In Little Platoons: a Defense of Family in a Competitive Age, the writer Matt Feeney offers a finely observed and persuasively argued set of reflections on bourgeois parenting in the early 21st century. A dad of three in Oakland, that concentration of liberal anxiety and affluence, and a philosophy PhD, Feeney tends to begin his discussions from personal experience, move through metaphysical speculation about the meaning of it all, and only then turn to journalistic and social science research and responses to popular books and articles. The result is a more tempered, less glib and hyperbolic picture of what family life is like in middle-class America- or was like until very recently- that consequently is more effective in delineating how very powerful are the forces he describes. It is clear- and indeed Feeney says so in many different ways- that he has loved being a dad in the particular, extravagantly intense form of fatherhood that our time has offered him, and that his occasional demurral of one or another practice of his fellow middle-class parents is by no means a wholesale denunciation.
And yet I suspect that I am not the only reader who will come away from the book much more uneasy than energized, sensing less a way of avoiding the excess and insanity of contemporary parenthood than a premonition of what all that excess is enacting upon the society as a whole. It is not just that, Feeney suggests, many ways of being an intensive, highly competitive parent, while individually rational or at least potentially so, contribute through a kind of arms race to an unbearable pace of family life and unmanageable demands upon people eager to secure some degree of security or success for their children. Above and beyond these (by now familiar) positive feedback loops of competition, Feeney outlines a kind of arrogation of moral power by institutions that is ultimately more far-reaching, a transmutation of collective parental anxiety, effort, and energy into something more sinister than mere one-upmanship and stress. For those of us who perceive the current American public square as somewhere between a haunted house and a nuclear fallout site, the glimpses Feeney offers of the enormous moral leverage over ordinary families that institutions now hold is a little like finding a large, glowing radioactive egg underneath your back porch- you can’t be exactly sure that it’s the source of all your problems, but you can be pretty sure it’s nothing good.
Indeed, as I wrote a little over a year ago, I have come to see the moral revolution of our time- the “Great Awokening” of institutionalized progressive politics- as both a retreat from and an extension of the unbearable pace of middle class competition around educational achievement. Feeney’s book broadly supports the idea that many aspects of contemporary bourgeois life, well before the coronavirus pandemic, were primed to latch onto a new totalitarian philosophy with a new evangelical zeal, perhaps abolishing themselves in the process. The book, after a brief introduction, is organized as a series of considerations of different aspects of contemporary parenthood- first the general category of “parenting in public,” then preschool, youth sports, the internet, school, and two chapters on the college admissions process- the shadow of which has been cast over each of the previous topics. Of these, ordinary K-12 school comes in for the warmest treatment, and the internet comes in for the harshest. Of a year in which he could walk all three of his kids to school and then hang out for a while chatting with other parents, he reminisces:
To put it simply, I was in that schoolyard at that time because the schoolyard was a really nice place to be. What a privilege, I’ve thought to myself many times, to get to spend five or ten morning minutes before work in the midst of so many children. And this setting really did, and does, seem deserving of the overused term “community”: people sharing friendship and moral purpose, where friendship is anchored in the moral purpose, and the moral purpose is deepened and made more urgent by the friendship.
As he points out, the aspects of public schooling that contemporary conservatives are most likely to bemoan- its one-size-fits-all bureaucratic universality and the paucity of choice- are precisely the factors that in most cases restrain the competition among parents that has run amok elsewhere in family life. Parents may compete for “good” neighborhoods with “good” public schools, but once there they pretty much put up with what they get, and dutifully invest in their kid’s school not merely for private benefit- indeed the evidence on parental involvement that Feeney reviews suggests relatively little return to one’s own child from being especially involved- but because doing so makes the local school, often, a nice place to be.
