Targeting teenage mums
Despite the fact his mother is 27, the case of Baby P has become an excuse to blame young parents for society’s ills.
‘This is a story about a 17-year-old girl who had no idea how to bring up a child’, said David Cameron during his spat with Gordon Brown over the Baby P case during prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons last week.
Three of the letters published in The Times (London) on Monday echoed this concern for the offspring of ‘young’ mothers. One demanded that ‘girls’ under the age of 20 who choose to have a baby ‘give the child up for adoption unless they can show that they have the necessary emotional and financial security required to be an effective parent’; another said it is ‘unbelievable that a vulnerable teenage girl is allowed to live with two men, neither of whom is a blood relative nor the baby’s father’; and a third, from the chief executive of young women’s support charity YWCA England & Wales, who said that her organisation’s experience showed that ‘young women can be helped to become good mothers – and avoid becoming mums at all unless they make informed decisions’.
But it was widely reported that Baby P’s mother is actually 27 years old, so why the multiple slips of the tongue and keyboard? Perhaps because in recent years, the ‘teenage mother’ has become the new archetype of parental inadequacy. New Labour’s Teenage Pregnancy Strategy stretched the category of ‘problem’ pregnancies from the under-16s to the under-18s and redefined the ‘problem of teenage pregnancy’ from one of concern for the girl to whom an unplanned conception occurred, to a concern for the baby she was assumed to be incapable of parenting, regardless of whether the pregnancy was planned.
The policy has helped create a presumption that all those under the age of 20 are incapable of adequately caring for a child without ‘intensive support’ from health and parenting professionals. The idea of the inherently incompetent teenage mother is exemplified in popular culture by Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard, who swapped her baby with a friend for a Westlife CD. This mythologising (or pathologising) occurs despite comprehensive evidence that teenage mothers do no worse for their children than any other parents (1).
Given that caring for a child has been upgraded to the apparently measurable skill of ‘parenting’, it is hardly surprising that even the oldest teenagers - who according to a recent Barnardo’s survey are regarded as ‘feral and a danger to society’ by 49 per cent of adults - should be presumed to be threatening to rather than nurturing of their offspring (2). But although teenage mothers have borne the brunt of the contemporary appetite for predicting who will or will not be a ‘fit parent’, there is no reason why the presumption of incompetence should be restricted to those in their teens.
Sunday Times columnist Minette Marrin recently begrudgingly admitted that a Dutch MP who is calling for compulsory contraceptive orders to be placed on women deemed unfit for motherhood, with any babies born during the order to be removed at birth, was perhaps ‘scarily extreme’ (3). Instead, Marrin suggests, we should ‘give parents incentives not to have more than two children; after two, benefits would be withdrawn and larger housing could be withheld’. ‘Moderate’ Minette goes on: ‘It seems to me unfair to deny people any children at all. But it might be right to reduce the number to two’; these rules should also apply to parents ‘who are not so obviously unfit, but still bad enough to do serious harm’.
This kind of view should provoke horror and outrage at least equal to those expressed in sympathy for poor Baby P. After all, if we pursue Marrin’s logic, why take the softly, softly approach to these monstrous incompetents? Surely innocent lives are placed at risk by such liberalism? Why not bring in compulsory sterilisation of those deemed unfit for motherhood and be done with it? Those über parents (presumably like Marrin) with a clean bill of financial and emotional health can then reproduce the kind of überkinder society needs in order to drag its way out of familial barbarism.
There are two things we should conclude from the tragic case of ‘Baby P’. The first is that his mother is not typical of parents of any age group or social background. Our horror at this tragedy should alert us to the mercifully exceptional character of this type of human behaviour. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) claims that there is one case of a child being killed by a parent every 10 days in the UK (a figure that includes not only murder, but manslaughter and infanticide, too). But before we start licensing young parents, we should be brave enough to remember that this equates to 0.0002 per cent of children under 16 in England and Wales. And before we start licensing prospective step-parents, we should also remember that the number of children who die due to the actions of anyone is 0.0006 per cent of the child population (4).
The second thing we should understand are the consequences if we allow the authorities’ circus of blame to proceed, bolstered by the media’s frenzied coverage of Baby P and the ghoulish internet wallowing in the details of this case. The result will be a very dangerous climate for all families who want the chance to raise their much-loved children without fearing that the neighbours will alert police if they hear raised voices over tea-time because they are imagining scenes of depravity occurring on the other side of the wall. This witch-hunting climate may also mean that those parents who are struggling to cope will be even more inclined to conceal the extent of their problems from those who could possibly step in to assist the child.
Dr Jan Macvarish is a sociologist in the Centre for Health Services Studies at the University of Kent and will be speaking at the Changing Parenting Culture conference to be held at the University on 8&9 January 2009.
(1) Duncan (2007) What’s the problem with teenage parents? And what’s the problem with policy?, Critical Social Policy, Vol. 27, No. 3, 307-334 (2007)
(2) Public scared of children who ‘behave like animals’ - Barnardo’s survey, Daily Telegraph, 17 November 2008.
(3) The Case For Forcing Birth Control on Unfit Mothers, November 9, 2008
(4) According to the NSPCC, on average, 67 children in England and Wales are killed at the hands of another person every year. Based on 11.7million dependent children in England and Wales in 2002, that suggests that around 0.0006 per cent of children are killed by another person each year. In 2005/06, 24 cases of homicide involved parents (0.0002 per cent).