Childhood spaces

What is a “good parent” in the city?? Between perceived threat and empowerment, the investigation led by Clément Rivire shows the contradictory desires and injunctions that parents face in supervising their children.

Becoming a parent inevitably means changing your outlook on your living environment. The familiar landscape of the city appears from new angles: that of threat, but also that of learning opportunity. as children grow up, the challenge becomes to adequately supervise their independence: determine the journeys they can make alone, equip them with a mobile phone or not, monitor their clothing or not, give instructions regarding possible interactions with strangers, answer questions homeless people sleeping outside. Clément Rivire analyzes the embarrassment in which these questions place parents, grappling with contradictory injunctions. His book Their children in the city reports on a sociological survey of parents in two districts of Paris and Milan.

The city in the eyes of parents

Lecturer at the University of Lille, sociologist Clément Rivire specializes in the analysis of the city through the prism of children, or rather: parents. Remains little explored or confined for a long time in the case of young people from working-class neighborhoodsthis field of research has been growing in France since the 2000s. As evidenced by a file co-directed by Clment Rivire in 2015 bringing together twelve articles on children in the city. This book brings together in some 140 pages the main results of his doctoral research. It crowns a series of scientific articles which give the author a place of choice among the new generation of urban sociologists in France. His work is part of a classic trend in social sciences: theories of socialization who are interested in the processes of internalization, particularly during childhood, of norms and practices, with the aim of explaining the reproduction of differences and inequalities between different socio-economic categories. Here, the basic postulate is therefore that parents' practices will translate into provisions which will have a lasting influence on their use of urban public spaces, thus reproducing to a certain extent the differences and inequalities from one generation to the next.

To analyze these processes, the author conducted interviews with parents of children aged eight to fourteen.; period which corresponds in France and Italy to the end of primary school and secondary school. This phase involves school choices, changes to establishments and therefore new journeys, sometimes longer, requiring children to develop new mobility skills. The author shows how variations in the supervision of children and in particular their movements during this pivotal moment depend on family resources, the gender of the child, as well as the urban and national context. Thanks to his two fields of investigation, Clément Rivire manages to show how the practices of supervising children take place in a specific context. It thus goes beyond the sometimes generalizing analyzes on the advent of a generation indoor children. Without denying this observation, the book offers a more nuanced analysis by showing how a specific context shapes parents' practices.

In Milan, for example, the social protection regime gives an important role to the extended family and the third sector (notably the parishes), which would discourage mobility. In Paris, on the contrary, parents are more competitive academically, even if their children take public transport for long journeys to a more renowned school. Nested in these national and metropolitan contexts, the neighborhood also plays a role. The social diversity which characterizes the neighborhoods surveyed gives rise to the ambivalences usually highlighted in the literature: diversity is sometimes celebrated as a wealth which would make children more open to otherness, sometimes a risk factor – poor attendance or lower academic performance.

Protect above all

All children learn to be wary, especially of motor vehicles and malicious strangers. But the figures of danger also vary depending on the context: young people hanging around worry Parisian parents, while their Milanese peers speak of fear of stranieri (foreigners), that is to say newly arrived adults whose behavior in public spaces they stigmatize. However, protection does not simply mean avoiding short-term risks, but also learning to deal with them. In this regard, parents' decisions seem to be influenced by their socio-economic position.

Working-class parents seem more inclined to develop a protective supervision, which involves in particular an investment in the local space where security requires mutual knowledge. Thus, working class children set the tone, even dominate the space of the neighborhood. In contrast, the parents of economic fractions of the upper-middle classes would focus more on empowering and preparing children, even implementing forms of training for traveling around the city. Inspired by the work of Pierre Bourdieu, this reading of social space categorizes individuals not only according to the quantity of resources they have, but also according to the predominance of economic resources, or on the contrary of so-called resources. cultural. Combining elements of the two previous types, the cultural fractions of the upper-middle classes would develop a strategic coaching. For these parents, preparing their children well also involves developing local sociability. However, this local anchoring is presented as a strategy aimed at teaching children to live in a cosmopolitan world. To summarize, the supervision practices of the working classes tend to anchor children in their space of residence, while the practices of the middle and upper classes encourage mobility and the development of more dispersed social networks, or even attempt to have both sides by combining anchorage and mobility.

