How can parents ‘Stand up to Supernanny’?
29 August 2012
Are you not over-egging it a bit when you talk of a ‘supernanny’? And do you not fear that you might not be making parents more paranoid by encouraging them to be subversive, rather than just good parents?
I’ve always had reservations about the term ‘nanny state’, which rather simplistically emphasises top-down bossiness; and I should say that I haven’t got a particular problem with Jo Frost from reality television show Supernanny. I use ‘Supernanny’ as a metaphor, for something more cultural than merely political, which recognises that people do buy into the idea that parenting experts are somehow a good thing, as shown by the popularity of the TV show. As for ‘subversive parenting’: again, that’s more a joke about the hyper-conformity demanded of people’s parenting practices than it is a call to arms. Parenting isn’t political or radical, and nor should it be.
As a thirtysomething woman, I am glad that I am not allowed to be beaten and that there are laws against it and that a person who does so will be prosecuted. But children are also people and thus surely should have the same rights. Surely the state has the duty of protecting the weaker people in society?
Can children not expect to have their rights protected by the state – even when they cannot protect those rights themselves?
I don’t think the prescriptions of modern parenting culture have anything to do with protecting children. I’m horrified by the way in which horrific cases of child abuse and murder, from Jasmine Beckford to Victoria Climbie, have been used over the past 50 years to justify greater intervention into everyday family life - to the point where not providing your child with the ‘optimal’ start in life, by failing to follow such dubious edicts as making them eat their five-a-day, is now considered to lie on the child-abuse spectrum. Of course there are a minority of people who harm children, but in general the adult population protects children - and it is this idea that contemporary parenting culture has done its best to undermine. Nigel Parton’s book Safeguarding Childhood: Early Intervention and Surveillance in a Late Modern Society is a good read on this shift.
As for children’s rights - political rights are for adults, who are capable of fighting for and exercising them. Adults have a duty to protect and to raise children. The notion of ‘children’s rights’ is a dangerous sleight of hand, which redefines rights as something that should be bestowed by the authorities and used as a mechanism to undermine parents’ authority. This is actually very bad for children, who don’t want rights anyway - they want adults they can trust and look up to.
In the society we live in right now, teenagers are not given the opportunity, and thus, gain no experience with looking after young children as they are usually shipped over to the grandparents rather than being looked after by teenage babysitters. Can’t the government’s encouragement and attempt to destigmatise parenting classes be seen as a positive thing, rather than an attempt to control society?
I gave birth for the first time earlier in the year and must say I’m becoming much more sympathetic to the idea of parenting classes. Many of my friends haven’t had children yet and at the moment much of the information I’m getting is from the internet. As long as they’re voluntary, what’s wrong with drawing upon other people’s knowledge? It can’t be completely relative how to bring up children. While I take the point about the ‘tyranny of the expert’, surely sometimes experts are useful?
Teenage babysitters are great, and the increasing lack of informal contact between young children and teenagers/young adults can be seen as a product of the fearful culture that surrounds childcare today. This is why I have been so vocal in opposition to CRB checks and other aspects of the professionalisation and regulation of informal childcare arrangements and activities - these trends make different sections of society more wary of each other, make parents more isolated and dependent on official sources of advice and experience, and of course these things don’t protect children anyway, they just make them more bored. (See Licensed to Hug, by Frank Furedi and Jennie Bristow.)
As for parenting classes - successive governments’ interest in these does not come from a genuine desire to help parents out. If they wanted to do that, there are any number of more practical things they could do: from providing an affordable childcare network to stopping MPs and think-tanks from providing policy documents based on deterministic neurobabble. Parenting classes are part of a social-policy agenda that seeks to ‘responsibilise’ parents, by scaring them about the supposed consequences of refusing to conform to official life-management advice - and yes, they are an attempt to control society. I’m with the Foucauldians on that one: a good book to read on the history of all this is Jacques Donzelot’s 1977 classic The Policing of Families.
I don’t personally have a problem with people going along to parenting classes or looking on the internet to pick up a few tips if that’s what they want to do. But so much of the advice is contradictory that parents often end up quite confused, so they make their own decisions about what to do in the end while at the same time justifying those decisions in deference to one or another expert. It would be much better if the experts all shut up and let people consult their partners, parents, or friends - who would give advice that is just as useful, without the tyrannical ‘expert’ stamp.
The idea that there used to be an ‘autonomous family’ is challenged by many social thinkers, including Christopher Lasch, who described professionals as far back as the 1920s who were colonising family life. But surely there is something real about this idea of the autonomous family or at least something specific and different about state intervention into the family today?
Going back to Donzelot - the modern state has always tried to meddle in and manipulate the family, but it at least had to contend with the ideal of family autonomy. What has changed in the past two decades is the extent to which this ideal has been comprehensively trashed. The normalisation of parenting advice, parenting classes, policy that explicitly seeks to indicate how parents should conduct everyday family life, the idea that parents are ‘partners’ or ‘co-parents’ with the state - all of these are indications that the idea that politicians should stay out of family life is seen as a relic of the past. It’s the demise of the principle of family autonomy that has opened the door to wholesale intervention; allowing the officials to do what they often tried to do in previous eras, but could never pull off.
One particular example of the standards parents are pressured to live up to mentioned in your book is that parents should help their children with homework and push them to do well in school, yet being a ‘pushy’ parent should be avoided for fear of harmful effects on the child’s development. This being a contradiction in itself, do you think the government has double standards when it comes to parenting?
