Stop treating parents as polluters

The driving force behind the ban on smoking in cars is the poisonous idea that parents are corrupting their kids.

The next time one of our political leaders says he supports parents and thinks the family is an important institution, we should remind him of what happened in the House of Commons last night. MPs voted, by a majority of 269, in favour of an amendment to the Children and Families Bill that will make it a criminal offence to smoke in a car that has minors in it. Let’s leave aside the discussion of so-called ‘smokers’ rights’ and the ‘nanny state’. Fundamentally this ban is an attack on parental authority, on the sovereignty of the family itself, and it elevates the state to the position of knowing what is best for our children. Politicians pay lip service to the family, and then they dent its integrity, its independence, through giving the nod to parent-overriding bans like this.

The ban on smoking in cars with kids sends a very powerful message to the public, including, we should note, to children: that parents often behave in a way that is detrimental to their children’s wellbeing, and thus the state must step in and restrain their behaviour. The state is effectively playing the role of in loco parentis, exerting direct governance over children’s everyday lives on the basis that parents and guardians cannot be trusted to do so in a decent, thoughtful fashion. This was clear in last night’s Commons debate, where numerous MPs talked about the importance of ‘protecting children’. From what? From their parents, from their guardians, from their relatives, who are apparently so unthinking when it comes to what they do in front of kids that they must be legally restrained, held back from exercising their destructive urges by brute legislation.

One MP, Norman Lamb of the Lib Dems, recognised that the ban is ultimately an attack on parental authority, but he said that didn’t matter. People are ‘instinctively uncomfortable [with] government telling parents how to raise their children’, he said, but in this instance, if we want to ‘protect children from smoke in cars’ and ‘give every child a fair start in life’, then it is crucial that the government should tell parents how to raise their kids. Not only tell them, in fact, but force them through threatening them with arrest if they smoke while driving their offspring to school or the shops. This ban communicates the idea that the state is a more trustworthy father to the next generation than parents could ever be.

In essence, the smoking amendment to the Children and Families Bill implies that parents are polluters, threatening their children with toxic outpourings, and the state is a kind of poison-deflecting forcefield. Indeed, the idea of parents as polluters has been explicitly promoted by the anti-smoking lobby. So at the end of last year, anti-smoking campaigners claimed parents who smoke ‘pollute children’, through subjecting them in cars and in the home to air pollution that is ‘comparable with major industrial smog’. Now, you don’t have to be a peer-reviewed scientist to know that there is some wild hyperbole here: being in a house in which someone is smoking, often with the windows or back door open, cannot seriously be compared to ‘industrial smog’, which caused disease and death among large numbers of people back in the Victorian era through to the mid-twentieth century. Rather, through crashing together the spectre of pollution and the idea of problematic parents in the same (smokefree) breath, campaigners are promoting the idea that parents pollute, they poison, they damage the very beings they are meant to be looking after.

This view of parents-as-polluters is not restricted to smokers. Increasingly, these days, both the political classes and advocacy groups have a tendency to view and treat all parents as the toxic corrupters of their children’s physical or spiritual wellbeing. Mothers who feed their newborns infant formula run the risk of being accused of pumping them with ‘poisons’. Last week there was a serious discussion about it potentially being made a crime in Britain for a woman to drink too much alcohol while pregnant – on the basis, of course, that she would be polluting her baby. ‘Early years’ theory, the idea that how a child is cared for, read to and otherwise communicated with in the first five years of live will determine his future personality and fortunes, also relies on the idea that parents can, often unwittingly, corrupt their children by doing ‘bad’ things. The metaphor of pollution is now widespread in officialdom’s and campaigners’ handwringing over parents.

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The ban on smoking in cars with kids, the claim that smoking parents ‘pollute children’, only makes this metaphor more explicit – and it also makes its consequences more explicit. In the name of protecting children from smoke, alcohol, a lack of book-reading and so on – that is, from their parents – the state is involving itself more and more in family life. There was a ripple of concern last year when it was revealed that the Scottish parliament wants to provide every Scottish child with a state-appointed overseer from birth onwards, but, bit by bit, the same thing is happening across the UK. So when Norman Lamb says the ban on smoking in cars is about the authorities ‘giving every child a fair start in life’, what he is really saying is that the powers-must-be must care for children from the get-go, in lieu of those children’s parents being sufficiently enlightened to offer proper care. The end result will be a weakened sense of authority among parents, a denting of the sovereignty of the family and its right to organise its affairs and beliefs privately, and the spread of confusion among younger people, who will get the impression that external actors might be better carers for them than their own mums and dads. Such a weakening of familial bonds, such an undermining of family life, will prove to be a far bigger problem than a smoky car.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

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