They f*** you up, your Parenting Classes

Despite the views of the UK government, parents don’t need experts to teach them to care for their own children.

Jane Sandeman

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Topics Politics

Another month, another report on how your parents f*** you up. Following hot on the heels of a report by UK MPs Frank Field and Graham Allen on early years intervention, a new report by think tank CentreForum last week once again rehearsed the same old arguments, with the same old solutions.

The basic argument goes like this: the most important factor in defining how a child does in later life is not economic background or education but the level of stimulation and nutrition in the ‘early years’. By the time a child is three years old, so we are told, the child’s brain has become hard-wired. If the child’s parents haven’t read to them, played with them, talked to them sufficiently – or supplied them with suitably nutritious food – that child is all-but-doomed to a life as a hardened criminal.

The CentreForum report Parenting Matters: Early Years and Social Mobility assumes that this state of play – of parents entirely ignoring and maltreating their children – is so normal that there needs to be a nationwide advertising campaign, modelled on the five-a-day campaign to encourage greater consumption of fruit and veg. In the case of responsible parenting, the five-a-day messages are:

    1. Read to your child for 15 minutes;
    2. Play with your child on the floor for 10 minutes;
    3. Talk with your child for 20 minutes with the television off;
    4. Adopt positive attitudes towards your child and praise them frequently;
    5. Give your child a nutritious diet to aid development.

In some ways, you would think that if the government and those influencing government thinking really believe what they write – that parents are incapable of instinctively reacting and caring for their children – then you might think some pretty drastic policy solutions must apply. Surely if parents have completely lost their grip in such a way, then perhaps every child should be taken off its parents at birth and put into a ‘Home Learning Environment’, which is what Chris Paterson, the author of the CentreForum report, calls a family. Instead, the solution is the one peddled by many other recent reports: compulsory parenting classes for those parents in the lowest 20 per cent income bracket.

As well as being deeply intrusive, the trouble is that parenting classes don’t work. Many of the parents in the lowest income bracket are already subject to some kind of state parenting initiative; parenting orders are rife if your family is identified as ‘disruptive’ and if your child truants, or is excluded from school. So, to a certain extent, the rhetoric of these reports doesn’t match the outcomes of the policies they propose.

But what the CentreForum report shows, like those that preceded it, is that the family unit as it stands is feared and loathed by those in high places. The Parenting Matters report brings out the things that alarm policymakers about the family. First and foremost, they dislike the fact that the family is a law unto itself. In this day and age, when controlling personal behaviour is the Big Idea in politics, the government wants to get its hooks into the institution where our personalities first develop. Paterson is apoplectic about the ways that families think they should be left alone: ‘However, in a context where parenting remains largely viewed as an intensely private matter, any proposals for widescale interventions in this area – any serious attempt to influence or “interfere” with what parents do – has traditionally been beset by fears of “nanny-statism”.’

Another thing that policymakers hate is that parents still have the temerity to believe they can bring up their children without the aid of experts. Paterson also rages against this ridiculous idea: ‘The seemingly pervasive, almost intuitively perpetuated idea that a parent will (or should), at the point of their child’s birth, sufficiently grasp the key elements of child rearing through a natural and osmotic process is fundamentally misconceived.’

Paterson believes there should be a cultural shift, in the name of liberalism, from families being families to families being seen as Home Learning Environments. If parents could understand this, he believes, then they would willingly invite the state into their homes to set standards, to teach them how to become ‘active participants in the process of child development’ and realise that ‘families are the factories of skill development’.

It would be laughable if it were not so tragic, and the consequences so pernicious. Our society has reached the point that it sees individuals as utterly degraded. Politicians and policy wonks can’t believe that parents possess the basic instinct to nurture their own children. This horror from on high is rooted in the belief that the intimate and complex relationships that exist within families are no more than a series of activities and stimulations designed to develop children’s cognitive skills.

In reality, parents love their children and are perfectly able to look after them without such interventions. However the view that this is not the case, expressed in this report and others, informs wider policies and institutional behaviours, meaning that parents are increasingly being isolated and judged. If ‘the single most important factor influencing a child’s intellectual and social development is the quality of parenting and care they receive’ – what are the roles of schools and other institutions? Increasingly, they seem to be organised around monitoring what parents do, rather than having a sense of worth or purpose of their own.

To rework an old joke: just because parents are becoming increasingly paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get us.

Jane Sandeman is convenor of the Institute of Ideas Parents’ Forum.

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Topics Politics

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