young adults defer plans for creating their own families, tangle fitfully with a challenging labor market, and rely on their parents’ financial and practical support until well into their twenties, if not beyond. Young adults from economically secure families sometimes opt for extended periods of self-discovery and vocational experimentation, relying on parents as security blankets for hard times. The more demanding route of competitive higher education, an ambitious career track, and the shouldering of vocational and family responsibilities is seen as something that can wait. But this leisurely stroll toward “leaving home” doesn’t preclude the embrace of an adult identity, even if it is framed in the language of “emerging adults” or “young adults.”

If any chasm exists between this cultural world of adolescents and that of the adults in their lives, parents might be the last to know. The Culture of American Families Survey reveals an assurance—almost a smugness—on the part of parents regarding their cultural proximity to their children. Nine of every ten American parents of school-age children, for example, confidently claim, “My children share my understandings of right and wrong.” Two-thirds go so far as to say their children share their understandings of faith and religion. Only one parent in ten (12 percent) confesses to anything more than a “moderate” level of disagreement and conflict with their children. Even then, it’s mostly over daily routines of bedtime, diet, homework, and cleaning up rather than over larger issues or moral understandings. When asked whether they “fear” that their children might one day become estranged from them, few parents (16 percent) say yes, even though another 17 percent call it a “worry.” Two-thirds, however, call it only a small concern, if that.

Most parents, in fact, consider themselves to be closer to their own children than their parents once were to them; only one parent in ten (11 percent) confesses to being, by comparison, more distantly connected to his or her children. This subjective sense of a tighter bond is particularly pronounced for men, 71 percent of whom claim to be closer to their children than their fathers were to them. Emotional intimacy, of course, does not always translate into happiness or satisfaction, but in the case of parenting, it seems to. Only one parent in twenty describes his or her parenting experience as an unhappy one. Our data suggest that in the minds of parents, parenting is better than life itself—parents express greater happiness with their parenting than with the way life in general is going by a fairly wide margin. Virtually all parents of school-age children (96 percent) say, “I love spending time with my children.”

All is not roses, however. And contrary to what some would suggest, the parental preoccupation with closeness does not automatically give rise to permissiveness. Most parents retain a clear sense of their role as parents, understanding that it is their responsibility and theirs alone to guide their children. As they do so, they are three times more likely to value “being consistent” than “remaining flexible.” Seven out of ten, meanwhile, say that parenting means “directing children” more than “negotiating” with them. Parents also say parenting means “guiding and directing children’s development” more than “letting children become whatever they want to be."

What is more, parents recognize the need to set limits and enforce discipline. When asked to choose which statement better describes their family—“Children see their parents as friends” or “Children see their parents as authority figures”—parents were 2.7 times more likely to pick “authority figures” than “friends.” They are also more than twice as likely to identify themselves as “strict” than as “permissive.” Yet the forms of parental strictness are softer than generations ago. This is most clearly seen in their views on corporal punishment. It remains true that most parents (81 percent) admit to having resorted to spanking at least once or twice, but, significantly, few (19 percent) consider spanking to be part of their standard disciplinary repertoire. On a list of fourteen techniques for encouraging good behavior and correcting misbehavior, spanking ranks near the bottom for today’s parents; only “being emotionally cool and distant to your child” ranks lower in importance. The tender discipline of today’s parents instead embraces “positive” techniques: praising children for what they do right, modeling good behavior, instructing children in what is appropriate, and discussing behavior (sometimes ad nauseam) until they finally understand. When punishments are resorted to, they are typically mild measures, such as withholding TV, Internet, and cell-phone privileges; grounding from social activities with friends; and “time-outs” in a child’s room. They rarely involve scolding, spanking, or burdening a child with additional chores. (In fact, where spanking is concerned, parents say their children’s worry about a potential spanking is more important than the spanking itself.)

So parents discipline without coming off as disciplinarian. And they “direct” while preserving the impression of being more like coaches, mentors, or facilitators. Many are wary of impenetrable parent-child boundaries, believing instead that they should “share information and emotions freely with children.” Even so, few parents (16 percent) actually come right out and say, “I sometimes feel more like my children’s best friend than their parent.”

