Giving up too much ground to Supernanny

The Claims of Parenting is a welcome to challenge to pseudo-scientific approaches to child rearing, but the authors also overmoralise adult-child relations.

Helen Reece

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Stefan Ramaekers and Judith Suissa open The Claims of Parenting, an insightful and thought-provoking new philosophical account of parenting, with their main concern: the parent-child relationship has been claimed by scientific language and reasoning, specifically and principally that of developmental psychology, to such an extent that ‘it has become difficult to find other ways of talking about it’.

They suggest that this language structures not only the framework in which we discuss child-rearing but also the research agendas, determining even the questions that are asked. They are concerned by the growing consensus that accumulative scientific evidence has proved that early parenting plays a crucial role in children’s development, with its clear implication that early intervention in the family is a moral and political imperative: the consensus is that the scientific guidance needs to be disseminated and implemented in order to ensure optimal outcomes for children.

In voicing this important dissent from the current policy framework, (1) Ramaekers and Suissa join a chorus of voices recently assembled at Monitoring Parents: Science, Evidence, Experts And The New Parenting Culture, an international conference organised by Parenting Culture Studies and the Kent Centre for Law, Gender and Sexuality.

Evaluating the claims of parenting

While Ramaekers and Suissa take some swipes at the validity of the scientific framework, this is not their main preoccupation. They are more concerned that the scientific language obscures both the evaluative assumptions and the social context behind the framework. They cite as an example the opening statement of Parenting Support: Guidance for Local Authorities in England (2006): ‘We know the key principles of effective parenting.’ They retort: ‘You don’t have to be a philosopher to ask, “effective at what?”, but these questions are not asked. Behind such statement lies an account, whether explicit or not, of what the desirable ‘outcome’ of parenting should be: emotionally stable children, happy children, confident children, emotionally literate children – take your pick.’

Even if we can agree that we want happy children, we need to ask what this means, since most of us are happy sometimes and sad at other times. As child-rearing is an open-ended project, there is no moment at which to assess happiness: we may raise a child who is happy at 20 but miserable by 40 (3). If we want children who are securely attached, we need to ask why we value this quality, and more particularly what it is about the current social context that makes us value it. Attachment and bonding have been given shape in particular societal and cultural conditions, and thus tell us something about who we are, what relationships we value, and how we want our children to turn out.

While Ramaekers and Suissa concede that these evaluative assumptions are sometimes spelt out in parenting policy, they suggest that they are never defended, nor even presented as contestable, but are instead treated as self-evident, with the desirable end – ‘securely attached’ for example – defined from within the same scientific discourse as the means to achieve this end.

It is impossible to disagree with these authors that child-rearing goals rest on culturally specific norms. But while it can be useful to be reminded of fundamental precepts – albeit ideally a little more briefly – the problem is the level of abstraction on which they leave this. This makes their argument a little reminiscent of that annoying teenager who, asked by his mother to take a shower, retorts: ‘Well, maybe I want to be smelly.’

In this book, the reader will not find a concrete argument against happiness or attachment as parenting goals, and so could be left with the feeling that yes, that is the assumption behind parenting policy, but we all really agree that we want happy children, so what’s the problem? Pointing out the evaluative nature of current assumptions would ideally be just the first step in a chain of argument that highlights difficulties with the assumptions themselves.

The instrumentalisation of parenting

Ramaekers and Suissa argue that in the absence of discussion about what parents find valuable or important, parenting becomes technical and formulaic. The scientific framework instrumentalises all aspects of child-rearing, making every feature a means to an end. So you play with your child not because it’s fun, but so that his speech improves, and you read to your child not because you both enjoy it, but in order to make him more securely attached.

A strong thread in the goals is didactic: parents are expected to relate to their children as teachers relate to pupils, with specific educational targets in mind. This phenomenon is at its most disturbing when it reaches love: you should express love, perhaps even feel love, for your child not because it is good in itself, but as a vehicle for his emotional development.

The instrumentalisation of parenting explains why a discourse of professionalisation accompanies the scientific discourse as our ordinary way of talking and thinking about the parent-child relationship. For example, parenting is commonly described as a ‘job’ for which one needs ‘skills’. Once parenting is professionalised, the guidelines leave no stone unturned to ensure that the job is done properly. Ramaekers and Suissa give the example of a recent parenting book in which the author Stephen Briers explains to parents not just the importance of listening to their children, but also the fine detail that being a good listener requires maintaining eye contact for roughly a third of the time that one’s child is talking.

