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.

Parental guidance
Alan Crawford

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 in nurseries.”

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 seven years”.

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 deficit syndrome.

“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.

First published in the Sunday Herald, 6 March 2005