Looking after Mum and Dad
A message to the over-20s – well done you! You’ve survived so long, and really quite well, most of you. And all without help from the NFPI.
You’ve not heard of the NFPI? Don’t worry, you will – at least, if you ever have kids. The National Family and Parenting Institute is not a body of the UK government. It’s not. The NFPI is an ‘independent institute’ set up in 1999 as ‘part of a government programme’; it is an ‘independent charity set up with financial backing from the government and from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’ (1).
The best thing about the NFPI is that it doesn’t hector, it doesn’t judge. ‘One of its main aims is to listen and learn from the experiences and views of families – of all kinds and shapes, across the country and across the generations.’ (2) It’s like a great big ear, with a shoulder to cry on – because it also gives advice and ‘emotional support’ to parents (3).
The NFPI would never dream of telling parents how to bring up their kids. The NFPI’s brief, according to chief executive Mary MacLeod, is ‘public education and supporting parenting, partly through so-called “parent education”’. But parent education, says MacLeod, is ‘not a phrase that I am enamoured with. It puts people off’. Rather, ‘I prefer to see the NFPI’s brief as a wide one: providing support and opportunities for parents to build up networks that work for them and materials that help them to learn and think about their parenting’ (4). It’s not about interference, it’s about support. Because just imagine, if building networks and thinking were things that parents had to do by themselves.
The NFPI is also a voice. After listening to parents it tells the government what they think, and what they want. Which is, obviously, more help and advice from the government. ‘Parents worry’, the NFPI concluded, after a survey conducted in October 2001. ‘[T]hey worry about just about everything – but a balance must be struck. We are in danger of becoming a nation of over-anxious parents who have forgotten how to trust our judgement.’ (5) What conclusions could possibly be drawn from this study, other than the need to soothe this over-anxiety, with more advice, more support, more parent education – because if the government doesn’t teach parents how to trust their own judgement, they will just be left to…trust their own judgement. That’s enough to make anybody anxious.
If the parents worry too much, what about the kids? Another survey conducted for the NFPI in early 2000, of 11- to 16-year-olds, turned up some heartening results (6). Three quarters of the young people interviewed said that their parents were always there for them when they needed them, and two thirds said they felt loved and cared for. Fifty-nine percent of young people said they get on very well with their parents. Not bad, for a bunch of Kevins. But before we get carried away, the NFPI reminds us: ‘This is good news; but not for all young people and not for all families.’ No indeed. If not every teenager is best mates with their Mum and Dad, Something Must Be Done. And the NFPI is doing…quite a lot, actually.
At the swanky Business Design Centre in Islington, London, the NFPI is hosting the ‘International Conference on Adolescence 2002’, on Thursday and Friday this week. Who should attend? The list starts with health professionals and social workers and concludes with the suitably inclusive ‘Anyone who works with young people and their parents’. It doesn’t include actual parents, of course – what could they contribute to sessions on parenting, relationships, Dads & Lads, teenage pregnancy, divorce, bullying or health?
These are just a few of the ‘parallel sessions’ that run between the keynote addresses on ‘Changing lives in a changing world’, ‘Emerging masculinities’, ‘Growing up in a global context’, and so on. You thought the teenage years were about spots, angst, exams and sex? Come on, get with it! Adolescence is far more complex that that; far too important to leave mouldering among the dirty clothes on your 15-year-old’s floor. A teenager gets into a flap in Manchester, and it causes a storm in a government policy department in London. And about time too! Otherwise, how will they ever get through the Adrian Mole years?
You see, for decades adolescence was a fact of life, and one which families were left to deal with on their own. Teenagers were left in tortured privacy, to scribble their little diaries and argue with their parents; parents were left to encourage, to discipline, to pay the pocket money and take their choices. No wonder there’s all the bullying, youth offending, pregnancy and gender issues that the earnest sociologists and policy-makers will discuss at this week’s conference.
If only adolescent-rearing could be a public issue, with all that acned angst and trauma laid open for all to interfere with! If only parents could be educated about what best to do, by somebody with a more solid qualification than love! If only recalcitrant teens had somebody to talk to who would exercise less of a bad influence than their stressed-out parents or peer-pressuring friends! If only teenagehood could be less like youth and more like responsible citizenship, there’d be hope for the future of our society.
But maybe we’re getting somewhere. As the NFPI points out, while ‘public debate on the family is highly contested…. [w]hat no one can dispute is that the family is changing. Parents and children are having to adapt to new challenges in a changing world’. The challenge of helping them to adapt falls not to the nanny state, of course, but to parents’ appropriate peer-group in the independent NFPI. As for adolescents – well, there are less comfortable places to be than the panopticon of careers advice and relationship support. Give it a generation or so, and nobody will remember any different reality.
Teenagers of the world unite – with your mentors and ministers, your therapists and teachers! You have nothing to lose but your freedom just to be.
Spooked about sex, by Ray Crowley
spiked-issue: Parents and kids
(1) About us, NFPI website
(2) About us, NFPI website
(3) Mary MacLeod interview, NFPI website
(4) Mary MacLeod interview, NFPI website
(5) Listening to parents: their worries, their solutions, October 2001, NFPI website
(6) Teenagers’ attitudes to parenting, January and February 2000, NFPI website
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