It has become clear over the past two decades that the only people credited with possessing absolutely no expertise when it comes to raising children are parents themselves. Just this month, for example, the UK children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, said that parents in the north of England were holding their children back by not being as pushy as their southern counterparts; Dr Mai Stafford, a mathematician and social epidemiologist from University College London, announced that ‘overly controlling parents’ cause lasting harm to their children; and Guardian journalist Emma Brockes declared that speaking in a babyish way to babies ‘is silly and self-indulgent and does nothing for the baby’.
This suggestion that parents are doing it all wrong, that there is a ‘parenting deficit’, is now a key feature of cultural and political life. Parents today are simultaneously flattered for performing ‘the most important job in the world’, while being routinely denigrated for not being up to the task. Not that the purveyors of parenting advice act like hectoring moralists, telling parents off. No, they ground their judgements in science, in particular, evolutionary psychology, social epidemiology and neuroscience. This allows them to present their arguments in a neutral, detached manner, disguising the often class-based sense of moral superiority that underpins their judgements. In other words, they can speak as if The Science provides a ‘cultureless blueprint’ for what parents need to be doing to meet their children’s needs.
Two new books – Do Parents Matter? Why Japanese Babies Sleep Well, Mexican Siblings Don’t Fight, and American Parents Should Just Relax by Robert and Sarah LeVine; and The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children by Alison Gopnik – offer a more historically and scientifically literate take on the vitally important issue of how to raise our children, collectively and as individuals. Their perspectives differ – Do Parents Matter? is written by a pair of anthropologists; and The Gardener and the Carpenter is written by a psychologist and philosopher. But the authors share the same objective: to lessen parents’ anxiety and reassure them that while they are indeed the most important people in their children’s lives, they do not, in fact, determine the adults those children become.
It is clear the LeVines and Gopnik are reacting to what they see as the terrible pressure under which contemporary Anglo-American parents now find themselves. The strongest message from both books is that while the kids will (probably) be alright, we need to address the problem of what being a parent has come to mean.
The authors bring their personal perspective to bear on this problem – as grandparents themselves, they have a keen sense of how much parenting has changed. But it’s their substantial bodies of academic work that most inform their challenges to the new parenting experts. So Gopnik draws on her years of devising psychological experiments capable of isolating the distinguishing features of human cognitive development; and the LeVines draw on their combined anthropological fieldwork, conducted all over the world, in which they sought to catalogue and theorise the incredible variety of meanings humans have attached to the task of raising the next generation.