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

Intensive parenting

Increasingly parenting is represented as a skill that is best understood by experts and policy makers and very rarely by mothers and fathers. Nevertheless parents are constantly informed that what they do not only matters but also determines just about every dimension of their children’s lives. The principle feature of Britain’s parenting culture is its embrace of parental determinism.

The idea that a child’s life is causally determined by the quality of parenting they receive is regularly communicated by politicians, child professionals and the media. ‘As a parent, you’re a very powerful person’ observes a government publication, Every Parent Matters, before reminding you that ‘how you raise your child will have a profound effect on their whole life.’ In case you missed the point, the report insists that children get better academic results and have fewer behavioural problems when their parents get involved in their schooling. Potentially errant fathers are told that a dad’s interest in his child’s schooling is strongly linked to academic success.

Advocates of parental determinism tend to overlook the influence of socio-economic and cultural factors on the well-being and life chances of children. From this perspective, good parenting mediates the effects of poverty and other difficult circumstances. And if recent policy documents are to be believed, parenting is, even causally, deterministically related to a variety of outcomes for children. There is a perceptible trend towards displacing socio-economic based explanations for people’s life-course by a highly individualised focus on parenting behaviour. So whereas previously differential educational outcomes were explained through pointing to the significance of class or differential access to social and cultural capital, the emphasis has shifted towards upholding the significance of the quality of parenting as the key variable.

So it is not being poor, but poor parenting that is held to account for why children are ill prepared for school. Take a study published last year by Professor Jane Waldfogel from Columbia University. The study accepts that children from poor families are less well prepared for school than those from better circumstances, but then goes on to conclude that up to half of these differences in the US and the UK was due to poor parenting and home environments. Waldfogel claimed that ‘what surprised her the most’ was the extent to which the quality of parenting had an impact on the ability to learn. It is worth noting that the displacement of socially linked causation by that of parental behaviour represents a fundamental shift from a sociological to a moralistic explanation of developments. Typically, the Waldfogel study was reported under the headline ‘Bad parents “widen ability gap”’ by BBC News.

The category of the ‘bad parent’ is invariably detached from any specific socially comprehensible context. Parental deficits are depicted as moral failures that are not confined to any particular class of adults. So a Cambmidge University study commissioned by the NUT discovered that ‘bad behaviour in schools is being fuelled by overindulgent” parents who don’t know how to say no to their children.’ The main accomplishment of this moralising imperative is the normalisation of the state of parenting deficit. A powerful illustration of the project to normalise the idea of parental incompetence is provided by ‘A Good Childhood; Searching for Values In A Competitive Age,’ a report commissioned by the Children’s Society and produced by the Good Childhood Inquiry earlier this year. This report offers a very dark representation of the state of childhood in contemporary Britain. It states that the ‘UK fares exceptionally badly in bringing about the wellbeing of its children’ and suggests that this has little to do with social and economic factors. ‘While elsewhere in Europe there seems to be some correlation between a nation’s wealth and the wellbeing of its children, the UK is a notable exception,’ it concludes.

Inevitably the finger of blame is pointed at the parent. Apparently parents are either too incompetent or too selfish to give children enough attention. The tendency to inflate the problem of the parenting deficit is the inevitable consequence of the dogma of parental determinism. Once parenting is conceptualised as unimaginably important and incalculably so significant that it requires special skills and qualities, it is unlikely that normal mothers and fathers could possiibly possess the resources to perform this job.

The ideology of parental determinism is actively promoted by both experts and policy makers and underpins one of the most disturbing developments in the realm of social policy – the politicisation of parenting. Parenting is no longer an activity that is informally practiced by mothers and fathers. It has become an issue for public deliberation and policy innovation. Judging by recent comments by politicians and policy initiatives announced by the New Labour Government virtually every social problem can be solved through the institutionalisation of good parenting. Government Ministers continually tell us that ‘parenting is no longer a no-go area for government’ and opposition party leaders echo this sentiment.

Parent blaming has become a popular pursuit of the political class. Their policy failures particularly in the domain of education are frequently blamed on the slothful parent. ‘It’s no good blaming schools for deteriorating behaviour among young people when parents all too often set such an appalling example themselves,’ stated Tim Collins, a former Conservative spokesman on education. In this case, censuring parents appears a sensible alternative to blaming schools. Ed Balls, the Labour Government’s Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, takes a similar view, stating that ‘parents should face up to their responsibilities’ and be penalised if they don’t.

The association of parenting with such omnipotent and grave consequences has the perverse consequence of disorienting family life. It breeds parental insecurity and leads to a situation where mothers and fathers lose faith in their ability to do what’s right for their children.

That parents exercise enormous influence over their children is not in doubt but they do so not simply through their so-called parenting skills but as members of a distinct cultural, social and ethnic community. The quality of children’s lives and their future prospects is influenced by many variables other than the behaviour of their parents.

The full article is available by ordering the September issue of the magazine here.

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