They might not yet feel like their children’s best friend, but for many, that is their hope for the future. What social conditions and contexts nurture such an aspiration? First, parents who had close relationships with their own parents as a child, and who continue to relate closely with them, typically hope for the same with their own children. These are deeply family-centered parents whose worlds of relationship and meaning hinge upon the preservation of close familial ties. Second, best-friend aspirations are no more likely to be found among the economic and cultural elite than among low-income or minority groups. The picture here is mixed. Hispanic and African American parents hope to be best friends with their adult children more than do whites, but parents with household incomes above $50,000 manifest this hope more than do less-well-off parents.

Third and most importantly, parents who might be characterized as “soft and gentle” parents—who employ emotional language and shy away from harsh discipline—are especially taken with the idea of becoming their children’s best friends. This includes parents expressing a number of (possibly connected) attitudes: those who favor praise, discussion, and time-outs to shape children (but frown on spanking); those for whom the development of children’s self-esteem trumps the molding of their morality and character; those who consider it “absolutely essential” that their children become adults who are comfortable sharing their feelings; and those who say “the greatest moral virtue is to be honest about your feelings and desires.” All of these parents, in one way or another, put a premium on emotional expressiveness in themselves and their children, hoping to hold the latter in a close embrace over the long haul rather than preparing them for separation.

Parents have always sought to nurture and protect, but our study reveals a particularly strong desire to cushion children’s falls, protect them from danger, and preserve their social dignity. Four out of five (80 percent) of today’s parents, for example, say that children are very vulnerable and must be protected. Their greatest fears are that their children might be snatched away, preyed upon sexually by other adults, or injured in a serious accident. Even though such risks cannot be completely removed, parents’ strategies for minimizing them focus on keeping their children close at hand or monitoring their activities when they are away.

These things are neither easily nor lightly accomplished. If the chorus of American parents sings in unison on one thing—beyond praising children for their accomplishments and expressing a love for spending time with them—it is on the energy and investment required to parent, as parenting is understood today. Nine out of ten parents (91 percent) say they “invest much effort” in shaping their children’s moral character, 83 percent “invest much effort” in protecting their children from negative social influences, and 72 percent “invest much effort” in providing opportunities that will give their children a competitive advantage down the road. With so much invested, yet so much still to invest (including the possibility of providing housing and support throughout their children’s young adulthood), parents often wonder whether they are coming up short. Few would actually admit to being inadequate as parents—with so much invested, that would be too personally threatening—but most (61 percent) think they should be investing more time and energy than they already do. And most (55 percent) concede, “I often wonder whether I am doing a good job as a parent.”

The Late Modern Context

Sixty-three years ago, in his now classic study of mid-twentieth-century American society, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character (1950), David Riesman observed that a 400-year-old cultural revolution cutting Westerners off from traditional, clan-based ways of life was giving way to another revolution—modes of conformity tied to production were being displaced by those tied to consumption. The essence of this second revolution was that “inner-directed” modes of comportment, learned from parents as a child and remaining relatively stable throughout life, were being supplanted by “other-directed” modes spawned by an age of consumption. Though not obvious from Riesman’s terminology, the inner-directed life, especially by comparison with today’s standards, was a conformist, tradition-grounded life, not one in which individual choice reigned supreme. Inner-directed conformity was oriented toward institutionalized codes of conduct supplied by external social forces, among them faith, family, gender, work, and a variety of civic organizations.

The industrial age of inner-directed character, according to Riesman, was one in which family size had declined and parents had come to see their children as people who would move on, “as individuals with careers to make.” So parenting attempted to set the behavioral gyroscope that would keep young persons “correctly oriented” once they moved away and had few opportunities for communication and travel back home. Parental emphasis on early obedience and eventual self-reliance—preparation for leaving home, in Bellah’s sense—was paramount.

