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

Nick Clegg takes ‘parental determinism’ to a new low

Blame the parent and not the poverty, argued deputy British PM Nick Clegg yesterday in one of his typically intellectual-lite speeches. He said that bad parenting probably harms children more than poverty does. To substantiate this ridiculous claim, he referred to a study which concluded that the amount of interest parents show in their child’s education is four times more significant than socioeconomic circumstances in impacting on educational achievement at the age of 16. Not twice as significant or five times as significant – no, apparently Nick is absolutely certain that slothful mums and dads create four times as many problems for their kids as their marginal economic circumstances do.

Clegg’s attempt to recast the age-old problems associated with poverty as principally a result of parents’ own moral failures resonates with the zeitgeist amongst policymakers and politicians. It is no longer a question of parent-blaming – rather, parenting has become an all-purpose causal explanation for virtually every problem afflicting society. Parental determinism minimises the importance of economic, social and cultural factors in everyday life and reduces the complex interaction between social wellbeing and family life to a simple question of moral failure.

The politicisation of parenting has been one of the most disturbing developments in British society over the past two decades. Politicised parenting might be presented as a long-overdue child- and parent-friendly development, which simply aims to put right many of the problems that families face. But in reality, the turn towards colonising people’s private lives is underpinned by the prejudice that virtually all of society’s problems are caused either directly or indirectly by poor parenting. All the major British political parties now indulge this prejudice and have signed up to the new dogma of the ‘politics of behaviour’.

In Britain, it was Tony Blair’s New Labour regime, elected in 1997, which first promoted the fantasy that the government could fix society’s problems by getting its hands on the nation’s toddlers before their parents had a chance to ruin them. One of New Labour’s key focuses was on ‘early intervention’ – and for Blair, intervention could never be early enough. He believed it was possible to spot tomorrow’s ‘problem people’ even before they were born. Weeding out ‘unfit parents’ by imposing a kind of quality control in the arena of parenting has been a key plank of the early-intervention movement.

This agenda has rarely been questioned. When Blair said in September 2006 that the state should spot potential problem people before birth – by intervening in problem families looking to have more children – the media and the political elite appeared to agree with him. Only a handful of politicians, labelled ‘out-of touch’ and ‘old-fashioned’, raised doubts. ‘This one about identifying troublesome children in the fetus – this is eugenics, the sort of thing Hitler talked about’, argued Tony Benn, former leader of the Labour Left.

Sadly, the myth of parental determinism has been institutionalised in Whitehall. Policymakers in the Lib-Con coalition seem to believe that the quality of parenting can determine just about everything in a child’s future. They even believe that parenting, when done well, can help to overcome society’s structural nequalities. Just last week, a report authored by Labour’s Frank Field, on behalf of the Lib-Con government, proposed that the study of parenting skills should be made part of the GCSE curriculum. At a time when far too many schools are struggling to teach their pupils basic literacy and numeracy, Field has proposed a formal parenting exam for 16-year-olds to help turn them into the ‘five-star parents’ of tomorrow.

This idea of a one-dimensional, causal relationship between parenting and future life chances, dreamt up by British think-tanks and policymakers, threatens to take public discourse to a new low. In comparison with parental determinism, the economic determinism of Stalinism or the racial determinism of the old eugenics lobby seem positively subtle. The idea of parental determinism allows policymakers to promote the most absurd prejudices. That is why Tory Iain Duncan Smith could argue that children from broken homes and dysfunctional families have underdeveloped brains and start school with the mental capacity of one-year-olds. He said that certain babies’ brains fail to grow because their parents do not offer them ‘nurture and support’. That such voodoo science can shape the thinking of policymakers reflects the exhaustion of the political imagination today.

Back in the nineteenth century, the now discredited science of phrenology linked the size of people’s brains to their personality and character. Were he around today, the idiosyncratic founder of that science, the Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall, would be the toast of the Westminster think-tank scene. Herr Gall and his mate Thomas Malthus must be having a good old laugh at the expense of the poor.

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