A lesson in conformity for parents

Forget 'respect': the UK government’s National Parenting Academy is based on contempt for mums and dads everywhere.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

The most disconcerting thing about babies, someone once told me, is that they don’t come with an instruction manual. They cry, they giggle, they get sick and they become fascinated with random things like rain and washing machines, and you often have no idea why.

You can follow your Contented Little Baby Book, you can monitor the thermometer, you can swot up on child development theory – but pretty damn soon you realise that babies are contrary little buggers who are developing their own will as fast as they are absorbing the myriad contradictions of the world around them. You can’t turn them on or off, and there is no guarantee that, if you just follow the rules, everything will be okay. And that’s before they even start walking and talking.

But whatever else might be taught at the UK government’s new National Parenting Academy, the message that ‘children are people too’ will not be included. In setting up children as a subject to be studied and parenting as a skill to be taught, such an institution assumes not only that children should come with an instruction manual, but that it is the government’s job to write it.

Furthermore, through instructing new parents in officially sanctioned methods of parenting, the government hopes to achieve its key policy goal of reducing anti-social behaviour and fostering a new culture of ‘respect’. Just like that? Backed up with a few more laws and sanctions – but otherwise, yes, just like that.

Commenting on the new ‘respect’ measures, a leader article in The Sunday Times (London) says resignedly: ‘None is bad in itself, although some smack of the nanny state at its worst. Students of New Labour are familiar with these barrages of initiatives, most of which tend to go nowhere.’ (1) Indeed, from parenting classes to therapeutic childcare initiatives such as Sure Start, we are no strangers to official new attempts that teach parents how to parent, and push the philosophy ‘expert knows best’.

But just because New Labour’s authoritarian agenda is familiar doesn’t mean that we should stop objecting to it. In pinpointing parents both as the cause of today’s ‘culture of disrespect’ and the solution, the government is abdicating its own core responsibilities, and doing so at a heavy cost to families’ privacy and autonomy. The upshot will not be a new culture of respect, but a more deeply entrenched culture of mistrust.

The Sunday Times goes on to berate the government for fiddling with policy while Rome burns – in this case, while other government initiatives have caused secondary schools to collapse, public drunkenness to spiral out of control, and marriage to be further undermined. To blame specific policies of this government for the worldwide decline in traditional social institutions and solidarities is a bit of a stretch, to say the least. But the newspaper is on to something in its argument that parents are being made responsible for factors way beyond their control – and as such the government is attempting to pass the buck.

It was former Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher who famously said: ‘There is no such thing as Society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.’ New Labour’s obsession with parenting as the root of all evil and the panacea for all problems takes this individualised philosophy another stage on. There is no such thing as Society, implies New Labour, as it ‘puts the individual at the heart’ of education, healthcare and other public services, with the result that children are taught self-esteem while parents have to teach them to read, and people who get sick are taught that they only have themselves and their lifestyles to blame.

But while there is no such thing as Society, there is, apparently, such a thing as Anti-social Behaviour – which seems to amount to individuals putting themselves at the heart of decisions about the volume of music they play or the street corners on which they hang out, to the detriment of other people’s peace and quiet and peace of mind. In this way, the government seeks to abdicate responsibility for the big picture – the fabric of society, its values and core institutions – and put the onus on individuals to choose which education, values, relationships they want. At the same time, individuals are threatened with moral sanctions and legal penalties, from fines to eviction, if they do not choose to behave in the fashion that least offends anybody (otherwise known as exhibiting ‘respect’).

The aggressive promotion of conformity at the heart of the government’s ‘respect’ agenda is bad enough in its own terms. It offers no sense of even trying to work out what we are as a society, and where we want to go; there is no notion that political leaders have a role to play in fostering common values or shared goals. All Blair’s culture of respect really means can be summed up in the grim philosophy: ‘Be whoever you want to be – but behave, or else’. When it comes to using parents as a means to push this agenda on to children, the message is even more bleak.

The National Parenting Academy, one senior government source told The Sunday Times, ‘is about nipping [anti-social behaviour] in the bud, before these kids start getting Asbos’ (2). A parent’s role is redefined as simply controlling their children’s behaviour before their children fall foul of an offence of the government’s own making, thereby receiving an Anti-Social Behaviour Order. It is hard to imagine a more circular argument, or a more impoverished justification for state intervention into family life.

As I have argued before on spiked, the role of a parent is quite distinct from that of a law enforcement official – and trying to make parents into an extension of the police and truancy agency can only end in tears all round. It robs parents of the privacy and autonomy necessary to do the really important stuff for their kids – loving them, caring for them, disciplining them in the most effective way they choose (see Parents: We are not the law) And while the government is screwing up the family in this way, it lets itself off the hook. Atomisation, crap education, the lack of inspiration or opportunities for young people – none of this, apparently, has anything to do with bad behaviour, and the government can do nothing about it anyway. Just blame the parents, and meddle even further with family life.

‘There is no such thing as Society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.’ At least Thatcher conceded that much. For New Labour, there are individual men and women, there are parents and there are children – all of whom have conflicting interests and negative motivations which need monitoring and mediating by the state. This is a deeply anti-social philosophy, and it needs nipping in the bud.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Parents and kids

(1) Hard and soft on crime, Sunday Times, 8 January 2006

(2) Unruly youths face new crackdown, Sunday Times, 8 January 2006

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Topics Politics


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