Parents: we are not the law

The government's attempts to turn parents into policemen are deeply dysfunctional.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

‘You know, a few years ago probably the talk about sort of parenting orders and parenting classes and support for people as parents, it would have either seemed somewhat bizarre or dangerous, and indeed there are still people who see this, [as] an aspect of the nanny state, or are we interfering with the rights of the individual.’ Thankfully for the UK prime minister Tony Blair, however, the world has changed. Forget those oddballs banging on about liberty and autonomy – the ‘law-abiding majority’ has no time for such fripperies as a family’s private life, or the principle that punishment should only follow a crime.

As New Labour’s ‘Respect’ agenda moves ahead, with all the grace and subtlety of a juggernaut and with the famously uncouth newly-appointed ‘respect tzar’ Louise Casey at the wheel, we are presented with one clear message: Parents Are Shit. Parents are shit; and that’s why we begin the new school year on a harsh disciplinary regime of penalties for bad parenting, and official interventions to ensure that we raise our children in line with strict standards laid down by the state.

Blair’s Parents Are Shit speech was the first since he returned from his family holiday in the Caribbean. Surely it was nothing personal? ‘I always say to people that the job of prime minister is difficult, and sometimes I think the job of home secretary is worse.…but the job of being a parent is difficult, whoever you are and whatever your situation’, grumbled Blair to the good people of Watford on Friday 2 September.

He continued: ‘And that is partly because the stresses and strains of modern life are greater, we have more pressure on us to try and balance work and family life, it is because our children tend, in ways sometimes that we don’t want, to grow up a lot earlier than kids did when I was young, and although there are many benign influences in our society, there are a lot of malign ones as well – the dangers of alcohol abuse or drug-taking, the difficulty when kids start associating with other kids who are leading them astray and so on. Being a parent is not easy, being a child is not easy in our society today, and when we talk about this issue we talk about it with that very much in mind.’ (1)

It’s because parenting is so complex and stressful, says Blair, that his government is prepared to break every rule in the history book about how the state should deal with families: namely, by forcing itself into the heart of family life. Blair’s grand plan to ‘improve parenting’ will mean that anybody wearing a badge – housing officers, schools, ‘local anti-social behaviour teams’ (whoever they are) – can issue parents of unruly youngsters with a 12-month ‘parenting order’ that means that ‘parents themselves can be forced…to accept support and advice on how to bring discipline and rules to their child’s life’.

Under this new respectful regime, ‘this will apply not just where there has been a criminal offence committed, or the child has been, say, excluded from school, as is currently the case, but if they are showing the propensity to get involved in anti-social behaviour, if they are beginning to go off the rails’. So those parents who live on housing estates, say, where children tend to behave badly when they hit age eight could well find themselves issued with a precautionary parenting order just in case little Johnny, aged seven, does not ‘go off the rails’.

On every level, these proposals are objectionable. They imply that parents cannot cope with the complexities of life that the prime minister finds so difficult to deal with – when in reality, most people live their lives and raise their kids and generally just get on with it. And in those cases where people do struggle, Blair’s parenting penalties assume that it is the fault of their own behaviour and disciplining techniques, when sociology should tell us, even if common sense and compassion cannot, that people struggling with life in difficult circumstances cannot simply sort it out through getting on their bikes or by referring to a state-sponsored instruction manual.

The proposals are blatant in their snobbery. Blair doesn’t worry about his own kids, or his own parenting skills: it is the fear that they will be tainted ‘when kids start associating with other kids who are leading them astray and so on’. And while he admits, with some reluctance, that ‘I can’t raise people’s children for them’, his proposals assume both that the state can raise people’s children for them, and that they would do a better job of it than the parents.

Above all, the New Labour parenting project assumes that people’s privacy and autonomy in relation to how they raise their children should count for nothing when weighed against the official law and order agenda. ‘[T]he criminal justice system that we have in this country still asks first and foremost, how do we protect the accused from potential transgressions of the state or the police?’ says Blair. ‘And I think the first question should be: how do we protect the majority from the dangerous and irresponsible minority?’ In the name of cleansing Britain of the scourge of anti-social behaviour – which, according to Blair, means everything ‘from petty vandalism and binge drinking, through to serious drug and gun crime’ – we are to overturn the most cherished principles of justice and hand over arbitrary powers to convict and punish to an army of no-marks from the local council.

Lurking within a chatty speech about ‘improving parenting’ at a community centre in Watford are proposals for major reforms of the criminal justice system, giving incredible powers to unqualified bureaucrats to dictate our everyday lives. Yes, this is ‘somewhat bizarre’, and it is deeply dangerous.