Yes. Which indicates that this advice isn’t grounded in any particular knowledge or aspiration to improve ‘parenting’ (whatever that means), but is about meeting other instrumental ends.
Do you think gay couples are as capable of raising fully-rounded children as straight ones? If so, should they not be allowed to marry?
I think gay couples can do a fine job of raising children, as can straight ones. And I think it’s great that modern society has the technical means, through fertility treatment and social acceptance, to allow gay couples to have children and raise them if that’s what they want to do. But I don’t go with the prevailing idea, in many academic and policy circles, that gay parents actually make better parents than straight ones, because they plan the whole endeavour really seriously, have relationships that don’t include sexual inequality, and (because they tend to use fertility treatment) have more money than many straight families. That’s a totally wrong-headed notion, born out of a growing prejudice about heterosexual relationships and unplanned pregnancies.
Across the generations, human life has been created and formed by people falling in love and having children; the passion and muddled messiness of human relationships is what makes them creative and fulfilling. A genuinely tolerant society would defend the integrity and joy of the normal heterosexual family just as much as it refuses to castigate the gay family for being different.
As for gay marriage - Brendan O’Neill has said it all best. The political elite’s gay-marriage bandwagon seems to be to be very much about using a particular, and artificial, idea about ‘gay marriage’ to stamp on more traditional ideas of marriage or family norms. It’s horribly intolerant, and I don’t think there’s anything beneficial for actual homosexual parents in the elite’s manipulation of the gay cause.
As well as demonising parenting, the government has attacked abortion and supported gay marriage. How do these things square up, as it doesn’t seem as straightforward as the government being pro-family or promoting Victorian values as of old?
The current government seems quite contradictory in many of its pronouncements and policies, which reveals something about the incoherence of the current political era. There does, however, seem to be a strong ‘social conservatism’ trend among those in or around the government, which is neither traditionalist nor progressive, but is aggressively therapeutic and extremely fearful. This approach relies very strongly on the idea that people cannot make responsible choices unless they are correctly manipulated (or ‘nudged’) to do so, and seeks to present responsible behaviour as a continuous process of individual risk-management where there is no scope for getting things wrong.
According to this perspective, babies should be talked to in the right way until they are two, otherwise their synapses will fuse in a delinquent fashion forever; abortion is a problem because it gives teenagers the idea that it’s okay to have sex and make mistakes with their contraception; individuals should be provided with official relationships-counselling from their school years through to retirement to enable them to manage their love lives. It’s a rather joyless outlook, and very unforgiving.
You’ve said that to raise children, we have to see ourselves as adults first. In an age when many adults don’t do that – remaining ‘kidults’ - does this mean they are not raising their children properly?
Was David Lammy right to say the smacking ban led to the riots?
There is a genuine problem with the extent to which adult authority can become weakened through successive generations, and I do think we saw a bit of that in last year’s riots. Parents feel - to use Frank Furedi’s phrase - de-authorised by a culture that dictates how they should use persuasion rather than discipline to attempt to control their children, and makes them doubt every spontaneous action. In addition, the message that parents aren’t up to the job is transmitted directly to children via schools and popular culture, so this just fuels the sense of infantilisation. However, growing up and rising to the occasion aren’t rocket science; people have been doing this throughout history. So it’s a real mistake to say that society should deal with the problem of the ‘kidult’ by adapting to it, through treating parents even more like children (and thus infantilising them further). Far better to recognise the role that official intervention has played in creating this problem, and to start to cut the apron strings.
I’ve just started reading the Yummy Mummy book by Liz Fraser. She says that to prepare yourself for being pregnant you need to detox because if you are full of toxins then your baby will clog up, too. She says you have to flush the poisons out of your system ideally before you become pregnant. What do you think of the idea of the toxic mother?
I think that’s an apt - and very depressing - metaphor for how parents today are often viewed. It’s particularly striking in relation to mothers, who have gone from being idealised as nurturing givers-of-life to being depicted as physical and emotional hazards to their children. From what pregnant women eat and drink to the problem of inadequate maternal ‘bonding’ in infancy and its supposed effect on the baby’s brain, it seems like everything a mother does now has a causal (and probably negative) effect on her child. The idea that your parents fuck you up has been around at least since Philip Larkin; but these days it often takes a more biologised or ‘scientised’ form, through claims about nutrition or neuroscience. These claims should be exposed as the nonsense they are, and set against a more human and rounded recognition of the parent-child relationship, which understands love to be more than a particular set of words and babies to be more than brains surrounded by a set of cells.
Why are parents today so obsessed with their kids? Is this healthy for them or their children?
Are you not a parenting ‘expert’ of sorts? I can imagine you won’t go along with that, but anyway – what one bit of advice would you give to parents today?
In my personal life, I’m just a parent - certainly no expert at that. I do know quite a bit about parenting culture though, which is quite a different thing. I would advise anyone who is interested in parenting culture to check out the work of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent, and the Institute of Ideas Parents’ Forum, where there are lots of interesting people engaged in understanding and critiquing the causes and consequences of ‘paranoid parenting’.
Jennie Bristow is author of Standing up to Supernanny and co-author of Licensed to Hug. She is an associate of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, editor of Abortion Review and Parents with Attitude, and runs the editing service Punctuate! This Q&A was published on spiked.>> updates archive