Most things that you hear or read about parenting, from either so-called experts or other parents, tend to focus on "you should" or "I/we do." It might be Aunt Minnie telling you that three thick blankets is just not enough to keep your newborn warm, or a co-worker confiding that she is not taking her son into any public places until he's at least one year old in order to avoid germs. It might be a La Leche League comrade expounding her "parenting philosophy" and asking about yours. It might be your pediatrician or a parenting how-to book pushing some kind of dietary supplement. It might be the customary form of smalltalk among newly acquainted parents -- cloth versus disposable, techniques to encourage night-long sleep, breast or bottle.

The tone of these interactions -- of this "parenting talk" -- can vary a lot. It can resemble orders issued from the vantage of some kind of greater authority, perhaps that assumed by elder relatives or paid experts such as doctors. It might be moralistic, with the subtle or not-so-subtle implication that you are a Bad Parent, and therefore a Bad Person, if your conduct does not meet whatever standard has been decreed. Or it often is very friendly and warm and helpful and full of goodwill and respect for difference.

Despite all of this diversity, most parenting talk has some common underlying assumptions that structure it. Perhaps the most important way in which parenting talk is structured is how thoroughly individualistic it tends to be. By the huge emphasis on choice of action and behaviour -- whether conservative and moralistic or liberal and "let's all be friends," or both -- it is produced by and constantly reinforces the messaging in our culture that tells us that the individual choices of parents are of exclusive importance in the raising of children.

The truth is more complicated than that. Rather than treating parenting as complete and self-contained, something that a parent can do and then be judged on, we need to see parenting as an effort of constant negotiation with social forces, as something that is perpetually incomplete, as a single intervention in an ever-changing sea of impacts on children.

For one thing, treating parenting as an individualistic exercise in consumer-like choice in how we talk, rather than as a constant give and take with the social, normalizes the experiences of parents who have more opportunity to make significant decisions -- in other words, it treats circumstances of privilege as normal and invisible, and tends to lead to the conclusion that parents who lack privilege are somehow lacking or even "bad," thereby reinforcing marginalization.

For example, it may be easy to pretend that how one's toddler is cared for is purely an expression of individualistic values when you are in a two-parent family where the father is an investment banker. In reality, how childcare happens for you is a product of both complicated decisions at the individual level and social factors like the availability of cheap daycare, the number of adults in the household, the nature and expense of local transportation networks, the ability of the adult(s) in the household to access jobs and the barriers they might face because of racism or sexism in the labour market, and lots of other things.

Any honest and complete answer to the question, "How are your children being raised?" cannot be all about you. Insisting on parenting talk that reflects this through and through helps parents disrupt the delusions and blindness about the world that often accompany privilege and, more importantly, is grounded from the start in and reaffirms the realities that most parents have to face.

Allowing ourselves to see the way that the social shapes parenting allows us in turn to see how affecting the social is a valid and important part of parenting. Any engaged parent that seeks ways to live labels like "progressive" or "radical" or "activist" has to include as an integral part of their parenting talk an acknowledgment of collective efforts to shape the social context. This includes attempts to nudge the large scale social context, whether in a group focused around a parental identity like "Mamas For Peace" or more general groups that are concerned about the issues which shape our children's social environment.

It also includes ways of shaping collective context that are closer to home: nonmainstream ways of structuring life that aren't just about choices within the standard nuclear family but are collective enterprises that transform it and/or go beyond it. Examples include giving serious consideration (or at least space in our routine parenting talk) to co-operative babysitting or alternative living arrangements, from co-housing to communes. Countless other possibilities await only our imagination and action. (One of the most creative links I've seen between parenting and the social has been made by friends who home school their three daughters, and as part of that effort they all produce a weekly radio show, Radio Free School, archived at and broadcast by several stations.)

There is no obvious script to live this kind of parenting, nor should there be, but it is hard to even wrap our heads around the possibilities when we are immersed in a culture that pushes messages that everything, including parenting, should be privatized and focused on money-mediated consumption. Even many people for whom the social is a regular subject of thought, talk, and action dissociate that from how they think, talk, and act about parenting, and have trouble thinking outside of individualistic ways to incorporate their politics. Owning Heather Has Two Mommies, going to your city's Aboriginal Day celebrations, and modelling nonauthoritarian relationships are all important, but they are not enough. The first step in going beyond that and creating truly radical parenting is pushing ourselves to imagine what it might look like, and changing our parenting talk to reflect it.

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