This sense of shared but personalized community is the opposite of how Feeney portrays the internet as children experience it- which he describes as a process of industrial atomization, in which new technological forces work to sever children from their families and to put them to work as slaves in the content mines:
Computer devices enter the home and forge a special bond with children’s preconscious impulses, and parents start to feel themselves undermined, their prerogatives somehow under question, like a county sheriff experiencing a recall election…At some point, if you delay in submitting to this pressure [to buy your kid a phone], your child becomes an aggrieved lobbyist for society itself, whose realest dimension is now the virtual one...We late moderns, with our pop-Freudian idea of self-expression as a basic value, have a strong tendency to look at young people posting on social media and assume they are empowering themselves. But the more basic and persistent outcome from expressing yourself on social media is not power but weakness and neediness—the anxious waiting for feedback once you’ve put yourself out there, the hunger for more feedback after the buzz of affirmation and drama fades out. Yet we hold to this model of empowerment with hysterical fondness. It informs everything from our schooling practices to our clothing commercials.
Like many parents with more permissive attitudes toward the internet than Feeney, I am inclined to read this- along with his many other adroit attacks on how the internet manipulates young people, nod sagely, and then say, “yes, but.” The internet is many very bad things, and many good ones, for children as well as adults. This has become especially obvious over the past year, as our friendships, work, and hobbies shift more totally into the virtual realm.
In any case, despite coming in the middle of the book, the chapters on ordinary school and on the internet form something of a background to what I see as Feeney’s core argument, which concerns the institutions which parents enter into partnership with by choice- pre-school, youth sports, and college- and which, like a brutal loan shark that offers status instead of money, end up holding greater and greater leverage over them, finally extending not only to how parents spend their time and money but into control over what is worth valuing in themselves and their children, a grim ethos that ripples outward from the most motivated and empowered families to far away families with less motivation and means. The effect of mass affluence, Feeney suggests, is not just intensified competition as increasing numbers vie for a limited number of slots at each stage of childhood’s tournament; it is that the class of persons who succeed within this process- as parents and as children- are those who have internalized its values and transmuted them into moral dictates. Contrary to how this process is often portrayed, this moral content is not usually the rightness of competition as such, but a loyalty to institutional power and the fantasy that properly reformed institutions have infinite capacity to do good and oppose evil- especially in who they choose to admit. Thus, the Varsity Blues scandal echoes into the culture less because of the venality and petty scheming of the celebrity parents than that they sought to get over on the admissions office rather than playing its game. Feeney says of so-called “holistic” admissions that:
Instead of money rents, the admissions process generates what you might call “moral rents.” What “holistic” admissions amounts to is not some neutral investigation into the true selves of those applicants. It couldn’t be, given both the matter and the methods of investigation. It is, rather, a transaction, the possible offer of a certain matricular quo, pending the agreeable performance of a certain moral quid.
Even at the pre-school level, and especially among the most affluent and apparently empowered, Feeney describes how the predominant mode of competition is one its which the judgments of the admissions office are presumed true and righteous altogether. After reviewing a documentary in which one after another rich New York City parent is shown abasing himself before a pre-school admissions officer, Feeney writes:
On one hand, the New York preschool environment is uniquely intense, compared to other American preschool markets. In other obvious ways it’s all too typical, a microcosm of American family life in general, the anxieties that drive it, the stratagems it inspires, the psychological adjustments that turn these stratagems into family folkways, and the striking leverage it grants to institutions, even little ones the size of preschools, that have better chances at brighter futures to dispense, and fewer openings than they have applicants or aspirants.
And of intensive youth sports leagues and the breathtaking demands they make upon participating parents in time and money and sweat:
The era of intensive parenting is defined by the rise of a sort of hybrid entity, an institutional cyborg that is part organization and part family. The boundary between family and organization has broken down, or been redrawn as porous and permeable. Parents and organizations become components of each other, agents of each other’s functions.