Riesman’s linking of a major relational shift (toward other-direction) with a turn from production to an age of consumption has been echoed since 1990 in many studies of late- or post-modernity. Much of what Riesman saw distinguishing the new age of consumption—repeated changes in status and life goals; the predominance of image, advertising, the mass media, and popular culture; a turning toward others for behavioral cues—now seems prescient. Regarding family, he placed particular emphasis on the ascendancy of the peer group, seeing parents themselves as partially responsible:


…[T]here is a relaxation of older patterns of discipline. Under these newer patterns the peer-group… becomes much more important to the child, while the parents make him feel guilty not so much about violation of inner standards as about failure to be popular or otherwise to manage his relations with these other children…. The goals toward which the other-directed person strives shift with that guidance [from peers]: it is only the process of striving itself and the process of paying close attention to the signals from others that remain unaltered throughout life. This mode of keeping in touch with others permits a close behavioral conformity… through an exceptional sensitivity to the actions and wishes of others. The coming “other directed” reality was one of an insatiable need for approval in a world devoid of stable institutionalized patterns.


Many of these same themes have been echoed in more recent analyses. British sociologist Anthony Giddens, for instance, writes of a late-modern world in which institutionalized codes are replaced by reflexive monitoring and endless self-examination. People monitor themselves and fabricate accounts, constantly open to revision, about who they are and why they do what they do. Like Riesman and many others, Giddens highlights increasing choice and uncertainty in contemporary life. He writes in Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (1991) of human behavior becoming “disembedded” from established patterns in a way that replaces tradition not with new certainties but with radical doubt. In our world, “the self, like the broader institutional contexts in which it exists, has to be reflexively made. Yet this task has to be accomplished amid a puzzling diversity of options and possibilities.” These muddy waters create such a climate of uncertainty that individuals must constantly be assessing potential risks and pitfalls.

How does Giddens see this atmosphere affecting relationships, and parenting in particular? First, contemporary relationships, Giddens says, tend to be “free-floating” rather than anchored in the “external conditions” of social life. A century ago, for example, marriages were grounded in part in their own internal division of labor; the stable roles of both genders contributed to the sustaining of the marriage. Today, even though marriages still have negotiated divisions of labor, they are anchored, Giddens says, in romantic love and emotional attachment. Marriage increasingly becomes “a relationship initiated for, and kept going for as long as, it delivers emotional satisfaction to be derived from close contact with another. Other traits—even such seemingly fundamental ones as having children—tend to become sources of ‘inertial drag’ on possible separation, rather than anchoring features of the relationship.”

Such free-floating ties, called “pure relationships” by Giddens, are valued for their own sake rather than being socially constrained obligations. One might, for instance, be more or less friendly with co-workers, neighbors, and others in shared social contexts, but the relationship is a “friendship” (in the pure relationship sense) only insofar as it is valued for its own sake. Giddens exempts kinship, to an extent, from this category, because kinship continues to involve obligations, however vague, that cannot be broken off. (One may not enjoy Aunt Una or Uncle Playford, but they remain kin.) In a pure relationship, on the other hand, things that go wrong threaten the relationship itself. Such relationships are haunted by the question, “Is everything all right?” The more a relationship depends only on itself, the more it is burdened by the need for ongoing assessment. And as people do this assessing, mutuality and balance of investment, attachment, and satisfaction become issues, even if only latent and unspoken. In a free-floating world, uncertainties open up in relational terrain that was once more stable and secure, and people develop the habit of critically examining both who they are as individuals and who they are in relationships.

These portrayals of our current condition could easily lead to the assumption that no relationship can endure for long, yet close relationships obviously do. No longer shored up by external institutional supports, they are grounded instead, Giddens says, in something historically new: personal commitment. It is commitment that replaces the older, firmer grounding, yet like much in contemporary society, commitment is a matter of personal choice. Friends and marital partners become committed to relationships when they decide to, and uncommitted when they decide to. External conditions may still contribute to relational endurance, but they no longer provide the security or sense that a relationship will automatically endure. Commitment grounded in choice is fraught with uncertainty and questions about trust. This is why personal intimacy has become such a large motif in contemporary relationships, because intimacy allays, at least for a time, questions about trust. And relational intimacy, as Giddens presents it, is a quality of closeness that involves a balancing act between personal autonomy and sharing. When the balance is right and the signals of engagement are strong, intimacy re-kindles a warm sense that one’s partner is committed to the relationship, even in a world of shifting cultural sands and individualized choices.

