Just another expert?

Frank Furedi, author of the controversial book 'Paranoid Parenting', clears up some of the confusions created by his critics.

Helene Guldberg

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‘I am reminded time and again that life is perilous and that the peril starts at birth’, says Frank Furedi, describing how, with the birth of his son nearly six years ago, he entered ‘the strange world of parental anxiety’.

This might seem a bit odd coming from the author of Paranoid Parenting: Abandon Your Anxieties and be a Good Parent, a lively critique of the modern parenting industry that caused a storm when it was published in March 2001.

But despite the wealth of publicity surrounding the book, says Furedi, ‘in general people have missed the main argument. Many thought that the book is about paranoid parents. It is not. It is about a culture that forces parents to overreact and to lead their lives through their children’.

One aspect of this culture is the obsession with child safety. We are continually reminded how vulnerable children are. But maybe we need more reminding about how resilient, adaptable and capable they are.

A few weeks ago my six-year-old nephew was rushed to hospital after falling off a small wall at school. My entire family was traumatised when we heard that, 10 hours after the accident, the poor boy was still waiting in a hospital bed to be taken into surgery. But my nephew was delighted: not only had he been in an ambulance and stayed the night in a hospital, but – like his older brother a few years ago – ‘I got an infection (Infection? What already?) that makes you sleep (Oh, injection) so they could cut my arm and put metal screws in it, and I’ve got a plaster all the way from my shoulder to my hand’.

Children do – and always will – have accidents. But they also need to learn to negotiate risks, and aspiring to provide them with a risk-free environment brings dangers of its own. ‘Children must learn to make decisions for themselves, something they can never do under a parent’s watchful eye’, says Furedi. ‘Supervising children, cocooning them, can seriously damage their health. Probably the greatest casualty of the totalitarian regime of safety is the development of children’s potential.’

And children have always had accidents – yet the current obsession with their safety is new, and reflects a very different attitude towards parenting. ‘Traditionally, good parenting has been associated with the nurturing and stimulating and the socialisation of children’, explains Furedi. ‘Today, it is associated with monitoring their activities. An army of professionals advises that children are never safe; and allowing a child to play outside on its own is seen as an act of neglect.’

Parents’ self-confidence is another casualty of the risk-averse parenting style promoted by professionals. ‘The professionalisation of parenting has served to undermine the confidence of fathers and mothers in their ability to parent’, argues Furedi. ‘Most parents I know are not just worried about how they are performing as fathers and mothers: they are paranoid about it.’

But is that not a little strong? Anxious, yes, but paranoid?

‘Yes, paranoid.’ Furedi explains that parents have always been anxious about their children. ‘I use the word “paranoid” precisely to make the distinction between the normal everyday routine anxieties that parents have and the qualitatively different reaction today.’ Children are safer than ever before, yet ‘parents are not just worried about one or two things, but every aspect of their children’s experiences’.

Furedi claims that ‘there is a continuous overreaction to the risks children face, which actually results in an extension of parenting time, and the number of practices which I would call over-parenting’. This is what he means by parental paranoia, stressing that ‘I am not using paranoid as a psychological state but as a cultural term’.

In taking issue with the culture of paranoia that surrounds parenting today, Furedi’s aim is to help parents understand their fears and anxieties, and to retain confidence in their own judgements – even when that means abandoning the experts’ (often contradictory) advice.

If Furedi does not think parents are to blame for the heightened sense of risk surrounding child-rearing, he also thinks it is ‘far too simplistic’ to point the finger at the media. For him, the problem can best be understood as the ‘breakdown of adult solidarity’. One of the key arguments of the book, he explains, is to do with ‘the breakdown of collaboration between adults’.

‘Being an adult does not simply mean being biologically mature or chronologically grown-up’, says Furedi. ‘Above all, it should mean having a certain sense of responsibility towards non-adults: recognising the need to have a nurturing and guiding relationship to the younger generation.’

Today, he argues, adults seem to have lost that sense. ‘They don’t tend to stop and help children if they are in trouble. They don’t discipline children who are misbehaving, even by telling them “this is not the way to behave”. They don’t tend to inspire and educate children, or help out parents by looking after their children almost as a matter of course.’

The consequence of this, argues Furedi, is that ‘instead of there being collaboration, parents regard other adults not as potential allies, but as enemies, as potentially dangerous. It is this view of adulthood that creates many of the problems I have discussed in Paranoid Parenting‘.

‘A lot of people have criticised the book by saying that parenting is more difficult now and that is why we need more experts’, he continues. ‘I agree that parenting is possibly more difficult, more complicated. But relying on experts only makes parenting more complicated and more difficult. Rather than being a solution, it is part of the problem.’

The reliance on experts, according to Furedi, undermines the confidence of mothers and fathers in their ability to parent; reinforces the notion that we all need outside professional help in order to cope with the basics of bringing up children; and infantilises parents, ‘who in turn end up treating their children as an endangered species’.

So is Furedi saying that parents should simply be left alone to bring up their children? No. ‘Parents cannot be expected to act as 24-hours-a-day chaperones. If the sole responsibility for child-rearing lies with individual parents, they will always feel too isolated and too vulnerable to be able to trust their own instincts and get on with the job. That is when they end up turning to experts’, he explains. ‘Instead, the responsibility for child-rearing should be taken on by adults collectively.’

This is not a radically new idea – especially when you consider that, ‘across cultures and throughout history, mothers and fathers have acted on the assumption that if their children got into trouble, other adults – often strangers – would help out’. But, for obvious reasons, it has been greeted with ‘a sharp intake of breath and a strong sense of defensiveness’ by the parenting industry – the experts on the sharp end of Furedi’s critique.

‘They haven’t actually taken up any of the main arguments I have made against them – except to say, “what’s wrong with people reading books and turning to experts?”’, says Furedi. ‘But, of course, I never argued there was anything wrong with reading books or asking for experts’ advice – I argued that there are such pressures on parents that they have no choice but to turn to experts. Sometimes there is even a kind of mandatory support.’

Instead, the ‘big argument’ used by parenting experts against Furedi has been that ‘I am also an expert like they are – so what am I talking about? All I can say is that if they don’t know the difference between an attempt to explain what the problem is, and saying that you have an expert solution, then they have got some major conceptual difficulties’.

Many such criticisms represent ‘an almost wilful misunderstanding of what I am saying. I am not telling anybody to do anything. I am trying to explain why we react the way we do. And I think by understanding why we react the way we do, that will help people to deal with it – in their own way’.

Which might explain why the book has been greeted rather more positively by parents than it has by parenting experts. Rather than giving parents yet another thing to worry about, as some critics have claimed, among many parents Furedi’s book has reinforced what their intuition is telling them.

‘Many parents already intuitively know that a lot of their reactions are over the top’, he says. ‘What I hopefully can do is provide them with some explanations that they may be able to use to make life easier for themselves.’

Frank Furedi is author of Paranoid Parenting: Abandon Your Anxieties and be a Good Parent, Penguin, 2001. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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