Interestingly, Ramaekers and Suissa bracket in with the discourse of professionalisation the contractual approach to the parent-child relationship based around rights and obligations. What does this mean for parents, in their view? It means that parents are expected to professionalise themselves, which includes reflecting on their approach to parenting. Parental responsibility is understood as the correct application of scientific knowledge, which involves keeping up with the latest scientific research, staying on the lookout for ways of gaining more knowledge or refining skills, and seeking expert advice even in the normal run of events. In contemporary parenting culture, parents are expected to acquire the right attitude, which is one of continuous vigilance about their child’s development, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to ensure optimal development, which means actively seeking opportunities to enhance one’s parenting skills. It all sounds very demanding, and not much fun.

But as we will shortly see, Ramaekers’ and Suissa’s objection to the current approach is definitely not that it is too demanding; they far from recommend that parents relax a little. Their critique of the instrumental approach to parenting rests on their own assertion of child-rearing as a complex moral endeavour. In this regard, they end up promoting another version of the intensive parenting orthodoxy, which essentially replaces pseudo-scientific claims with moralistic assumptions.

The moralisation of parenting

Ramaekers and Suissa draw on the Aristotelian approach of seeing human activities as part of a tradition with internal goods rather than external standards, to suggest that parents need to reclaim the first-person perspective. In essence, what is wrong with the expert discourse is that it is universal and general: it concerns the child not my child.

When parents adopt the expert discourse, they detach themselves from the situation in order to obtain a clear overview. ‘[T]his prevents parents from actually meeting their children.’ But when parents adopt the first-person perspective, what is important is one’s experience and knowledge of one’s own child, in the here and now; for the parent qua parent, any judgment about what to do in a particular situation is inseparable from the fact that this is one’s own child.

The first-person approach has much to recommend it, lending force as it does to Ramaekers’ and Suissa’s criticism of the instrumentalisation of parenting. As they elegantly explain, love is not a pre-existing skill that one can bring to the parent-child relationship, but a relational quality that can only emerge, take shape and indeed gain meaning from within the relationship itself. ‘To come to the “meeting” with one’s child prepared, or, as it were, armed, with “love” … may, then, prevent one from fully meeting one’s child and allowing these qualities to develop.’

This goes for parenting dilemmas, too, such as what sort of person one wants one’s child to become. Such questions can only be answered from inside the parent-child relationship.

It might sound as if Ramaekers and Suissa are recommending an instinctive, spontaneous approach to parenting, but that would be wide off the mark. Indeed, they are critical of commentators like Frank Furedi and Jennie Bristow for advocating that parents should be left alone to bring up their children. They lump them with feminist philosophers such as Sara Ruddick and Nel Noddings on the basis that all these thinkers uphold a spontaneous and intuitive approach to parenting that simply emerges from immersing oneself in the experience.

In contrast, Ramaekers and Suissa believe that it is not enough for parents to follow their instincts because these instincts are invested with evaluative judgments, just like the scientific discourse. Even when parents try to do what comes naturally, they can’t help making decisions against a backdrop of complex evaluative considerations.

In relation to some aspects of parenting, Ramaekers and Suissa could be accused of over-thinking things. The feminist philosophers do capture an aspect of the parenting experience: the mother does not need to think through the let-down reflex that she experiences when her baby cries. And, indeed, Ramaekers and Suissa accept that natural instinct plays some role in parenting. But of course they are right that when we move on to more complex parenting decisions – whether to breastfeed, for example – we make that decision against the background of our normative assumptions, within a particular political, cultural and social context.

I do not read Furedi or Bristow as disputing this. For them, instinct is surely a social, not a natural, category. As Furedi recently outlined in a discussion with Suissa on the BBC Radio Four programme Thinking Allowed, parental instinct is that tacit and informal understanding and knowledge that we build up through talking and listening to others in our community, which we develop, check and sometimes reject through our day-to-day experience.