Striking many of these same notes, the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman writes of contemporary culture as one in which all things—including understandings of love and the family—have turned liquid. Liquid culture, in his view, continually seduces humans with new possibilities rather than offering set norms. Even as it abandons the Enlightenment ideal of change for a larger purpose, liquid culture replaces it with change for change’s sake. As it does so, institutions, habits, and established products are scrapped for no more reason than the lure of the hunt, the passion of pursuit, the thrill of the new. This cultural logic—this kind of fluidity—ripples into all human arrangements, resulting in a diminished faith in institutions of the public sphere and a retreat into the satisfactions of an individualized present. Bauman writes in Culture in a Liquid Modern World (2011), “It is obvious today that you can no longer seriously entertain any real hope of making the world a nicer place to live in, but you might just be tempted to safeguard…that relatively pleasant, private place which you have managed to carve out for yourself in that world.”

For many, the relational center of that pleasant, private place is the family. This reality, coupled with the centrality of consumption in contemporary life, leads Bauman to the observation that the “liquid” modern child is “first and foremost, an object of emotional consumption.” Like other objects of consumption, children serve the needs and desires of the consumer, in this case, their parents. He notes in Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds (2003), “Children are wanted for the joys of the parental pleasures it is hoped they will bring—the kinds of joys no other object of consumption, however ingenious and sophisticated, can offer.” Parenting, in short, is as much about what children provide for parents as what parents provide for children. It is not just an activity of loving care for a dependent being, but of meeting one’s own emotional and identity needs in a world where larger institutional commitments, projects, and sources of identity, for many, have lost their luster.

But children differ significantly from other objects of consumption. Most products offer warranties, or guarantees, or at least detailed specifications of what it is one is buying. In such cases, customer satisfaction is tied to a value-for-cost assessment. In the case of children, however, the eventual value of the purchase remains uncertain and the full costs are unknown. Even so, it is clear to most parents that their children will be expensive. In Bauman’s words, children “are among the most expensive purchases that average consumers are likely to make in the course of their entire lives. In purely monetary terms, children cost more than a luxurious state-of-the-art car, a round-the-world cruise, even a mansion to be proud of. Worse still, the total cost is likely to grow over the years and its volume cannot be fixed in advance nor estimated with any degree of certainty.” And this does not even touch upon the multiple, incalculable, nonmonetary costs. For parents, this blend of uncertain value obtained for indeterminate cost constitutes “an uncharacteristically high level of risk and a prolific source of anxiety and fear,” says Bauman. Creating a family is like “jumping headlong into uncharted waters of unfathomed depth.” What is worse, if it turns out poorly, parents have no one to blame but themselves, since their children are understood to result from their own choices rather than from accidents or divine beneficence.

If Bauman (and others) are to be believed, even though parents choose to have children for the pleasure, warmth, connection, continuity, and purpose they may provide (if all goes well), their choice inevitably results in the continual and daily sacrifice of their own personal preferences. Over time, their lives and identities may become so entwined with their children that parents run the risk of becoming dependent upon their dependents. The kind of endless, dependent obligation parents have taken on, Bauman notes, “goes against the grain of liquid modern life politics” and is studiously avoided in other areas of their life. As natural as parenting may be, it runs counter to the cultural logic and codes of behavior that govern other life domains.

