In the "biographical autopsies" the mass media conducts following the death of some infamous individual (i.e., Rev. Jimmy Jones following the mass suicide of his religious cult in the jungles of Guyana, or such serial killers as Jeffrey Dahmer), frequently revealed is a story of abuse and inability or (or lack of interest) of parents intervening to alter the self development of their child. But not all victims of abuse grow up to become deviants. What often makes the difference is having some supportive adult.
In the 1990 NORC General Survey, a random sample of American adults were asked the following series of questions: "Many adults play roles in the lives of children. Please rate the following as very good (coded 1), good (2), fairly good (3), fairly bad (4), and very bad (5): mothers, fathers, grandparents, teachers, and priests, ministers or rabbis." Below are the mean scores white and black females and males gave (note: the lower the mean the more highly rated the individual's role).
MEAN SCORES GIVEN TO ADULTS' ROLES IN THE
LIVES OF CHILDREN
BY WHITE AND BLACK FEMALES AND MALES
|WH FEM||BL FEM||BL MAL||WH MAL||TOTAL|
Do you detect any interesting differences here? First, there are statistically significant differences in the mean scores given by black and white males and females to the roles played by grandparents, clergy, and teachers. Second, it is interesting how grandparents are given the edge over fathers, particularly among African-Americans.
Spare the rod and spoil the child.
There have been intriguing shifts over the past century in popularized strategies for creating "good" selves. Part of this change involves shifts in connotations of "good," whether it means something good from the perspective of society or of the individual being socialized. As Warren Susman (Culture as History) argues, between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there has been a cultural shift in the predominant self-structure of Americans, from the romantic ideal of "character" to one of "personality." Character involves matters of integrity and duty; personality involves popularity, the ability to make friends. Associated with these changes are parenting strategies ranging on at least one continuum from "permissiveness" to authoritarianism.
This longitudinal shift toward permissiveness is clearly evident
in Wolfenstein's research on infant genital exploration, where he analyzed
Infant Care, a government-issued child care pamphlet. In the 1914
version, physical restraints were advised for children in bed, with warnings
that masturbation was an injurious practice. Fifteen years later, masturbation
was seen as a short, passing phase, and experts recommended giving the
child a toy to hold at bedtime. By 1951, masturbation was seen as an act
about which the child had no feelings and was only a source of maternal
their four-generation model of American history, Strauss & Howe (1991:65)
see more cyclical trends, arguing that shifts in child nurture typically
occur during or just after eras of exceptional spiritual fervor (for example,
the 1741-2, 1842-3, 1981-2) or just following major crises in public life
(the 1859-60 or 1942-43).
The thing that impresses me most about America is the way
parents obey their children.
--Duke of Windsor
Among the differences between the social classes is the way they socialize their young. Elsewhere, for instance, we considered class differences in endorsing spanking. The results of a 1989 national survey of Americans revealed that individuals identifying themselves as members of the lower class to be seven times more likely than those identifying themselves as members of the upper class (and nearly twice as likely as those from the middle and working classes) to mention obedience as "the most important [thing] for a child to learn," and less than half as likely to mention thinking for oneself. The explanation for this is that in order to survive, lower-class individuals must know how to obey and to defer to others.
Over the years, the NORC General Social Surveys have included questions dealing with socialization strategies for children (the 1989 study above, in fact, was one these survey years). Among the questions asked were the following two dealing with the importance placed on obedience:
Since these questions were asked in different years, I combined the two, coding the third of Americans who answered first question as first or second most important and the third of Americans who included "that he obeys his parents well" among the three qualities they thought were most desirable for a child to have as those seeing obeying as important. Others were coded as viewing obeying as being less important.
In our causal model are diagrammed predictors of who are most likely to stress obedience in childrearing: race, sex, age, region, education, and religiosity. The lines show the significant zero-order relationships between the variables. The green numbers associated with the lines are the percentage differences between the high and low categories (in blue above and below each variable) of antecedent variables on the high category of the variable causally "downstream." For instance, the -15.82 for the line between EDUC and OBEY means that those with four or more years of college are 15.82 percentage points less likely to say OBEY is important than those who did not graduate from high school. Observe, that there is no significant difference between how men and women thought about obeying. Parental status was not included because it didn't affect responses to OBEY.
Among our findings: