DOES fish oil help with your child’s behaviour problems?
Do you opt for gloves or bandages to stop your five-year-old sucking
his thumb? And where do you stand on “injecting silly humour
and fun into every day home life” to relieve family tension?
(Try serving dessert first at dinner time “just to see the
looks of shock and glee on their faces”.)
Just an average day’s postings on one of an avalanche of
practical parenting websites set up to help with what should be
our most basic human function: looking after our children. It’s
not just an internet phenomenon. Just take a look at the newsagent
shelves – packed with all sorts of parental-help periodicals
vying to play on your paranoia.
A brief browse on the bookshelves reveals the same trend. Guides
such as The Pocket Parent; Positive Discipline For Preschoolers;
Positive Discipline A-Z; Easy To Love, Difficult To Discipline;
How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk; or
how about Raising Children Who Are Responsible, Respectful And Resourceful?
It makes them sound like they are chimps, not kids.
The parenting industry, as it has been styled, reaches it apotheosis
in Supernanny, a television show aired last summer on Channel 4
and due to return later this year. The book of the show, published
by Hodder and Stoughton, is out in just over a week.
Supernanny’s big idea is to send a 34-year-old childless
expert on parenting, Jo Frost, to join a family on the edge of a
collective nervous breakdown. With the help of some good, old-fashioned
authoritarian discipline, she restores peace and calm to the household.
Whether or not you agree with Frost’s solutions – the
“naughty step” where mischievous children are sent to
brood over their misbehaviour being one of them – is neither
here nor there. Six million-plus viewers for the first series suggests
Supernanny is on to something. US network ABC bought the show and
reeled in 30 million viewers, give or take a million mumbling wrecks
of parents, proving that it’s not just Brits who feel they
are out of sync with their children.
Can we have really regressed so far that we no longer know how
to raise our kids?
Take this everyday parental situation. My daughter Freya turned
two a few weeks back, so we organised a party and invited 15 or
so of her little friends around for juice and sweeties. All was
sweetness and light as children toddled around and poked each other
with curiosity – all except one little man, who snatched at
everyone’s jelly, bawled and stomped on various tots’
heads before squeezing himself into a play tunnel and refusing to
come out. Humdrum temper tantrum or potential nutcase in need of
specialist therapy? Have children really become more difficult?
Have parents really become less able to cope?
Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University and author
of Paranoid Parenting, argues the “so-called parenting industry”
perpetuates the feeling that every issue, from how to toilet train
a child to whether to force them to eat their greens, leads to a
sense among parents of being “overwhelmed by the sheer scale
of troublesome issues” confronting them. He talks as a result
of a “crisis of parental nerve”, which manifests itself
most clearly in irrational fears over children’s safety.
“There seems to be a fairly poisonous parenting culture whereby
mothers and fathers are continually told that whatever happens to
their children is a consequence of the quality of parenting. We
as parents are continually told that the most everyday, routine
aspects of child-rearing are very complicated. We now have books
that tell you how to smile at your child, classes on how to hold
and cuddle your child; it’s almost as if you need a PhD in
psychological development if you want to be a good parent.”
Yet parenting experts have no greater understanding of your child’s
needs than you do, and formulaic advice is unlikely to work in your
specific circumstances. According to Furedi, “horrific”
programmes such as Supernanny are just part of a growing genre designed
to disempower people.
“They’re telling people that they’re too stupid
to be able to go shopping on their own and they need someone to
go shopping with them; they’re too stupid to decorate their
houses and need somebody to makeover their house; they’re
too stupid to cook for themselves or get cosmetic products for themselves.
Similarly they’re too thick to bring up their children, and
these wonderful individuals have the skills. But when you talk to
these wonderful individuals with incredible skills, you find they’re
either people with just a bit of common sense or alternatively they’re
fraudulent individuals who prey on our anxieties.”
The ubiquitous Jo Frost made an appearance yesterday at the Baby
Show in Glasgow’s SECC. In among stands for products such
as Totseat – “the washable, squashable highchair”
– and competitions including “Could your baby be a model
baby?”, Frost gave a talk on “The Five Golden Rules
of Toddler Taming”.
Frost has claimed her success is down to a gift for connecting
with kids on their own level. After 15 years of “trouble-shooting
nannying”, she has, her publicist tells us, honed her methods
of child-rearing to cope with all sorts of “child-rearing
challenges”, from potty training and sibling rivalry to sleep
issues and tantrums. And all this without one of her own?
“Ultra-strict” Frost said recently that her secret
is to help put parents back in control. “Parents have asked,
‘How do you have an understanding of this when you have no
children?’ Maybe I just do and that’s how it is. It
all comes from my personality and what I believe in.”
