It is time to challenge the supernanny state

As the second edition of his hugely popular 2001 book Paranoid Parenting is published, Frank Furedi reflects on how official suspicion of adults and parental paranoia have deepened over the past seven years.

Frank Furedi
Sociologist and social commentator

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A few years after the publication of the first edition of my book Paranoid Parenting in 2001, I was flicking through a research report commissioned by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). I was very struck by one of the objectives outlined in the conclusion: the NSPCC should ‘avoid becoming too negatively-focused or critical of parents and parenting’, the report said.


Cover illustration by
Jan Bowman

The words that stuck in my mind were ‘too negatively’. Apparently, the NSPCC is all too aware that its public relations material projects a distorted and caricatured view of parents, and has now decided that it wants to be just negative enough rather than ‘too negative’. Of course, nobody wants to be too negative about parents and parenting. Nevertheless, politicians, policymakers and the child protection industry appear less and less inhibited about lecturing parents on their numerous failings.

In the seven years between the first and second editions of Paranoid Parenting (which is republished this month), childrearing has become a veritable obsession for policymakers. Problems that were once associated with the failures of society are increasingly blamed on parents. Month after month, reports blame an alleged parenting deficit for problems such as low achievement at schools, low self-esteem, drug-taking, obesity, crime and mental health problems.

Every policy proposal related to parenting appears more reckless than the last. A few months ago, David Rogers, the public health spokesman for the UK Local Government Association, announced that ‘parents who allow their children to eat too much could be as guilty of neglect as those who did not feed their children at all’. His big idea is to subject overweight youngsters to child protection procedures.

All the main political parties in Britain seem convinced that government should assume the role of a supernanny and train mothers and fathers to be responsible parents. Former UK children’s minister Margaret Hodge is unapologetic about this idea, arguing that government has a ‘powerful’ role to play in family life.

Parent-bashing is not confined to the domain of politics. Back in 2001, hectoring parents about their inability to manage their children’s behaviour or to provide their kids with a nutritious diet had not yet become a popular way to entertain the public. There were no TV shows such as Supernanny or The House of Tiny Tearaways to remind parents of their congenital defects on the childrearing front. Over the past five or six years, however, the notion that parental incompetence is quite normal, even widespread, has become deeply entrenched – especially in the TV schedules. One intelligent 36-year-old mother wrote to me recently: ‘I know it exploits my emotions, I know that I should not watch these shows – but I do, even though they make me feel shit.’ Sadly, the images and arguments that haunt her imagination have been embraced by significant sections of British society.

The perpetual politicisation of parenting has two destructive outcomes. The constant labelling of parenting as some kind of ‘problem’ undermines the confidence of mothers and fathers. Although the target audience of politicians is a minority of so-called dysfunctional parents, the depressing message our leaders communicate about the problems of childrearing has a disorienting impact on everybody. Consequently, the numerous helpful initiatives designed to ‘support’ parents do anything but reassure us – they simply encourage the public to become even more paranoid about parenting. The second regrettable outcome of the politicisation of childrearing is that it has intensified our sense of insecurity and anxiety about virtually every aspect of children’s lives and experiences.

The paranoia is getting worse

At the turn of this century, it was evident that children had become subject to an obsessive culture of childrearing. At the time, Paranoid Parenting documented the growing tendency to extend adult supervision into every aspect of children’s lives. It was apparent that ‘outdoors’ had become a no-go area for many youngsters, and that the majority of parents did not even allow their offspring to walk to school on their own.

The idea that children were too vulnerable to be allowed to take risks had already become entrenched. Many readers of my book shared with me their hope that the regime of child protection would gradually give way to more relaxed and balanced attitudes. Little did they suspect that paranoia towards the safety of children was about to expand even further and encompass even children’s experiences that it had hitherto not touched.

Who would have imagined that British children would be prevented from pursuing the age-old custom of conkering? Many adults were rightly shocked and bemused when a few local authorities introduced a new policy of ‘tree management’: a euphemism for preventing children from climbing on chestnut trees or playing with conkers. More than any other bans introduced in subsequent years, the attempt to discourage children from playing with chestnuts symbolised the relentless drive to diminish young people’s experience of the outdoors. At the time, many people sneered at the busybodies who decided that children were not fit to go near conkers. Today, however, when local authorities chop the branches off horse chestnut trees to save children from this terrible danger there is barely a murmur of protest.

In recent years, banning children from activities that appear remotely adventurous has become an institution of British political life. It seems that kids are so feeble that we must protect them from everything. Earlier this month, a teacher informed me that children in her school are actively discouraged from running around or playing ball games during break time. Her rationale for promoting this anti-activity ethos was that ‘someone could easily get hurt’.

