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

‘Western parents need to chill out about their kids’

Last night, in a debate in London titled ‘Western parents don’t know how to bring up their children’, Frank Furedi clashed with Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and others. Furedi’s opening remarks are published below.

When it comes to discussing parenting, everyone thinks they are warranted to take their own personal story and recast it as a philosophy. On no other issue are you allowed to communicate such prejudices and such stereotypes as you are in relation to parenting.

So Theodore Dalrymple [one of the other speakers] happened to hear a couple of children swearing and concluded that this has never happened before in British society. Children of his generation would never have used a four-letter word, that was unthinkable. And now we apparently have this epidemic of children who go around swearing and so it is obvious that British parents are not doing their bit. Amy Chua [another speaker] concludes that in Western societies children have too much choice. Really? They have so much choice that middle-class children in London literally have their entire lives organised for them by their parents.

From the moment they get up in the morning to the evening, when they are passed around by their parents from one activity to another, literally they have no free time to be children and to relax. The idea that we live in a world where children have incredible choices, and where parents are laid back, chilled out and ‘just get on with it’, is a myth. It bears no relationship with reality. I think it’s important to realise that when we talk about Western parenting, what we are really talking about is intensive parenting. Western parenting is phenomenally intensive today. Parents now spend far more time with their children than they did in any other generation. Each day, a working mother in the twenty-first century in Britain spends two to three hours more looking after her children than a mother who stayed at home in the 1970s. That’s how intensive it has become.

What is really interesting is that all these so-called ‘Asian attributes’ discussed in Amy Chua’s book [Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother] are not Asian at all. Anybody who has been to New York or Massachusetts will recognise those characteristics straight away. To give an example of how it works: the other day a friend of mine in New York told me a story about how her four-year-old has been on a waiting list for a high-powered pre-school nursery. She had been on it for months and months. And the mum wanted to know how she could train her child to get into the nursery so that she could play with toys. At first I thought she was exaggerating, but then I went online and discovered that there is an online service called ‘How to ace a pre-school interview’. And it wasn’t a service for Chinese people or Cambodian refugees. It was for Westerners.

This is pretty much what it said: Education nowadays starts even before kindergarten. The best and most elite preschools don’t just have expensive tuition, they have long waiting lists of eager parents who would send their children there in a heartbeat. If you’re lucky enough to have a preschool call you and your child in for an interview, you should do everything in your power to give the best possible impression. That kind of competitive, high-powered parenting will be quite familiar to anyone who lives in north London. Indeed, in most middle-class neighbourhoods in London and around Britain there seem to be more tutors than rats these days.

One side of the stereotype today is that parents over here are laid back and relaxed and care a lot about a child’s self-esteem. And then the other side of the stereotype is that in China and elsewhere in Asia, parents are really hardass and they would never dream of spoiling their child. There has been a protracted debate in China about ‘little emperors’, about how much children have been spoiled by their parents. That debate has been going on for a very long time. But the awkward fact is that if you happen to go to Shanghai or Beijing, you will actually find the equivalents of Islington mummies and daddies, who are adopting exactly the same, fairly intensive parenting style that exists over here. They just say it all in Chinese rather than English.

So it seems to me that we are essentially discussing two middle-class approaches towards parenting – ‘intensive parenting’ in the West and ‘tiger parenting’ in the East – rather than two things that are really culturally different from one another. It’s very easy to get confused in this debate. My argument is simple and straightforward. Western parents are actually quite good at parenting, if they are left alone. Parenting is not rocket science; you don’t need a PhD in developmental psychology to be a good mum or dad. There is no problem with Western parents. No, the real problem is that society now does everything in its power to make it difficult for parents to have confidence in their judgement calls. We make it very hard for parents to live the life of a parent, to feel like a real parent, because all their intuition and all their approaches towards life are constantly undermined.

So what are the problems that we face in the West? The first one is that we have a tendency to devalue parental confidence. Time and time again, we continually pathologise what parents do. All the politicians in all the political parties seem to dine out on lecturing parents about their failures. I can remember the moment when – it was either Gordon Brown or David Cameron, but they were totally together on this issue – when one of the political leaders gave a typical presidential lecture. They adopted that tone of compassionate care and said ‘y’know Jim’ – it was on the Today programme or something – ‘parenting is probably the most difficult job in the world’.

And everybody thinks a politician deserves a standing ovation because he says ‘parenting is the most difficult job in the world’. But actually it isn’t. Being a nuclear physicist is a lot more difficult that being a parent. Being a Formula One driver is, on balance, a bit more complex than changing your son’s nappies.

In truth, what people really mean when they say that parenting is the most difficult job in the world is that the ordinary mums and dads over there are unlikely to be up to this very difficult task. You, mum, and you, dad, need a phenomenal amount of parenting advice. You need a posse of experts to come in and hold your hand and give you what they call ‘support’.

What we now have are constant reminders telling us how difficult parenting is, which of course makes parents very insecure. This then leads to what I think is the real problem – which is that there is now so much pressure on parents to do this very difficult job well that they start to live their lives through their children. And as you live your life through your children, you begin to lose sight of what it is that you ought to be doing. When you live your life through your children, your parenting style becomes synonymous with your identity. And that’s the really tragic thing about the world that we live in today: you forget about the real job of childrearing and become much more concerned about parenting as a cultural accomplishment of identity construction.

The reason why we have debates like this one is because the transformation of parenting into a way of forging an identity, its close relationship with who we are, means we can’t just relax about different parenting styles. You can’t simply say, ‘Well, Amy brings up her child this way, that’s cool, I don’t like it but that’s her business’, or ‘Jessica brings up her child another way, y’know, that’s fine, but I wouldn’t do that’. Instead of just saying that some parents do things differently because their children are different or their circumstances are different, we feel an urge to make a political issue out of who we are as parents. And the more we make a political issue out of it, the more we take our eyes off the real job – which is looking after our kids in the best way that we can.

I think that on a good day, Western parents do that really, really well. The problem is not that Western parents can’t bring up their kids; the problem is that, due to all the cultural and political pressures that I have described, Western parents have lost the capacity to chill out, relax and get a life.

This is an edited version of a speech given at the Intelligence Squared debate: ‘Western parents don’t know how to bring up their children.’ For more information about the debate, and to watch the whole thing, click here.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum in August 2011. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)

Contact me

If you want to get in touch or keep updated with my activities, either email me, connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter.