There’s more to human character than sharing toys

Demos should go on the naughty step for arguing that parenting style determines whether kids become good, bad and even middle class.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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A new report by the British think-tank Demos has hit the headlines, with its claim that ‘Parents are the principal architects of a fairer society’. Based on research from the Millennium Cohort Study, the report argues that how children are parented has a more significant impact upon their future life chances than just about anything else, including poverty and the social class into which they are born (1).

You might wonder whether the world really needs another report blaming particular parenting styles for every evident problem in late capitalist society. Across the British political spectrum, policy continually seeks to clobber parents over the head with the assertion that the future of Britain rests or falls according to whether they feed their children too many sweets or read to them for the requisite number of minutes at bedtime.

So when Jen Lexmond and Richard Reeves, authors of the Demos report, respond to concerns about interference by the ‘nanny state’ by arguing that ‘if there is one area where government intervention is justified, it is in precisely the area of life signalled by the term “nannying” – the development of children’s capabilities’, they are pushing at doors opened by New Labour, and held open by the Tories. Nothing new there.

However, Lexmond and Reeves at least try to go beyond the emotional blackmail that informs most parenting policy, which simply asserts that if you don’t adopt the right kind of parenting behaviours with your children they will die of obesity or end up on the social scrapheap, with no qualifications and a million mental disorders. Their report, Building Character, is an attempt to wrestle with the problem of how we bring up children with a sense of self and agency, who can achieve things in life and develop a responsibility to people and projects outside of themselves.

This is an important question, and one that preoccupies parents as much as policy-wonks. I have often found myself ploughing through the latest piece of official parenting advice and wondering to what end it all leads. The idea that rearing children is just about maximising their ‘happiness’, or stopping them from becoming fat, or enabling them to take a few calculated risks, might all make some sense on a personal, daily level, but it seems thoroughly inadequate in terms of a generational project.

When we say ‘children are the future’, we don’t just mean that they will outlive us, but that they will be the ones running society and making history. To that extent, it really is not enough that they are happy or that they have high self-esteem – they have to be able to cope with adversity and think outside of themselves, in order to shape the world around them. This is where character comes into play, and where adults’ role in helping to ‘build character’ is crucially important.

Unfortunately, while Demos’ enthusiasm for addressing this issue is refreshing, its narrow focus on parenting styles and outcomes among young children means that the report ends up peddling the same old mixture of common sense and nonsense. On the common sense front, it finds that more authoritative parents have better-behaved children and that more confident parents are more authoritative. On the nonsense front, it speculates that better-behaved children with more confident parents will get to be middle class when they reach adulthood – which leads to the conclusion that training parents on low incomes to be confident and authoritative will magic some social mobility into their children. Or, as Jen Lexmond told The Sunday Times, ‘when it comes to parenting, it is not what you are, but what you do that’s important’ (2).

What is striking about this is not only the blithe assertion that all manner of social inequalities and life problems can be obliterated by parents simply setting a few house rules for their toddlers. It is the reduction of a child’s moral development, the building of character that takes place over the course of childhood within a distinct cultural context, to a particular parenting style that results in clearly observable attributes amongst five-year-olds.

Building Character starts with a discussion of Aristotle; eight pages later it presents us with a table showing how three ‘key character capabilities’ are exhibited by the behaviour of five-year-olds studied by the Millennium Cohort Study. So we find that a child who ‘cannot sit still, is constantly fidgeting or squirming’ shows something about ‘application’, a child who is kind to younger children shows something about ‘empathy and attachment’, and a child who ‘often argues with adults’ shows something about ‘self-regulation’. The child who exhibits the good behaviours is presumed to be a product of authoritative parenting, and will go far in life; the restless hypochondriac tantrummer is presumed to be lacking boundaries and will end up socially immobile.

An expert in survey methodology could no doubt find several holes in this research. I was struck by the admission, in the appendix, that for all the authors argued that confident parents make better-behaved (or more character-ful) children, ‘It is possible that the association between parental perceived competence and child behaviour outcomes is spurious’ – as the data was based on parents’ reports of their children’s behaviour, and less confident parents tend to report more bad behaviour in their children than do more confident parents. It seems equally possible that the report’s entire evidence base is ‘spurious’.

But aside from that, why do we think we can measure something so complex and human as ‘character’ by looking at the behaviour of five-year-olds? Can human agency really be reduced to an ability to concentrate and a willingness to share toys?

As a parent, I worry about the development of my children’s characters. I worry about the impact of a purportedly child-centred therapy culture, which encourages children to think that that they should never be criticised and that their feelings are the most important ones. I worry that children who are over-protected, who are not allowed to take risks or work through problems for themselves, are profoundly ill-equipped to become adults capable of running the world. I worry that the educational direction taken by ‘personalised learning’ and methods that make everything fun and relevant to children limits their capacity to apply themselves to things.

I worry about the way that anti-bullying initiatives actively discourage children from developing empathy, by presenting bullying as the use of certain bad words or particular actions, rather than encouraging children to think about what it means to be kind or unkind, how to roll with the blows and how to maintain friendships. I worry that precisely the model of ‘good parenting’ that is advocated by policymakers is that of the active consumer – the parent who elbows everybody else out of the way to achieve the best for his or her child, who is obsessively anxious about the individuals within his or her family to the exclusion of thinking about what’s best for the school, the community, even other friends and family members. And I worry about lots of other things as well.

But, as the parent of a five-year-old and a three-year-old, I know that their characters are not yet fully formed. There are several years and many experiences left in order to inspire and shape young children into the kind of adults we hope they will become. As children gain the ability to read, reason and expand their world beyond the home, we can engage them in questions of agency and morality, and trust them to work things out for themselves but in relation to other people.

The idea that parents alone can – even should – short-circuit these processes by seeking to ‘develop character’ by the end of five, and that we can measure our children’s worth as moral, responsible beings according to whether they sit still at the dinner table, displays a narrow and deterministic view. Character is not an ‘outcome measure’, and obedience is not what makes us human.

Jennie Bristow edits the website Parents With Attitude. She is author of Standing Up To Supernanny, and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here.)

Read on:

A guide to subversive parenting

(1) Building Character, by Jen Lexmond and Richard Reeves, November 2009. Download it for free here.

(2) Bad parents kills prospects of working class, The Sunday Times, 8 November 2009

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Topics Politics


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