For Ramaekers and Suissa, because the first-person perspective requires working out parenting afresh, and because every parenting decision is made against the backdrop of complex evaluative assumptions, parenting requires a great deal of thought: ‘[B]eing a parent means constantly asking … an infinite variety of similar questions that one could not possibly predict in advance; questions that themselves are thrown up by and derive their meaning from the experience of being a parent; and in asking them, parents are also asking questions about their own life: its meaning, its value, and its challenges.’

For them, Furedi’s aim of challenging, let alone surmounting, contemporary anxiety around parenting is misguided because ‘[P]arents’ anxiety is not an artificial construct, but a human response to the real, and morally significant, existential experience of being a parent. What is demanded of us, then, is not to resolve this anxiety, or to dispel it, but to fully understand and address it.’

They suggest that the approaches to parenting that they dismiss – scientisation, intuitive parenting, the contractual framework – are all similarly flawed in their ‘repeated (and fairly transparent) attempts to find clear answers to all kinds of contingency, unpredictability, uncontrollability’. Paranoia ‘does not need to be solved or tackled or refuted, but rather somehow needs to be taken care of’.

Inviting the experts in

Because their approach treats parenting as morally arduous, it is no surprise that these authors see parents as in need of external help and support. Ramaekers and Suissa clarify that their problem with current policy is not a principled opposition to expert intervention. Rather, their objection is that current forms of intervention leave out the first-person perspective: the expert gives the parent generalised advice about the child not his child.

They are clear that intervention doesn’t have to be like this. ‘We believe nevertheless that there are ways of offering help that would acknowledge and value the first-person perspective’, they write. To illustrate this, they discuss an episode of the TV show Supernanny where a father asks nanny Jo Frost: ‘Why don’t we just lock the door?’ They are highly critical of her response, which comes in the form of a universal prohibition: ‘Because you can’t ever lock your kids up.’

The authors say this encounter could ‘have served as a means to open up a space for ethical deliberation from the first-person perspective. Rather than starting from the position that “it’s not OK to lock children in rooms”, the question posed to Jason could have been: “Do you think it is OK to lock your child in a room?”, “What makes it OK, or not OK?”, “How would you feel if you were to do it?”, “What effect do you think it would have?”, “What is it that you want to achieve by doing it?”, and so on.’

I am not surprised that this is where Ramaekers and Suissa end up: this is a prime example of a trend I examined a decade ago in my book Divorcing Responsibly, and the trend has not abated since (4). I argued that the demise of liberalism has led to suspicion of the notion of choice: because our decisions are now seen as resting on norms that are not our own, we are no longer regarded as free and rational agents making our own decisions. In place of choice comes the concept of self-discovery – choice reconstructed as a project of personal growth.

In Divorcing Responsibly, I highlighted a number of coercive consequences of this shift from choice to self-discovery, all of which are relevant to the argument in The Claims of Parenting. First of all, within the self-discovery framework, unreflective decisions count for little: the mother’s decision to smack her child because ‘it never did her any harm’ deserves little respect, because her choice rests on norms that she may not endorse on reflection.

Secondly, reflection has no end-point: even after soul-searching, we just end up making decisions that are based on deeper and therefore less easily questioned norms. This means that, unlike the liberal notion of choice which is best protected by leaving the agent alone, self-discovery is actually aided by external intervention: we need the expert to guide and probe our reflection.

Finally, because reflection has no end-point, coercion itself may be benign: even after deep thought, the decisions we make are not truly our own, so an expert deciding for us may help us to reach the result that we would want to reach if only we could see things clearly enough. It is hard not to notice all of this in the Supernanny example. ‘Supernanny’ can spend hours with Jason discussing how he feels about locking the door, and why he feels this way about locking the door, but the door is bound to end up unlocked.

None of this is to suggest that thinking through parenting decisions is a bad thing; but those of us who wish to uphold parental authority need to defend the decision-maker and the decision itself, not a particular decision-making process. Because of Ramaekers’ and Suissa’s focus on process, their rather frightening end-point is to recommend a more individualised, more therapeutic, and therefore more intrusive and intensive, form of intervention than exists at present. Still, since their book does not aim to defend parental autonomy against expert interference, this is scarcely a criticism.

On the bright side, those of us who do wish to mount a defence of parental autonomy may profit from some of the well-honed and elegant arguments that Ramaekers and Suissa make along the way.

Helen Reece is a reader in law at the London School of Economics.

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