One of her fellow panelists in the subsequent discussion at the
SECC was Linda Russell, co-founder of Parenting Together, a new
group aimed at meeting the needs of modern-day parents.
Russell, a nursery nurse with three children who runs the “Parent
Coaching Studio” in Edinburgh, provides a dedicated one-to-one
service to iron out any family problems or uncertainties from birth
to adolescence in the family home.
She maintains that parenting today is far more challenging than
at any time in the past, with unrealistically high expectations
leading to parents who are “confused rather than in crisis”.
“We don’t live in communities now where we have mum
and dad and Aunty Betty down the road. Therefore accessing hands-on
help and information that would have naturally passed down through
the generations doesn’t happen any more.”
Other factors include the proliferation of computers and televisions,
meaning that sitting down to read a story to your child doesn’t
happen as often as it used to. The modern child tends to be taken
to supervised clubs rather than playing with friends at home. The
result, says Russell, is that a lot of parenting is done by people
other than a child’s parents.
“Whereas before, parents would rely on their own skills to
bring up their children, we’re relying now more and more on
outside help. More and more parents both need to work to continue
the lifestyle they’re used to, so children are brought up
Russell is not willing to draw any conclusions from this arrangement.
She is adamant she and her colleague are never critical of parents,
since they have “a very rough time now”.
Russell may not be willing to say so but some experts believe there
is a more serious side to all this. Might the changing nature of
parenthood, with more working parents spending less time at home
with their children, be contributing to behaviour problems? Might
we be spawning plagues of feral kids?
Some fans of Jo Frost, whose programme was mentioned in both Houses
of Parliament last July, on both occasions by Conservatives in relation
to anti-social behaviour, seem to think so. Peter Luff, Tory member
for Mid-Worcestershire, commended to the Leader of the House this
“marvellous superhero”, Jo Frost, “whose wonderful
combination of old-fashioned discipline in a modern context …
is doing more to be tough on the causes of antisocial behaviour
in families up and down the land than the government have done in
His theme was taken up in the Lords by Lord Lucas of Crudwell and
Dingwall, who urged the noble members to watch this “most
extraordinary programme” and called for local authorities
to emulate Frost’s approach to help tackle antisocial behaviour.
Yet, while there is anecdotal evidence of worsening behaviour among
young children, there are few statistics to back it up. Scottish
Executive figures for the six years leading up to 2003/4 show little
change in exclusions in primary schools; in fact, there has been
a slight fall since 1999.
This is not to dismiss any problems. Each year, some 30,000 children
are referred to the children’s hearings system, and about
9000 under-16s run away from home.
A recent study by the Institute of Psychiatry identified clear
patterns of more challenging behaviour from young people, including
less respect, more emotional problems, more disobedience and more
young people facing mental health problems.
However, evidence shows that what most bothers teachers –
who might be expected to bear the brunt of this behaviour –
is low-level disruption such as children eating in class, leaving
their seats, talking out of turn, idleness and causing unnecessary
noise. Violent incidents toward teachers are relatively rare, reported
by 2% of teachers in primary school on a weekly basis. Indeed, 82%
of primary teachers do not find any behaviour difficult.
Announcing these figures in January – contained in the first
example of the school discipline report – Scottish education
minister Peter Peacock concluded that concern about school behaviour
is not new, but rather is taking new forms.
He quoted from the Synod of Aberdeen of 1675, which asked its presbyteries
to ask their headteachers whether they “chastise their pupils
for cursing, swearing, lying, speaking profanietie: for disobedience
to parents and what vices appeared in them”.
Scrutiny of the 1920s publication The Nursery World also shows
parents then were haunted by many of the same doubts, worries and
preoccupations as today’s generation of self-flagellating
mums and dads. Concerns were expressed in letters over normal development,
tantrums, shyness, aggression, thumb-sucking and sleep, as well
as what the agony aunt called “a problem as old as parenthood
itself – that of how to get [children] to obey us”.
Frank Furedi, who has researched the issue, says that what in the
past was dismissed as tearaway behaviour is now classified as attention
“The more we tell children they’re stressed- out or
they’ve got some medical problems, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling
prophecy. We now have a situation where children as young as eight
and nine are using expressions such as ‘I’m really stressed
out’. If they think there’s a problem with their behaviour,
they’ll behave accordingly.”
The same could be said of parents and their approach to child-rearing.
Tell them there’s a better way of doing things, and they’ll
start to believe it.
So, Supernanny, you’re setting a bad example. Go and sit
on the naughty step.
published in the Sunday Herald, 6 March 2005