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.

Composite image by Slate.

At a time when women were wading into the workforce and securing advanced degrees in record numbers—a time much like today—Swedish feminist Ellen Key wrote an Atlantic Monthly essay on how the tension between women’s identities as mothers and their identities as individuals would soon be resolved. “The future will probably smile at the whole woman-question as one smiles at a question on which one has long since received a clear and radiant answer,” she wrote. “In that future of which I dream, there shall be neither men who are ill-paid and harassed family supporters, nor wives who are unrewarded and worn-out family slaves!” Society would evolve to seamlessly suit the woman who desired both a family and a freedom from the mindless drudgery involved in raising one. Key’s vision was optimistic, she admitted, but “the optimist is often right … only if he can wait—some hundred years!”

That was 1913. (Whoops.) A century later, we’re still grappling with the whole woman question, and the man question, the mom question, the dad question—the Parent Question—in the Atlantic and Time, on mommy and daddy blogs, and, most notably, in the Style section of the New York Times. Week in and week out, parenting trend stories cull personal anecdotes from Brooklyn playpens, mine the Internet for judgy neighbors, and pipe in the latest expert advice to tell us how to be the best parents we can be (that is, until the next issue comes out). 

Most of the time, though, these stories are winkingly designed to troll us by airing tales of the worst parents possible. In recent years, we’ve read of the parent who employs a $2,500 culinary nanny consulting service for educating the “nanny, from Wisconsin,” who “does not always know the difference between quinoa and couscous.” The parent who enlists a troupe of “artsitters” to “etch mice, twist bracelets, stage plays, sing vibrato, invent plots and do a dance called the banana” for $5 to $15 more an hour than the average babysitter. The parent who extends her PTA duties by volunteering for her college-aged kid’s admissions office, and the parent who dispatches the nanny to the bake sale. The dad who lines up in the cold at 4 a.m. to enroll his kids in science camp, and the one who stays up at night worrying he’s overscheduling his kids. The mom who breastfeeds her son for far too long, and the one who spends her child’s formative years “masturbating excessively, cheating on good people, doing coke in newly price-inflated townhouses, and sexting compulsively.” The mom who proudly dons Prada fur coats to escort her kids to the bus, and the one who shamefully appears with Oreos at the potluck.

Then there are the parents, profiled in the Times in April, who refuse to diaper their defecating babies in the name of a hip parenting “trend” called “elimination communication”—not because they can’t afford to buy Huggies but because they can afford to choose not to buy them.

Call it the parenting hate-read. The answer to the modern-day “parent question” is a weekly ritual (or twice weekly: Sunday and Thursday Style sections) in which we hold up a new set of moms and dads for a round of public shaming (or, in the case of the first-person diatribe, self-flagellation). In Slate last year, Allison Benedikt drew a distinction between “Bad Mother” stories and “Good Mother” stories, with the former aimed at airing the delinquent parent’s “maternal crimes” (à la Ayelet Waldman) and the latter detailing how more refined moms and dads overachieve in the pursuit of the perfect little specimen. (Yes, even 100 years out, the question is still largely focused on women.) But it doesn’t really matter if you’re a “good parent” or a “bad parent”—we’ll hate-read you both with equal enthusiasm. Thanks for the quotes.

That’s not to say that the stories themselves are bad, per se. I love a good hate-read—watch me take in a beautifully drawn and utterly ludicrous procreational trend story in the Atlantic or the Times. Though I’ll claim to hate it, the look on my face will be one of bliss. I can even appreciate the bogus trend story aspects of these pieces. The sentence where the reporter claims that “some say” an absurd parenting trend practiced by practically nobody is both “new” and “increasing” in relevance among a random selection of Brooklynites is often the most satisfying part. You know it’s coming, you wait for it, and then boom—“in fact [the mom who wears Prada to the bus] and her ilk are becoming, if not exactly the norm, far more common despite the faltering economy.” There it is! I hate it, and yet I love to read it. And I don’t even have kids!

That’s what makes the modern parenting hate-read such a masterwork. It’s so inclusive. Nonparents like me can rage against the rug-rat set. Less well-to-do parents can gnash their teeth at the more well-to-do. And the tiny proportion of parents who could actually afford a culinary education for their nannies, or a performance artist at playtime, or $400 ripped jeans for the bus stop can take notes on how to keep up. They can hate the trend story subjects for being on the forefront of designer parenting, and they can hate themselves for not measuring up. (They can even hate-buy a pair of Prada boots!) We can all hate the publications that print them, and yet we’ll never miss a word.

The editors and writers of these stories are incredibly skilled—each is finely calibrated to appeal to this diverse group of haters. When Times reporter Anand Giridharadas relayed, in last week’s hilarious report on the “artsitting” troupe, the image of an unimpressed tyke throwing his toys around the performance space “like Jay Gatsby’s shirts,” he was feeding relevant information up to the penthouses while throwing a sly elbow toward the rest of us. Both audiences are liable to share the story widely on Facebook, the social-media network we all love to hate. The trend story packaging is just a gossamer-thin justification for parading out the nation’s most out-of-touch parents for our collective judgment in order to sell newspapers.

“Are people writing these stories knowing that they’re going to be mocked horrendously on the Internet?” asks Benjamin Kabak, proprietor of the trend-mocking Twitter account The Times Is On It. At least some of them appear to be in on the joke. The Times headline for the artsitter piece is the inoffensive “Where Babysitting is Truly an Art,” but when Giridharadas tweeted out the story from his own account, he adopted a cheekier tone: “Let grown-ups have personal chefs & personal pilots. Kids have the personal artist, rentable as babysitter.” (Giridharadas and a couple other trend story authors either declined to be interviewed for this story or didn’t immediately respond to a request.) Either way, “they keep running these stories, and recycling them every few months,” Kabak says—and he keeps hate-tweeting them, sending traffic the Times’ way. Everybody gets a piece of the action, except the kids.

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We’ve been concern-trolling parents for as long as people began viewing the creation of other humans as a serious pursuit, as opposed to a thing that our bodies do until our bodies won’t do it anymore. “Fifty years ago no one would have thought of writing about the nature of motherliness,” Key wrote in 1913. “To sing of motherhood was then just as natural for ecstatic souls as to sing of the sun, the great source of energy from which we all draw life.”

But as birth rates declined in the latter part of the 19th century, as Jill Lepore detailed in The New Yorker in 2009, growing up around lots of kids became less of a certainty and knowing how to care for them became more of a specialty. By the 1920s, Lepore writes, the business of parenting began to look “especially mystifying to the increasing numbers of people, generally wealthier people, who had not grown up caring for their siblings, neighbors, cousins, and nieces and nephews, and who, it turned out, had no idea how to bathe or dress or soothe a baby.” To Key, the failure of turn-of-the-century America to “educate women and men to be mothers and fathers” was a travesty. (While Key longed for a resolution to “the woman question,” her proposed solution was itself an epic troll—a century of socialist policies that would give women the freedom to forgo paid work in order to stay at home with the kids where they belong). Scientists and commenters jumped in with books, magazines, and cultural reportage to fill the void.

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.