Guilty mothers and innocent children

Curator's Note

The dynamics of modern parent—child relationships are often discussed, especially in relation to expectations of motherhood. But, although these debates take the form of cultural critiques, they frequently neglect a concept as important in the parenting sphere as in broader society: childhood. In reality, expectations (and representations) of parenting are deeply entwined with expectations of childhood.

The question of maternal guilt serves as a good illustration. Take the Home Alone series, made (and loved) in the 1990s, when “intensive” parenting emerged. One of the strongest themes in the movies is the healing of mother—child relationships, often explored through the idea of maternal guilt. But there is a significant jump in premises as the series (and the parenting culture) progresses: what begins as guilt shared by mother and child over a mutually-neglected relationship is later presented solely as the mother’s responsibility and, crucially, as an unchangeable feature of the modern parenting relationship.

Note the scene above, from Home Alone (1990). After leaving Kevin home and feeling like “a bad mother,” Kate journeys back home to make things right. Her apology and subsequent reconciliation with Kevin is the climax of the film, but the scene also highlight’s Kevin’s own journey of redemption. Explicitly, Kevin becomes “a better son” by developing independence and cooperating with his mother’s efforts to maintain the family’s wellbeing.

Now consider Home Alone 3 (1997). Like Kate, Karen struggles with maternal guilt (indeed, she apologises before even leaving Alex home alone). But the film never allows Alex to be “a bad son,” painting him instead as an innocent hero. As Alex tells Karen, “it’s not you” — much less Alex — “it’s the times.” While this could have dissipated guilt, the lack of resolution in their relationship ends up affirming its reality for modern mothers.

These films make similar cases for what parenting relationships should be, but their different takes on the figure of the child (flawed vs. innocent) result in wildly different expectations of “good” parenting — and vice-versa. These are inseparable notions and there is much to be gained in considering them, and their changes, together.


Thank you Filipa for this thoughprovoking post. Not having seen the third film, I wasn't aware of this trend, but it very interesting that the representation of the child changes, whereas the mother's guilt stays the same. As you note, the films were made when demands for intense mothering became more insistent (Sharon Hays' analysis coming out in 1996). Yet, the demands on mothers remain more or less the same. Now I will pay more attention to the representations of the children in media narratives. 

Thanks for your thought, Berit. I'm glad you mentioned Hays' work; her book is an excellent analysis of the start of the intensive attachment-style parenting movement. There's some other work which develops her conclusions further, most of it focused around the idea of mothering (and, more recently, the field of parenting culture studies has developed some truly interesting insights -- the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies is a good example I develop this idea about childhood and parenting expectations in a journal article, if you're interested in reading a bit more about it:

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