Parenting Out of Control

Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times

276 pages

May, 2010

ISBN: 9780814758533



Also available in


Margaret K. Nelson is Hepburn Professor of Sociology at Middlebury College and is the author of many books, including The Social Economy of Single Mothers: Raising Children in Rural America, and co-editor, with Anita I. Garey, of Who’s Watching? Daily Practices of Surveillance Among Contemporary Families.

All books by Margaret K. Nelson

They go by many names: helicopter parents, hovercrafts, PFHs (Parents from Hell). The news media is filled with stories of well-intentioned parents going to ridiculous extremes to remove all obstacles from their child’s path to greatness . . . or at least to an ivy league school. From cradle to college, they remain intimately enmeshed in their children’s lives, stifling their development and creating infantilized, spoiled, immature adults unprepared to make the decisions necessary for the real world. Or so the story goes.

Drawing on a wealth of eye-opening interviews with parents across the country, Margaret K. Nelson cuts through the stereotypes and hyperbole to examine the realities of what she terms “parenting out of control.” Situating this phenomenon within a broad sociological context, she finds several striking explanations for why today’s prosperous and well-educated parents are unable to set realistic boundaries when it comes to raising their children. Analyzing the goals and aspirations parents have for their children as well as the strategies they use to reach them, Nelson discovers fundamental differences among American parenting styles that expose class fault lines, both within the elite and between the elite and the middle and working classes.

Nelson goes on to explore the new ways technology shapes modern parenting. From baby monitors to cell phones (often referred to as the world’s longest umbilical cord), to social networking sites, and even GPS devices, parents have more tools at their disposal than ever before to communicate with, supervise, and even spy on their children. These play important and often surprising roles in the phenomenon of parenting out of control. Yet the technologies parents choose, and those they refuse to use, often seem counterintuitive. Nelson shows that these choices make sense when viewed in the light of class expectations.

Today’s parents are faced with unprecedented opportunities and dangers for their children, and are evolving novel strategies to adapt to these changes. Nelson’s lucid and insightful work provides an authoritative examination of what happens when these new strategies go too far.


  • The perfect antidote to all those hyperbolic articles about overbearing, overprotective moms who hover, helicopter, and micromanage, grounded as it is in actual social-science research, nuanced analysis, and an eagerness to look beyond cliches... The result is a fascinating and sometimes surprising portrait of modern parenting.”

    Bitch Magazine

  • “Placing this phenomenon [hovercraft parenting] within a sociological context, Nelson explores the effects of this approach on both the children and the parents and why it is so persistently practiced by the professional middle class. Sociologists and academics will find much to glean here. The appendixes, outlining the technological choices of various populations, are both insightful and alarming.”

    —Library Journal, Academic Newswire

  • “Nelson goes beyond simplistic criticisms of ‘helicopter parents’ to illuminate the complex motivations, personal histories, and practical dilemmas that affect the parenting choices of educated professionals in our changing world. Using rich interview data, she shows that their new parenting styles reflect and in turn exacerbate the growing social isolation of these mothers and fathers and even put their marriages at risk. Persuasively argued and highly readable.”

    —Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage

  • “In Parenting Out of Control, sociologist Margaret K. Nelson bemoans the social isolation of today’s families and describes the disservice overanxious parents ultimately do. . . . While parents insist they want their offspring to be free thinkers, their tactics result in young adults still tethered to the home.”

    Fit Pregnancy

  • “Nelson tries to trace what’s behind the [parenting out of control] phenomenon, looking at it from a sociological view, not a psychological one. She points at a confluence of socioeconomic factors including a reaction to sex and violence in the media, perceived danger from crime, and the feeling that today’s children must work harder to prepare for going out on their own.”

    —Gordon Dritschilo, Rutland Herald

  • "Right from the first pages, and on through the book as a whole, she offers a highly engaging analysis that elegantly situates rich and intriguing examples in a broader social context, allowing us to understand those examples in new ways. The work is lively, carefully argued, and compelling in its qualititative data analysis as well as its links to multiple scholarly literatures."

    —Emily W. Kane, American Journal of Sociology