Traditional children’s games are disappearing because experts claim that they are too dangerous. Some primary schools have banned tag during break time, while some have got rid of contact sports. In January 2007, Burnham Grammar School banned impromptu football in order to prevent young people being hit by stray balls. The headteachers argued that pupils were ‘kicking balls quite hard at each other’. In February 2007, St John’s primary near Lincoln banned games like kiss chase and tag because staff felt that such activities were too rough.

Obsession with paedophilia

Suspicion towards adult motives has become a pathology in British society. Numerous informal rules have been introduced to prevent adults from coming into direct physical contact with kids. Even nursery workers feel that their actions are under constant scrutiny. Adult carers have not been entirely banned from applying suncream to children; some still follow their human instinct and do what they believe is in the best interest of the child. But frequently, such practices require formal parental consent: it is now commonplace for nurseries and schools to send out letters to parents asking for their signed consent to allow teachers to put suncream on their child.

Some schools would rather that teachers had no physical contact with their pupils at all, and insist that either the parent or the child applies the suncream. Schools now state in their handbooks for parents that ‘it is most helpful if children are able to apply their own suncream’! Some nurseries have sought to get around this problem by asking their employees to use sprays rather than to rub suncream on children’s bodies. One former nursery worker told me she packed in her job after she was ‘banned’ from taking the kids in her care to the toilet on her own.

There is now an informal ban on adults taking pictures of children. Although taking photos is not against the law, many petty officials have decided to take the law into their own hands. As a father, I resent the climate of hysteria that makes it difficult for parents to take photos of their children during school plays or concerts and sporting activities. I would love to have a shot of my son Jacob running with the ball, but after four years of competitive football I still don’t have a single picture of him in action.

In January, a friend of mine who decided to take a photo of his son during a Saturday football match was accused of gross irresponsibility. He was lucky, however: the referee at least allowed the game to continue. There are numerous reports of officials stopping play when they spot a parent taking pictures. One referee stopped an under-15s match in Ashford and instructed both team managers to confiscate parents’ cameras. ‘You can’t take photographs, it’s child protection’, he lectured a parent.

When it comes to sport, many parents have given up on the idea of taking snapshots for the family album. They don’t want to end up in the same predicament as a married couple who took pictures of a junior rugby game on a sports field in Surrey: they were detained by club officials and were later visited at home by the police.

Time to fight back

The promotion of paranoia in relation to every aspect of children’s lives accomplishes the very opposite of what it sets out to do. When youngsters are protected from risks, they miss out on important opportunities to learn sound judgments and build their confidence and resilience. The promotion of suspicion towards adult behaviour seriously undermines the ability of grown-up people to play a constructive role in the socialisation of youngsters. The estrangement of adults from the world of children has the perverse effect of leaving youngsters to their own devices and diminishing their security.

We do not have to abide by the rules concocted by self-appointed experts intent on policing how we engage with children. Nor do we have to acquiesce to a culture that denigrates parental competence and fuels suspicion about adult motives towards children. Although none of us can opt out of the culture that we inhabit, we can challenge it. We can challenge it in small ways, by protesting against the many idiotic but all-too-insidious bans that aim to restrict children’s freedom or adults’ access to youngsters. We can challenge it by encouraging our children to develop a positive attitude towards the outdoors and the adult world. Most important of all, we can challenge it by working together as active collaborators committed to providing more opportunities for children to explore their world.

CHERYL’S STORY

We were so excited to be taking our baby son swimming for the first time. We picked a quiet, midweek morning to take him to our local swimming pool because we didn’t want him to be scared by lots of commotion and splashing on his first venture into the water.

The children’s pool was totally empty that morning so we had the place to ourselves. Our son, Frank, took to the water like a fish and he splashed and played joyfully. I grabbed my camera to take a snap of him playing, but before I had pressed the button, a lifeguard was by my side warning me that I was not allowed to take photographs in the pool area.

I was incredulous. I tried to dismiss him with a joke; after all there were no other children in the water, the photo was just to be of my husband and son playing and splashing together. He insisted, and the more he told me that it was ‘just the policy’, the angrier I became. He told me that we would all be asked to leave if we did not observe this regulation.

I was indignant. How dare they prevent me from capturing this precious memory? I wanted to take the photo anyway, but my husband pointed out that we would ruin Frank’s first swim by doing so and he would not be allowed to come to the pool in the future. We left feeling slightly unclean. What harm did they think we would do with a photograph of our child’s first swim?

Frank Furedi is author of Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child, published by Continuum. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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