This typology retains a modest place in Clément Rivire's analysis, which shows that desires, norms and resources do not fit into coherent wholes. On the contrary, the numerous extracts from interviews which are scattered throughout the work show parents grappling with strong contradictions. For example, parents seem to agree that times have changed: as children, they played marbles and ball in the street, without worrying about vehicles (fewer in number) or sexual predators (we talked about it less). But while they regret this development and sometimes denounce the anxious speeches, they are unable to give their children the autonomy that they themselves had. Consciously and even reluctantly, they comply dominant norm (which tends) now to define as a “bad” parent someone who does not follow all the actions of their children in public spaces (p. 55).

The mismatch between expressed desires and declared practices appears even more obvious with regard to the supervision of girls. Parents who tried to give their children a gender-neutral education find themselves monitoring the clothing of their pre-teen daughters. Even if they seem to be considered more mature and more capable of autonomy, girls are also considered more vulnerable, particularly in the face of sexual assault. Parents therefore develop risk avoidance strategies, which involve the choice of routes and times of travel, accompanied journeys, and recommendations on appearance and appropriate behavior.

Learning family roles

If the notion of parental socialization at first glance refers to the socialization of children by parents, Clment Rivire's book also analyzes socialization of the parents, learning and negotiating their role through contact with other parents, their own parents, and professionals. The method chosen for the survey, semi-structured interviews, highlights the reflective dimension of this learning. Indeed, before being a subject of sociological study, the supervision of children is a subject of discussion between parents, who develop a discourse on their own practices, with different aptitudes and propensities justifying these practices and presenting them as carefully considered strategies. But their discourse and practices are not stable and some parents like Davide, Milan, do not hide the fact that they are fumbling: We have not been given an instruction manual, so we often doubt how we should behave (p. 20).

Considered from the angle of learning family roles, the choice of notions of parenting practices and Dparental supervision as objects of investigation can be surprising. Indeed, almost two thirds of the parents questioned are mothers, and the survey highlights the predominant place of women in these supervision practices, in particular Milan (p. 122-124) but also Paris with the figure of the “mother hen” (p. 84). The author concludes that the standards of good parenting are more carried by mothers. However, behind the image of good parent hide two very distinct figures: the expectations towards the good father different from the characteristics associated with good mother. Sharon Hays (1996) highlighted a ideology of intensive motherhood (ideology of intensive mothering), according to which the mother is in the best position (in relation to the father, but also in relation to professionals) to take care of her children. But if she has to put her interests second and expose herself to mother blame in the event of a problem, she must also avoid being stuffy or overprotective (Ladd-Taylor & Umansky 1998). Even if the organization of families changes gradually, the neutral vocabulary of parenting would hide the persistence of this ideology (Sunderland 2006).

Pinpointing the gender division of management work raises a paradox. On the one hand, the book shows how girls are socialized to avoid interactions and be discreet (p. 106) in urban public spaces which thus remain male interaction arenas (p. 94). On the other hand, by emphasizing the central place of mothers in supporting the first steps in the city, the survey suggests that the urban public spaces frequented by children (parks and playgrounds, the surroundings of schools and leisure centers) are also and perhaps especially arenas of female interactions. Understanding how children perceive these nuances and sometimes contradictory messages would require further investigation.

By offering a reading of the city through the eyes of parents, Their children in the city contributes in a remarkable way to the understanding of the ways in which parents live and shape the city. It appears there in all its complexity, a territory that is both hostile and hospitable, offering protected spaces and experiences of autonomy. In addition to this contribution to urban sociology, a great merit of this book is to show that parental supervision is not just a question of educational standards. On the one hand, parents deal with limited resources, with the specificities of a social protection system and a school system, but also with the practices of other parents on whom they are interdependent. On the other hand, they even struggle to implement their own convictions, when it comes to not giving in to security discourses, educating in a non-gendered way, or not contributing to school segregation. Of course, discourses and practices do not always coincide, but these dilemmas also reflect the ambiguities surrounding the model. of the “good parent”, whose choices do not necessarily coincide with those of the “good citizen” (p. 79).