• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Good, bad or none of our business

“I’m not judging,” wrote Daily Telegraph columnist Annette Sharp. “I just don’t know why a woman who can afford to take a year off with her new baby wouldn’t.”

But whether judgment was intended or not, the bad mother slur was enough to move FM radio host Jackie O to tears on air.

“I didn’t feel guilty about that until I read your open letter this morning,” she said, addressing Sharp. “And yes you did make me feel like a second-rate mum. I’m trying the best I can.”

The reason for Jackie O’s distress will be understood by hundreds of thousands of mothers who daily juggle the competing demands of motherhood and employment. Worldwide, professional busybodies and highly opinionated politicians stand ready to target parents with instantaneous advice and criticism.

Within minutes of being photographed on a pedestrian crossing while bottle-feeding her six-week old baby, the meddling begins. Since the manner in which a mother feeds her child is now the subject of public policy debate, NSW Families Minister Pru Goward felt compelled to own the issue. Without a thought she condemned Jackie O for endangering her baby.

“We all were horrified when Michael Jackson dangled his baby out the window and this woman is crossing the road not just holding a baby but feeding a baby and I think it was unnecessarily cavalier,” was her verdict. Predictably, other so-called parenting experts could not resist the temptation of offering their usual banal advice.

“It would be best to sit comfortably in a chair and hold your baby correctly while feeding,” was the expert opinion of Jenni Waldron, director of a Sydney based baby-sitting agency.

Thankfully thousands of Australian women now know that sitting uncomfortably and holding your child incorrectly or dangling your baby out of the window is not considered best practice.

But on a more ominous note, they also understand that they are being watched and are not trusted to behave as competent and responsible parents. The promotion of anxiety and paranoia about child-rearing and parenting has become a widely practised art in the 21st century in the English-speaking world.

Any mother or father who in public deviates from the latest dogma of the child protection industry can expect to be humiliated if not crucified. Take the case of Lenore Skenazy who was branded “America’s Worst Mom” after she revealed that she let her nine-year-old son ride on the New York subway alone. Her attempt to encourage her son’s sense of responsibility and independence was reviled and morally condemned. Her critics were fervent in their belief they knew better than Lenore how much freedom her son could enjoy.

For every celebrity mother who is publicly censored there are literally hundreds of thousands of parents who are guilt-tripped into adopting the dominant culture of precautionary parenting.

Take a typical scene in the supermarket. Your child is running around the aisle and misbehaving. In your heart of hearts you know what’s required is a serious showdown involving raising your voice and threatening your sweet boy with some form of sanction. But because you are in public, fully exposed to the gaze of other very judgmental shoppers, you back off.

Why? Because many parents fear that they will be expected to justify themselves to a world that they perceive as unsympathetic to their behaviour. That is why even a confident celebrity such as Jackie O felt compelled to justify her action on her radio show. These days very few parents have the confidence to say the magic words “It’s none of your business”.

Precautionary Parenting

Parental paranoia today is more than an extreme version of past anxieties. For example 30-40 years ago it was still possible to read criticism of some parents for being over-protective towards their offspring. But how often do we hear parents criticised for being overprotective today?

Many of the traits associated with the classic overprotective father or mother are likely to be celebrated by today’s experts as responsible parenting. Mothers and fathers are continually pressured into adopting practices best described as precautionary parenting, based on the idea that every dimension of a child’s experience is dangerous, if not life threatening. Increasingly youngsters are described by the metaphor children at risk, and the question at risk of what invites the response: of everything.

The meaning of child protection has encompassed every dimension of their experience. We live with a fantasy where children are regarded as so fragile and vulnerable they need to be constantly monitored and protected from the risks of everyday life. Safety is no longer about taking sensible precautions. Parents are bombarded with advice that demands the construction of a risk-free world.

It is remarkable how dramatically public perception of children’s life is drawn towards worst-case scenarios. So a playground is not seen as an open space where children can run around, mess about and have fun but as a hostile territory where youngsters face accidents, bullies and pedophiles. What we see is children constantly threatened by adult irresponsibility and moral turpitude.

Research shows when viewers see an image of a child on a TV news item, they automatically anticipate a negative story. So a majority of the people asked to give their interpretation of a photo of a man cuddling a child responded by stating this was a picture of a pedophile instead of an act of a loving father.

Take the case of a picture on a recent cover of The Weekend Australian Magazine (March 27-28) showing a young girl sitting on the side of a boat, fishing with her dad. When I look at it, I see a lovely portrait of father and daughter at ease with each other as they look out to the sea. But as a spate of letters to the magazine indicate, it is all in the eyes of the beholder.

Instead of an innocent depiction of a child at one with nature some detect warning signs of perilous danger and parental irresponsibility. One person writes no lifejacket and what seemed like fear, uncertainty or discomfort at the least, showing on her face. An other angry individual asks just how irresponsible can you get and what a crazy image to give to kids! Apparently the sight of a child not wearing a helmet, goggle, lifejacket and other protective gadgets sends out a dangerous message to the kids! It appears that even a picture shot in two feet of calm water can be perceived as confirmation of the prejudice that children are indeed, at risk.

