Frank Furedi

Sociologist, commentator and author of Culture of Fear, Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?, Paranoid Parenting, Therapy Culture, and On Tolerance: In Defence of Moral Independence.

The mother of all child-rearing battles
Ignore the ‘experts’ and try not to turn your parenting style into a cause.

Parenting gurus have always claimed to possess unique insights that gave them privileged access to the higher truth about childrearing. But recently the rivalry between competing sects of super-nannies has turned into civil war. Vicious attacks on the no-nonsense Gina Ford by contributors to forced this website to apologise and pay a five-figure sum to settle a libel action. Last week the anger of self-righteous mothers found a new target: the tough-love advocate Claire Verity. Protests by angry mothers have forced Verity to stay away from The Baby Show at Earls Court. Ford has also joined the battle, writing to the NSPCC denouncing Verity’s techniques as almost a threat to young lives.

Sadly, hostile encounters over parenting techniques are not confined to a small circle of childrearing experts. Almost 2,000 people have signed an online petition warning the Prime Minister about the threat posed by Verity’s “outdated and discredited parenting theories”. And every professional mother seems to have a distinctly zealous view about what is a correct and what is an illegitimate parenting technique.

The polarisation of the debate is symptomatic of an unprecedented level of parental insecurity and anxiety. Powerful cultural forces encourage parents, particularly mothers, to live their lives through their children. One important way in which the parenting industry has promoted its dogmas is to incite mothers to gain identity through their childrearing style. With so many techniques available, it is not surprising that there is no longer a single dominant model for the cultivation of a mothering identity. Parenting has turned into a lifestyle in which women – and, increasingly, men – make statements about themselves via the tactics and techniques they use to bring up their infants.

It is important to recall that childrearing is not the same as parenting. It is only in recent times that the latter as a distinct activity has come to constitute a moral statement about fathers and mothers. A child’s behaviour, intelligence and character traits serve as a testimony of parenting virtues and faults. Successful parenting enhances the identity of adults and endows motherhood with meaning. With so much emotional investment, parents are continually preoccupied with how their performance is judged in public.

There is a lot at stake: the sense of performing for an audience and the knowledge that your identity and lifestyle are on the line fosters an ethos of competitive parenting. Since parents’ identity develops through public affirmation, mothers can never be indifferent to the way that others view them. Many understand that each new stage in their child’s development raises new questions about their skill and competence. In such circumstances parents constantly compare themselves with their friends, and may even see close mates as rivals. This is not an era of live-and-let-live parenting, when a breast-feeding mum regards her bottle-feeding peer as possessing the same moral status. Many parents find it difficult to adopt a tolerant attitude towards differences over feeding babies or disciplining children. Almost immediately the question becomes: who is right and who is wrong? This issue is not about a childrearing technique but a moral statement about a way of life. That is why arguments about parenting have acquired such a vitriolic dimension.

Even at the best of times it is hard to reconcile the tensions between competing lifestyles. Other methods of bringing up children can appear to question your identity and status as a mother. As a result, many women interpret the claims made by competing mothering styles as an attack on their identity. This is no mere battle of ideas – competing claims about what constitutes a good mother is sometimes perceived as an annihilation of one’s very existence. The hatred provoked by the advice promoted by some experts is only in part motivated by the belief that what they say is wrong. It is also inspired by the conviction that their style of parenting calls into question your status and identity as a responsible mother.

There was a time when the problem of parenting was seen as the difficulty that adults have with the management of their children. The importance of this question to parents is self-evident. But there is now another side to the problem: how can different parenting lifestyles co-exist? The politicisation of childrearing advice threatens to turn relatively minor issues into a war of competing gurus. Such a conflict can only intensify the obsessive way in which parents turn their parenting style into a cause.

Two suggestions: ignore the experts, and don’t turn childrearing into a statement about yourself.

First published by The Times, 8 October 2007