Feeney contrasts this porousness between organization and family, the sense of not only “parenting in public” but “parenting for the public” with an admittedly idealized domesticity in which privacy, absurdity, and play can thrive:
The home lives of families are also, in a certain obvious way, circled off from the outside world, and within that circle, these lives are rich with private meanings, and, indeed, many of these private meanings arise from what is, undeniably, play. Think of how much of what goes or went on among you and your family members is or was actually play, or at least inflected with play. In my own home, with both my children and my wife, when I’m not addressing some practical matter or urgent task—though often when I’m addressing them too—my speech has a play character I would not share with the outside world….Our kids themselves, of course, play constantly, interact constantly through play modes, occupy themselves alone through play modes, and these play modes are different from the ones they enact outside the home, with their friends. They’re more performative, less guarded, more musical, closer to pure nonsense. This is how it was within my own big family growing up: staged battles, intentionally bad singing, foreign accents, constant interruptions and unserious comebacks, invented sports, Dada silliness—depths of commitment in all these nonsensical things that we could never reach with even our best friends. These shared rituals of play deepened our clannish bonds with each other, etched the circle of our separateness from the larger world, and also from the other big families, who were drawing their own magic circles, their own worlds of private meaning, around themselves.
As Feeney suggests elsewhere, this magic circle of domesticity and of a private world of family is itself, at least in part, a historical contrivance, the heirloom of Victorianism and of a mass bourgeoisie that not only had the means of creating a private domestic sphere but the desire to make a cult around it- and around the kinds of childhood and family life that privacy allowed. If, as Nabokov quipped, the classic English novel “began at a post office and ended at a church,” those same novels often took as their greatest good a kind of hazy domesticity that existed just over the horizon of the plot. In George Orwell’s long essay on Dickens, he writes archly of life within the magic circle of a domestic life supposedly untroubled by aspiration, competition, strife:
The ideal to be striven after, then, appears to be something like this: a hundred thousand pounds, a quaint old house with plenty of ivy on it, a sweetly womanly wife, a horde of children, and no work. Everything is safe, soft, peaceful and, above all, domestic. In the moss-grown churchyard down the road are the graves of the loved ones who passed away before the happy ending happened. The servants are comic and feudal, the children prattle round your feet, the old friends sit at your fireside, talking of past days, there is the endless succession of enormous meals, the cold punch and sherry negus, the feather beds and warming-pans, the Christmas parties with charades and blind man’s buff; but nothing ever happens, except the yearly childbirth. The curious thing is that it is a genuinely happy picture, or so Dickens is able to make it appear. The thought of that kind of existence is satisfying to him. This alone would be enough to tell one that more than a hundred years have passed since Dickens’s first book was written. No modern man could combine such purposelessness with so much vitality.
Whether such a private existence is satisfying to families is something many have had unexpected experience of over the last year. The pandemic gave families- many if not all- a lot of time to themselves, cut off at least physically from the outside world, even if that outside world invades continuously via the internet. The pandemic also limited many of the competitive activities that Feeney describes. For some this was likely something of a relief, while to others a source of great consternation- the largest distribution paper in my state devoted a full, front page broadside to bringing back high school swimming earlier this year, for example. The exigencies of publishing meant that Feeney mentions completing the book early in the pandemic- in March 2020- even though it was released in March 2021. In the meantime, on those families that desired such strange prizes and those who didn’t, the pandemic has bestowed the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.
The pandemic also has accompanied a strange turn in our political culture, in which, as Feeney says of the college admissions process, “the norms of institutional citizenship can take a slavish turn, while gatekeeping institutions can grow imperious in their presumptions.” The norms of institutional citizenship have taken a slavish turn in general, not just for bourgeois teenagers and their parents but up and down the line. We have, as others have noted, shifted from a culture of persuasion to one of coercion. Even if individual families can draw the magic circle around their lives to separate public and private, to limit the ceaseless competition they subject their children to and the exhausting efforts they demand of themselves to garner their child a piece of the pie, nearly every person in a decisionmaking capacity in the country is someone who has themselves gone through this dehumanizing process, either as a parent or a child. Those who have succeeded in a process of relentless, lifelong competition, Feeney tells us and we are discovering day by day, identify neither with the other winners nor with the losers of that process. They identify instead with the system itself, and with the prerogatives of institutions to announce, with great self-congratulation at their kindness and moral grandeur, how they will destroy your life today.