March 15, 2009

Hyperparenting: The Ethnography

I have a long list (it exists only in my head unfortunately) of various ethnographic projects I would like to conduct. I might start the real list soon but in the meantime, I will just through the half-baked ideas here and perhaps it will inspire others to take it on. I am currently reading a fantastic book, The Case Against Perfection, and am on a section on hyperparenting and well, while I think at a common sense level we know what psychological havoc such controlled parenting can cause, I think an ethnography of some of the practices and institutions of hyperparenting would, nonetheless, make for a fascinating read. If anyone knows of anything that even resembles this, do drop me a line.

Update: Not exactly an ethnography but certainly fun to read.


  1. It seems to me that there are only two good non-religious reasons against genetic engineering of humans. The most obvious is the potential for getting it wrong. We can’t make computer programs run reliably, running for 99.999% of a year is considered to be an achievement – but having a human heart give such unreliability after 40 years of operation is unusual. Predicting the effects of genetic engineering on the grandchildren is going to be impossible.

    The other non-religious reason is the fact that gaining one feature can mean losing others. There have been cases of people who gain a talent after suffering a decrease in brain function, EG gaining artistic ability after losing mathematical ability (there was an interesting TV documentary about this – it’s a pity that it’s not on the web so I can’t cite it). Having a generation of children who have the mental abilities that their parents thought would get them the best jobs doesn’t seem like a good idea, maybe we would have a generation without artists.

    As a separate issue I think that the excessive pressure that some parents place on their children is a form of child abuse. Some people use children as their proxies to try and achieve things that they didn’t. Children have a right to enjoy life, this means playing with their friends and persuing their own hobbies not wasting all their time studying.

    Comment by Russell Coker — March 16, 2009 @ 8:32 pm

  2. These are good points. I think there are other reasons, which I am going to soon write about in more detail and in reference to the Sandel book, which I think is a wonderful account. But yes, the gettting it wrong is important to consider and take very seriously.

    I think about something like antibiotics and bacteria as a guiding light. At first, it seemed like killing bacteria with antibiotics was straightforward, and at one level it is. But on the other hand, pervasive use of abx also causes its own problems. To toy with “human genetics” and nature will also likely cause many unintended consequences and really, for what?

    Could not agree more with “As a separate issue I think that the excessive pressure that some parents place on their children is a form of child abuse. Some people use children as their proxies to try and achieve things that they didnít”

    Comment by Biella — March 18, 2009 @ 4:50 am

  3. You seem more strongly opposed to genetic modification than I am.

    There are some real benefits. If we look at the incidence of genetic disorders with the most broad criteria and count people who have one set of bad genes that need to be coupled with another to show a nasty result then the incidence is very common, especially if a genetic predisposition to cancer is considered to be a genetic disorder.

    While many of them can be selected out by a comprehensive IVF program (for the people who are just unlikely to have children who are free of the disorder) and greater public acceptance of egg and sperm donation (for those who can’t have children who are free of it), it seems that hacking the genes can be a reasonable way of dealing with some genetic disorders.

    If we could find a way of altering the genes that cause Aspergers so that the people in question will have the high IQ without the social problems then that could be a good option with minimal risk.

    There is also the issue of genetic modification of adults to remove genetic disorders. Maybe I inherited a gene for an increased risk of cancer, it’s too late for my parents to use the IVF and selection option but maybe a virus could alter the DNA of the cells in question. Of course this would be one of the most risky ways of doing GM (both for the recipient of the treatment and for bystanders).

    Your analogy of antibiotics doesn’t seem the best. Right from the start antibiotics have been doing great things and I am not aware of any direct bad results from using them as designed. It’s only when they started routinely giving antibiotics to animals and people who weren’t really sick and when people were ceasing the treatment earlier than they should that the effectiveness declined. But we are merely getting back to a stage where we have no treatment for certain ailments. It’s not actually harming anyone.

    Doing GM on every child seems like a really bad idea for a civilisation that wants a future.

    Comment by Russell Coker — March 19, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

  4. On hyperparenting, I really like The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood by Sharon Hays. I’m not sure whether it’s what you had in mind but it’s a great book. I’ve also been meaning to check out Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in an Age of Anxiety — not an ethnography but her column in the NY Times is pretty good.

    Comment by Chloe Silverman — March 24, 2009 @ 10:14 am

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