knows best - mother, or TV?
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
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
"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.
published in the Daily Telegraph, 15 June 2005