Reflections on Parenting

Several themes that emerge in the work of Riesman, Giddens, and Bauman are clearly reflected in findings from the Culture of American Families Survey. First, in a world where fixed patterns attached to clearly defined roles are no longer supplied, parents are left to choose their own patterns and negotiate the terms of their own relationships in a more “free-floating” way than in the past. While a survey cannot ask questions about “deinstitutionalization” per se, it can certainly ask whether parenting is perceived as more difficult today. By a whopping 6 to 1 margin, parents say that it is. Why this is so is not completely clear, but the Culture of American Families Survey shows that many parents have embraced highly individualistic views of appropriate behavior, which certainly colors their parenting. A majority (51 percent), for example, agree that “Our values are something that each of us must decide without being influenced by others;” only 32 percent disagree. Many also say that “sex before marriage is okay, if the couple loves each other,” “most religions are equally good paths to the same destination,” and “all views of what is good are equally valid.” For each of these, in fact, more of today’s parents agree than disagree. Even those who disagree, perceiving the moral order to be more clear-cut, find themselves in a cultural milieu where other parents see it quite differently. This contributes to the pervasive parental sense that they must chart their own course as parents, turning to family, friends, experts, or faith communities for counsel, but deciding for themselves in the end. This does not imply that parents feel unsupported—as a matter of fact, most say they have support when necessary—but the majority still describes parenting as an independent activity.

This individualized, institutionally disembedded culture of parenting presents a heavy burden. As Bauman points out, parents invest heavily in parenting on a daily basis, yet with no benchmark for how much is enough. So they worry they are doing too little even when doing much. A majority of parents continue to believe that a woman should make her family the top priority, putting her husband and children ahead of her career. What is more, just as many parents believe a man should do the same. Everyone, it seems, is supposed to put family first, ahead of other obligations. Expectations are set so high it is little wonder that parents are uneasy.

“Other-directedness,” to borrow Riesman’s terminology, may be one of their responses. Unclear about their own performance, they look to their children for feedback on how they are doing. To borrow language from my own children, it would be “lame” for parents to directly ask children such a question, so parents gauge how they are doing from the emotional strength—the intimacy—of their relationship with their children, assessed and monitored through daily interactive cues. Is the child respectful or rebellious? Are they affectionate or indifferent? Do they enter their parents’ presence eager to engage, or are communications minimalist and sporadic? Are they responsive or dismissive to parental overtures? Riesman envisioned other-directedness occurring primarily between peers and outside of the family, but he also presented it as a cultural turn, a second revolution in social character. What we are seeing today are the parenting habits of people whose relational worlds have been other-directed, to a degree, from childhood. As parents they do what they have always done—look, in Riesman’s words, with “exceptional sensitivity” toward others rather than rely on an internal gyroscope set early in life. But now, the other-directed conformity is directed toward the daily desires, needs, and feedback of children. The “others” in the other-directedness, ironically, have become their own children.

Along the way, Giddens’ logic of “pure relationship” seems to have fully colonized the home. Giddens himself treated kinship as something of a departure from the “free-floating” pure relationship, because blood relations hinge upon something other than individual choice. But with marriages failing in large numbers, confidence in the power of blood kinship—the parent-child tie—to sustain relationships may be waning as well. Most parents have personal knowledge of other parents who have largely lost contact with one or more grown child. Given the abundant evidence of the fragility of human relationships in late modern society and given the cultural habit of continual re-examination of how relationships are going, that haunting, pure-relationship question “Is everything all right?” may hover over parent-child relationships as much as any other. In short, being “Mother” or “Father” may no longer be enough. The validation of these roles may require more evidence of commitment from the offspring in the form of intimate displays of warmth and affection, as in other pure relationships. As children approach adulthood and reach their moment of “launching,” parental confidence in durable kinship may be insufficient for an era in which all seems fleeting and free-floating.

Indeed, the adult world has become so fragile that parents who seek to be eventual “best friends” with their children may be making an unspoken bid for a return on their years of relational and monetary investment. The return they seek is nothing more than an emotional anchor of connection, assurance they are not being set aside or rendered irrelevant by their children in the same way they might be at work or in other socially limited relationships. In an age when “Father” and “Mother” no longer carry the intrinsic authority and respect accorded in a bygone age, “best friends” may be parents’ best attempt at sustaining something meaningful and enduring. Bellah wrote during the 1980s that the really frightening thing for American parents would be the prospect of children never leaving home. Something quite different may nag at parents today: a fear that children’s “leaving home” too soon—and too completely—may come to feel like failure.

Carl Desportes Bowman is the Director of Survey Research at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and Project Director of the Culture of American Families project.

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