Much of the "parenting activity" observed and discussed in the interviews and journals looked less like obvious parenting, and more like rapport-building. During the home visit, I noticed that the activities I engaged in to build trust with the family (small talk, watching TV shows they liked, participating in their hobbies and conversations) were the same activities that the parents in our study used to build and maintain relationships with their children. From this perspective, parenting activities strongly resembled the kind of nebulous "team-building" that coworkers engage in to function more smoothly as a group.
Maintain Physical Proximity
Because building rapport seemed to be a main component of parenting, it makes sense that we also observed parents going out of their way to maintain physical proximity to their children (although they would not think of it as going out of their way, but rather…parenting). In one case, both parents accompanied their children (and friends) to the local tennis courts and swimming pool from 9:30-11:30pm—just to sit off to the side and watch.
Talk While They Eat
On both the slowest and the busiest days, eating seemed to be one thing that consistently brought the family members within earshot of each other. I spent 3 hours at a pool with one family, whose daughter and friend were occupied at the other end the entire time—except when they wanted snacks! Since Mom had the cooler of food, they sat and talked for 5-10 minutes while they shoveled down a couple granola bars, and then headed back to their side of the pool. If Mom hadn't engaged them in conversation then, she wouldn't have had another chance until hours later. As discussed above, even small talk seemed to contribute to the parent-child bond.
In the families we observed, large-scale open conflict between the parents and children was fairly rare. In everyday life, it was more common to have small disagreements or questions that could easily develop into arguments and rebellion. Knowing when to defuse a potentially volatile situation was a useful skill for parents, but it demanded both insight and flexibility (insight to know when to defuse or when to confront, and flexibility to concede as needed).
So much of parenting was about reacting to a changing environment, and we witnessed a wide range of comfort levels when it came to going off-script—especially where mom was concerned. While some parents were naturally more structured or flexible than others, they all had to develop competence at "making it up" as they went along…and it seems that comfort with uncertainty was a key parenting skill. A last-minute school assignment, a change in pick-up time for one of the kids, an emotional breakdown, or Mom being called into work—any of these could wreak havoc on a well-organized family, and it was usually up to Mom to sort it all out.
Friends are Family, Too
It is impossible to parent children without their friends becoming part of the relationship, especially in the summer! A key skill that our parents needed was the ability to pseudo-parent their children's friends, and also to parent at a distance because the children spent so much time at friends' houses. It goes without saying that these parents needed to develop strong working relationships with the parents of their children’s friends.