Not kinship, kidship

Img_2715 I have spent most of July working on a project and the end is now in sight.  At 155 slides, the deck is still too large, but I have a couple of days to weed and winnow.  (If I owe you an email or phone call, expect something soon.)

As always happens on a project like this, I am an anthropologist at large, wandering around American culture, surrounded by great bodies of ethnographic knowledge and the certain knowledge that this knowledge is being ignored by my academic colleagues.  They are too pure, too proud, actually to study their own culture.

One of the things that leapt out at me on this project was how much of the social world of my respondents is organized by "kidship."  Kidship is the social connection established between adults by the relationship that exists between their children.  For dwellers of the suburb, a very large part of the people we know is determined by the connections our kids forge witlessly on our behalf.  Our child plays soccer?  We are going to know a lot of soccer moms and pops.

We may take this as some measure of the American devotion to parenthood, and I am sure it has always been thus.  But it is also true that now that the American corporation churns so, fewer friends come from work.  People are still moving often, so connections that come from one’s locality are difficult to come by, except of course as fashioned by our kids.  Kinship, the real thing, is of course a special challenge.  Relatives are spread across the country, and gettogethers at Thanksgiving appear sometimes to designed expressly to demonstrate what a good thing this distance is. 

Kidship has certain graphite quality to its sociality.  There is also an easy familiarity between parents.  As plenitude creates new diversity in the American social world, people can rely apon parenting to supply common interests and ready topics of conversation.  It is not entirely different from dogship, that extraordinarily robust sociality that seems to spring up between dog owners in the local park.  Americans who might not speak to one another for any other reason, who might labor to find something interesting or civil to say, discover that as a fellow dog owner, their neighbor is really very charming after all.  Kidship has the advantage of being something still more urgent, child rearing an art and science that perpetuates its difficulty as American culture rolls bumpily on. 

This was not the topic of my study, so I caught a glimpse of it only in passing.  But the details were tantalizing.  For example, parents tend to make better friends with the parents of older children.  And this means that the younger a child in a family the harder it is to arrange a playdate. 

Is this being studied by anyone?  Probably not.  Anthropologists are too busy pondering the moral, political and epistemological reasons why anthropology is impossible.  Oh, splendid.   Just splendid. 

Pictured: a Mexican family, um, looking in a tree.  Oaxaca 2007.   That’s Sara Winge in the center background.

10 thoughts on “Not kinship, kidship

  1. Sam Grace

    Yes! Of all the good posts you write – and there’s plenty – I like the ones where you talk about “my world” the best.

    Are there really so few people doing this work? (I speak as a concerned anthropology student.)


  2. botogol

    “For dwellers of the suburb, a very large part of the people we know is determined by the connections our kids forge witlessly on our behalf. Our child plays soccer? We are going to know a lot of soccer moms and pops”

    Interesting observation.
    I don’t think it’s quite as linear as this though.. why does your child play soccer – because I encouraged it? Discouraged the hockey? Which soccer club do they play at – the nearest? the one that Dad chose because of the type of people that go there? Or do they play at school?

    So it’s a tangled loop of causality. But still, yes, there’s somethnig very pertinent in your observation. I’d set it as part of a wider context: the growing phenomen of middle-class fmaily life being dominated by the children, or the (perceived) wants, desires, needs of the children.

    In my day my parents went to the pub and we kids sat outside in the car with a lemonade and bag of salt and vinegar crisps. That seems a (culturally) long tme ago

  3. peter

    There’s also a special affinity that smokers have with another, especially now that in most western countries they are banished to the out-of-doors. In many large companies of my acquaintance, cignet (the cigarette smokers’ network) is the last cross-functional and cross-hierarchical internal communications medium.

  4. Renan Petersen-Wagner


    very interesting. Reminds me and my daily walk with my scottish terrier. We now have a group that met daily at the park, even arranging who will bring the chimarrao (ão) to drink. Funny is that almost no one knows the name of the other dog owner, but knows the name of the dog. So I’m know as the “father” of Whisky (my scottish terrier). And this example repeats with almost everyone. As we are first-time dog parents, as almost all the others at the park, the conversation are more or less like first-time moms. How to feed? When to feed? When to vaccinate? Which is the better dog food? What funny things the dog have done? How it was when it (almost he or she) was younger? etc etc etc etc.

    another funny thing, if you search on facebook there is an application called Dogbook. There you can add a profile to your dogs, add pictures, and most of all, add parks that they walk. A truly social interaction network through dogs.



  5. Renan Petersen-Wagner

    For the ones who doesn’t want to visit the wiki webpage, here is a part of the ritual behind chimarrao drinking.

    quoting from wiki:

    “In traditional use, the cuia is often shared among groups of friends and family, passed around from person to person in a circle. Those who share the mate join in a kind of bond of total acceptance and friendship. In a traditional chimarrão-sharing event, there is one person who pours the hot water and serves up the cuia. At a party of close friends, this person is often the host. At outings or at home, this responsibility may change from one sharing to the next.”

  6. peter spear

    this is beautiful. i’ve been surrounded by a minor baby boom in my community and the old ruptures and new alliances that get created are really problematic and trying on relationships as everyone is on their own schedule, creating their own life-stages at varying paces.

    i’m very curious to hear more on parenthood in america . . . . .

  7. Ray

    Interesting post, and what jumps out most is the kidship will be changing globally. As shifts in aging populations, birth rates, immigration policies, and domestic transplants for work and education continue to spread out parentings and child rearing. However, I’m sure it will make things more heterogeneous or homogeneous.

    (I tried to post yesterday, but perhaps it didn’t go through…)

  8. paul

    spot-on, as usual, but there’s another side to this phenomenon that’s perhaps not quite so rosy.

    based on my experience, kidship can polarize adults as much as it can bind them together. i can’t recall how many times i’ve been told that non-parents “just don’t understand” the challenges and rewards of parenthood, and, consequently, that new parents find they “simply connect better” with other parents. what’s interesting here (again, based solely on my own experience) is that this exclusionary dynamic tends to be asymmetrical–i.e., parents tend to opt out of relationships with non-parents, rather than vice-versa. up to this point, i’d be willing to concede that these relational choices may be driven as much by logistic convenience than anything.

    however, what has struck me after being one of few–if not, the only–non-parent at various birthday parties for friends’ children is how palpably awkward (and, at times, patently uncomfortable) the presence of non-parents in kidship contexts makes many parents. at one birthday party i was asked outright (certainly more out of confusion than anything else) just “why exactly” was i there.

    i’m still puzzling over that dynamic–why would non-parents (coupled or single) make parents so uncomfortable? is it the contrast in life choices (in an early episode, “sex and the city” explored–in its limited way–a similar dynamic between couples and singles)? though it may sound sensational, might there be an unarticulated yet strong fear of pedophilia that renders non-parent adults (especially men) potential threats? (note, for example, the ubiquitous signs on playgrounds prohibiting entry to unaccompanied adults, as well as the near constant inclusion of cyber-stalking pedophiles in popular crime dramas.)

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