But also, it will not work. While we can expect New Labour’s illiberal regime to ride roughshod over our liberties, we need to be very clear that the outcome will not be a cleaner, quieter society in which we just have a little less freedom. The reason why previous generations of government have viewed Blair-style interventions into family life as ‘dangerous’ is not because of some airy-fairy concern with the liberties of those who live on housing estates in deprived areas. It is because when the state tries to impose its own rules of discipline into family life, it shatters those very bonds that make families capable of functioning at all. When the state tries to parent, it destroys parental authority – and compared to parental authority, the blunt instrument of the law is a poor substitute indeed.

Parenting orders, anti-social behaviour orders and other such interventions conflate the modes of discipline that operate within the family with those that operate within the public sphere. The assumption is that parents’ authority over their children would be improved and strengthened if it were directly answerable to the law courts – not ‘Do it because I tell you so!’ but rather ‘Do it because it’s the law!’. Yet the kind of discipline that operates within the family is completely different to that which operates in society at large. A parent’s authority over his or her child is built upon emotional bonds and a shared set of values within the family, and as such it generally acts as a bulwark against transgressions that are too great. When children defy their parents, they know they are breaking the rules; but only in rare cases do they go so far as to bring shame on their families and risk losing their parents’ love.

In blunt terms, the fact that Johnny’s mother will love him even if he sprays graffiti on the walls or plays truant from school means that he still has a basic security, and there is still the possibility that he will grow out of it. The desire not to hurt your loved ones is a far more powerful restraint from heinous crimes than the fear that the police will catch you and you’ll end up in jail. Likewise, a family’s sense of its own values – whatever these values might be – is stronger and more personally felt than the abstract moral and behavioural codes that operate throughout society at large.

In this sense, a parent’s admonition to ‘Do it because I tell you so!’ might seem less effective in the immediate term than the ASBO officer’s demand to ‘Do it because it’s the law!’, but it is ultimately capable of moulding behaviour in a way that official warnings are not. You love your mum, you couldn’t care less about the ASBO officer. And that’s why, by and large, the family works.

By seeking to bolster or ‘improve’ parental authority through an ever-expanding list of legal penalties, the authorities both underestimate the special power of parental discipline, and seek to exploit it for their own ends. The fact that some parents do not stop their children from spraying graffiti or playing truant is seen to indicate either that parents are too indulgent to care about these things, or that they are powerless to stop their children from doing something they know is wrong. In fact, it indicates neither. As Blair himself suggests, children are exposed to all kinds of influences over their behaviour; and while parents cannot control every little thing their child does, they can – and in most cases, do – try to stop relatively minor transgressions from becoming something terrible. Children know that their mum will forgive them for playing hooky, but not, say, for murdering a classmate or burning down a house. It is this sense of moral and emotional security, however imperfect, that means that most graffiti artists do not go on to become murderers and rapists.

The law, however, sees all transgressions as equally wrong – the only variable being the degree of punishment. Blair’s list of anti-social behaviours, ‘from petty vandalism and binge drinking, through to serious drug and gun crime’, highlights the inflexibility of the legal approach, in which anybody straying from the path of good behaviour is Bad simply because they have strayed. Parenting orders and ASBOs seek to impose this moral uniformity through the family: forcing parents to share indiscriminately the values of the criminal justice system, and to exercise parental discipline in the way one would a legal sanction. In this way, parenting is treated as an exercise in law enforcement, in which the family’s rules and values are as arbitrary and impersonal as those that operate in society at large. Parents who refuse to play the game are criminalised, while those who go along with it are made to subsume their own opinions and their feelings for their kids beneath their formal role as House Cop.

This may mean, of course, that a few more truants are successfully coerced into school. But it also means that children grow up to see their parents as mere functionaries, struggling to impose the rules and norms of Islington on to completely different worlds. When parental authority is undermined in this way, it does irreparable damage to parents’ sense of themselves, and to the trust and regard in which they are held by their children. Once the trust and security that is normally transmitted by the family is compromised, what is left to act as a check upon children’s behaviour? Somehow, I don’t think the local ASBO officer will provide much in the way of a moral universe.

‘The job of being a parent is difficult,’ says Blair. But parenting is not a job, which can be done well or badly, with promotion opportunities and a clearly-defined working day. Parenting is about life: it is messy, unpredictable, frustrating, rewarding and above all it should be private. The state cannot raise our children – and it will rue the day that it tries to do so.

Read on:

Passing the book, by Kate Abley

spiked-issue: Parents and kids
(1) See Speech on improving parenting, Tony Blair, 10 Downing Street

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Topics Politics


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