Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Who knows best - mother, or TV?
Judith Woods

I was recently bemoaning to a fellow parent that my three-year-old daughter was going through a phase of refusing to go to bed. I had barely finished the sentence when my friend scuttled off, purposefully. I presumed she had gone to fetch a stiff gin and tonic, but no. She returned, triumphant, waving a book.

"This has got the perfect strategy for that kind of flashpoint situation; it's just what you need," she said, with evangelical zeal. "It's the spin-off from the television series Little Angels and it's a revelation." I mumbled that I had actually intended just muddling through, as always. But it seems I was wrong.

Without proper guidance, and possibly a clinical psychologist staked out in the spare bedroom, wearing a headset and barking commands in my ear, I would be lucky if I didn't destroy my marriage, shatter my mental health and turn my bright toddler into a pint-sized sociopath.

Given the recent plethora of television series, such as Bad Behaviour, Who Rules the Roost?, The House of Tiny Tearaways, Driving Mum and Dad Mad and Supernanny, how dare, I, a mere mother, have the temerity to suggest I might know best? More important, how could my daughter possibly survive her formative years without a "naughty step", hours of "controlled crying" and a welter of other tortures?

One moment in the aforementioned Little Angels is etched on my maternal soul. A mother quietly announced: "I feel stupid." No one chipped in to disagree. It was excruciating to watch.

"Modern parenting programmes are based on a prior assumption of parental incompetence, and that parents are too stupid to handle child-rearing on their own," says Prof Frank Furedi, of the University of Canterbury's sociology department. "From the beginning, there's a very poisonous, corrosive atmosphere, where mothers and fathers are treated like inferior amateurs compared to 'experts' with 'special skills'."

Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting, points out that parenting programmes may purport to be useful - educational, even - but they are first and foremost entertainment. And exploitative entertainment at that. "If you really want to help people who are having problems with their children, then you don't do it in front of a camera," he says. "The self-aggrandising experts place themselves at the centre of things and relegate the parents to the role of audience."

This summer sees the launch of a new ITV series, Baby House, in which six women in the final stages of pregnancy and their partners move into a Big Brother-style house and have their every anxious move filmed. We will see them preparing for the birth and possibly having curry and sex to precipitate the first contractions.

Then they will bring their newborns "home" and endure sleepless nights and leaking nipples in front of the cameras. Why anyone would want to expose such an intimate chapter in their lives to prying lenses utterly defeats me. Yet there's worse to come. Oh, yes. A new programme has just gone into production for BBC Three. It's called Honey, We're Killing the Kids. Really.

Using Larkin's premise that "they f--- you up, your mum and dad", this "groundbreaking" series aims to create detailed pictures of how a group of children will turn out in 20 years' time, and to demonstrate what useless parents they have. "Many of the children are found to be unhealthy, unhappy underachievers - and it's all their parents' fault!" crows the press release.

The programme uses data compiled from scientific and medical tests, together with state-of-the-art graphics technology to create a detailed profile of how each child will look and behave. Then a government health adviser-cum-child psychologist will lay down new guidelines for them (the parents) to follow, on everything from diet to sleep and leisure activities, in order to save themselves before it's too late.

Presumably, television producers will soon be snatching off the streets any child spotted eating a bag of chips (abuse!) and whisking them off to the BBC studios at White City to bring them up properly. At licence payers' expense.

But how on earth did all this happen? We British traditionally hate being told what to do. We thumb our noses at outside interference, and cavil at European attempts to change our way of life. Yet, in recent years, we have grown shamefully supine in the face of an army of self-styled television experts.

They sneer at our interior decor and castigate us for our household hygiene. They poke fun at the partners we choose and humiliate us over the way we dress. And now the schedules are awash with programmes highlighting our appalling inadequacies as parents. The human drama of these shows is exhausting to behold; semi-feral boys running wild at mealtimes, Violet Elizabeths who screech for attention, tiny despots whose rule of misery beggars belief. Yes, of course their distraught parents need help, but is the result informative and enlightening, or simply car-crash television?

"Parenting programmes have little behavioural impact on people," says chartered psychologist Jack Boyle. "They are simply the sort of facile entertainment that people seem to want these days. You don't become a better or worse parent because you're watching one, and how a child turns out in life depends far more on its genes than its parents' childrearing techniques. Parents shouldn't feel bad about themselves, most of them do a pretty reasonable job."

Sasha Nicholas, 40, mother of three boys aged two, three and five, admits that she is hooked on such programmes. "I'm just fascinated to see how hideously behaved the children are. It makes me feel so much better when my lot are kicking off, to know that they aren't a patch on the spoilt little horrors that are featured on television."

It's hard not to conclude that some sort of open season hasn't been declared on parents, as we are lambasted for not giving our children the right sort of play and told that our "poor baby-settling routines" are to blame for our exhaustion.

But according to a provocative new book, just published in the United States, parents are all too easily manipulated by experts. A fascinating polemic, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, examines what makes a perfect parent.

The writer, Steven Levitt, draws on a wide range of research into educational achievement to conclude that nature far outweighs nurture in determining a child's destiny: children turn out the way they do, not because of what the parents do, but who the parents are. "Here is the conundrum: by the time most people pick up a parenting book, it is far too late," he says. "For parents - and parenting experts - who are obsessed with child-rearing techniques, this may be sobering news. The reality is that technique looks to be highly overrated.

"Parents who are well educated, successful and healthy tend to have children who test well at school; it doesn't seem to matter whether those children are trotted off to museums, or spanked, or frequently read to, or plopped in front of the television."

Yet parents on both sides of the Atlantic now find themselves continually bombarded with diktats on how to bring up their offspring.

In Washington, business is booming at the Parent Coaching Institute, and the Parent Coaching Company charges £125 for six weekly sessions designed to "MoT your parenting style". No wonder first-time parents in particular can find their confidence undermined.

"Fear is a major component of the act of parenting," observes Levitt. "No one is more susceptible to an expert's fear-mongering than a parent."

But out-and-out despair is every bit as potent a driving force as fear. According to Laura Mansfield, executive producer of the BBC's The House of Tiny Tearaways, more than 1,000 people responded to an advertising campaign for volunteers. In the series, families come and live in the Tiny Tearaways' house for a week, where the behaviour of both adults and children is carefully monitored via secret cameras.

"You have to be pretty desperate to pick up the phone and say: 'I want to come and spend a week of my life trying to sort out my kids'," says Mansfield. "There's a huge demand out there for sources of help. People don't know where to find the help they need."

But television exposure is not to every expert's taste. Gina Ford is the de facto godmother of modern parenting manuals. Her famously prescriptive bestseller, The Contented Little Baby Book, has sold millions and been translated into languages as diverse as Dutch, Hebrew and Taiwanese.

Six books later, she has just completed The Gina Ford Baby and Toddler Cookbook. Yet she has steered clear of television; the current vogue for high-octane confrontation doesn't chime with her robustly traditional values. "I don't watch parenting programmes, although I've glimpsed at some of them. I'm not into reality TV," she says. "If I ever found a production company that would not try to sensationalise and sex up my work, I would go on television. But it would need to be a serious documentary."

A serious documentary might perhaps be going a little far in the opposite direction. I do, however, believe I can offer a compromise solution: an idea for a brilliant new parenting programme.

It's radical, not to say revolutionary, in its approach. It's bound to strike a chord with millions. Its title? Just Muddling Through. I shall sit and wait for Channel 4 to ring.

First published in the Daily Telegraph, 15 June 2005