Politicising parenting

One important driver of precautionary parenting is the politicisation of family life. In recent decades child-rearing has turned into a veritable obsession for policy makers. Problems that were once associated with the failures of society are increasingly blamed on parents. Month after month reports blame the parenting deficit for problems such as that of low achievements in schools, low self-esteem, drug taking, obesity, crime and mental health problems.

The assumption that government has the duty and the right to manage and alter personal behaviour is a relatively new development. Governments have always sought to influence public behaviour. But they have tended to rely on local custom, moral norms and the informal pressures of community life to influence individual behaviour. In democratic societies there used to be an unwritten rule that government should not intrude into the domain of people’s private lives.

The loss of restraint towards intervention in people’s private affairs is one of the most significant developments in the sphere of public policy during the past two decades. Governments that have become uncertain of values and their purpose have refocused their energies towards the management of individual behaviour and the regulation of informal relationships. Increasingly governments have sought to adopt the role of protecting people from themselves and from other members of the public.

A good example of this turn towards intrusive policy making is the decision of the federal government to micro-manage childcare centres. For example, recently published draft legislation aims to ban childcare workers from separating misbehaving kids from group activities. Such forms of sensible discipline are stigmatised as inappropriate.

Evidently nursery workers cannot be trusted to exercise common sense; they need to be advised by experts on what constitutes appropriate standards of childcare. Sadly, experience shows that the regulation of nurseries erodes the capacity of carers to exercise professional judgment. Like parents they too become disoriented by the corrosive impact of the suspicion directed at them.

Parents and carers who feel their every act is judged are actively discouraged from learning from their experience and using their intuition confidently.

The promotion of paranoia towards children’s lives actually accomplishes the very opposite of what it sets out to do. When youngsters are constantly protected, they miss out on important opportunities to learn sound judgments and build up their confidence and resilience. The promotion of suspicion towards adult behaviour seriously undermines the ability of grown-ups to play a constructive role in the socialisation of youngsters.

But, we do not have to abide by the rules concocted by self-appointed experts intent on policing how we engage with children. We can tell our politicians that they possess no moral authority to make pronouncements about how we bring up our kids. Nor do we have to acquiesce to a culture that denigrates parental competence and fuels suspicion about adult motives towards children.

Although none of us can opt out of the culture we inhabit, we can challenge it. We can challenge it in small ways by protesting against the many idiotic but all too insidious bans that aim to restrict children’s freedom or adults’ access to youngsters. We can challenge it by encouraging our children to develop a positive attitude towards the outdoors and the adult world.

And instead of mercilessly criticising each other’s failings we can work together as active collaborators committed to providing more opportunities for children to explore their world.

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The role of a documentary photographer is to capture the candid workings of people’s lives, not to interfere with the story but simply to bear witness to unfolding events.

My latest photographic journey was to Kangaroo Island in South Australia to capture island life and all the local characters for the March 27 cover of The Weekend Australian magazine. In the morning I was swimming with and photographing a pod of 30 wild dolphins, in the afternoon I meet up with the boat’s skipper Andrew Neighbour and his daughter Zahli, 5, to go fishing, a pastime Neighbour has enjoyed on the island for more than 40 years and is now teaching his eager daughter. We ventured out in his father’s timber boat The Orange Roughy as the afternoon light turned gold. The final shot was of a happy, healthy little girl, Zahli, sitting smiling on the front of a bright, orange boat fishing as her father looks on. We were having by all accounts a lovely time.

Ironically the story evolved into a piece quoting local fifth and sixth generation islanders bemoaning the interference from naysaying outsiders and do-gooders telling them how they should live their lives.

My role, as with all documentary photographers, is to gain the trust of people and thereby have them allow me access into their world. So to my surprise many letters to the editor have questioned my integrity as a photographer for not making Andrew Neighbour put a lifejacket on his daughter.

I was not shooting a government ad campaign, I was documenting a moment between father and daughter for a magazine piece on proposed marine sanctuary zones. Never for a moment was I nervous or concerned about the little girl and neither was her father, as she was not in any danger.

So it does beg the question why on earth, in numerous letters to the editor, have so many people begun collectively gnashing their teeth over her safety? In this day and age of television as the new drug of the nation and childhood obesity, an active, healthy child is surely a cause for celebration. Is this why kids stopped climbing trees and riding their bikes on the road? Have the fun police simply morphed into “concerned citizens”?

Common sense would ask for everyone to take a long, deep breath. This image is simply a little girl and her father enjoying an afternoon together fishing on a sunny day.

For the record Zahli proudly took the picture of herself and dad on the cover of the magazine to school for show and tell.

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