It’s time to expel the ‘experts’ from family life

In repackaging parenting as a superbly complex, almost scientific task, a gaggle of experts hopes to colonise our personal lives.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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Tomorrow, 13 September, sociologist and author Frank Furedi will speak at the conference Monitoring Parents: Science, Evidence, Experts and the New Parenting Culture, at the University of Kent. An edited, sneak-preview version of his speech is published below.

In modern times, there has been something of a revolt against traditional authority. As a result of this, all forms of authority are increasingly being called into question. After all, if the authority of the king and the priest and the politician can be interrogated, why not call into question the authority of pater familias, too, the status of the mother or grandparent?

That is precisely what has happened, gradually, over the past century-and-a-half. A lack of confidence in the ability of ordinary adults to socialise the younger generation has been evident since early modern times. By the late nineteenth century, experts were making scathing remarks about parental competence and were attempting to restrain the authority of the father and mother.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill, author of On Liberty, linked his call for the compulsory schooling of children to his distrust of parental competence. He believed that state-sponsored formal education might free children from the ‘uncultivated’ influence of their parents. He asserted that since ‘the uncultivated cannot be competent judges of cultivation’, they needed the support of enlightened educators to socialise their children.

This lack of confidence in parents’ capacity to develop their children led many nineteenth-century reformers to view formal education as the principal institution of socialisation. In the early twentieth century, educators and child experts sought to bypass parental authority through assuming more and more responsibility for the socialisation of young people. And since the 1990s, the once-implicit questioning of the ability of parents to socialise their children has become explicit, and increasingly strident.

As a result, there has been a shift in the way that the uneasy partnership between family and school is portrayed by experts. Policymakers often assume that poor parenting and the fragmentation of the family are everyday facts of life that make it necessary for public institutions to take responsibility for forms of socialisation that were hitherto carried out in the home.

In the nineteenth century, criticisms of parental incompetence tended to focus on parents’ alleged inability to educate their children. More recently, however, the alleged absence of parental competence has been detected in relation to a growing number of issues: how to nurture, how to stimulate, how to touch, how to discipline, how to discuss questions about sex, death, and so on.

The cumulative consequence of this questioning of parental competence has been the deepening and widening of the idea of a parental deficit. The claim that parents are inept at educating their children, or even nurturing and emotionally stimulating them, suggests that parents are not up to the job of socialising their offspring. In effect, these claims call into question parental authority.

The problem of parental authority

In much of the modern literature on parenting, the erosion of parental authority is often confused with the idea that there has been a decline in old-fashioned, authoritarian families. Too often, authority is confused with authoritarianism, and what is overlooked is that the targeting of parental competence is not about limiting authoritarianism in the home but is about calling into question the ability of mothers and fathers to socialise their children.

Hannah Arendt put matters most starkly when she declared that ‘authority has vanished’. Arendt took it for granted that ‘most will agree that a constant, ever-widening and deepening crisis of authority has accompanied the development of the modern world in our century’. In her view, the crisis of authority was not confined to the political domain – rather, she suggested, this crisis exerts its influence in every aspect of social experience.

She observed that: ‘[T]he most significant symptom of the crisis, indicating its depth and seriousness, is that it has spread to such pre-political areas as child-rearing and education, where authority in the widest sense has always been accepted as a natural necessity, obviously required as much by natural needs, the helplessness of the child, as by political necessity, the continuity of an established civilisation which can be assured only if those who are newcomers by birth are guided through a pre-established world into which they are born as strangers.’

Today, the fact that the contestation of authority dominates the ‘pre-political’ spheres of everyday life is clear from the constant, acrimonious debates over issues such as child-rearing, health, lifestyles and the conduct of personal relationships. The erosion of the legitimacy of pre-political authority has deprived many parents, and adults in general, of the self-confidence to engage in a meaningful way with the younger generation.

Parents are told time and again that their authority rests on outdated assumptions and that they lack the real expertise that one needs to socialise young people. And conscious of the fact that it is difficult to act authoritatively today, parents feel very insecure about rejecting expert advice. The explosion of various child-rearing and pedagogic fads is symptomatic of society’s loss of faith in parental authority; it represents a futile attempt to bypass the question of finding some convincing alternative to old forms of pre-political authority.

The demotion of parental authority – and its corollary: the ascendancy of parenting expertise – is underwritten by the idea that we have only recently discovered how complex child-rearing is. In the past, so-called ‘discoveries’ in the arena of psychological research were used to depict traditional areas of life as far more complex than we first thought. Today, the construction of complexity, not only in relation to parenting but in many areas of everyday existence, is fuelled most notoriously by neuroscience.

Colonising the private sphere

Through the extension of the idea of complexity into the world of personal and informal relationships, experts are seeking to colonise the private sphere. One of the key features of modern times has been the decline of ‘taken for granted’ ways of doing things – and this has encouraged the perception that individuals are not able to manage important aspects of their lives without professional guidance.

Increasingly, routine forms of social interaction are depicted as being difficult and complicated. That is why child-rearing can today be discussed as a science. Also, we often hear talk about parenting skills, social skills, communication skills and relationship skills… The idea that everyday encounters require special skills has created an opportunity for the ‘expert’ to colonise the realm of personal relations (1).

Experts now claim that their ‘scientific knowledge’ entitles them to be authoritative voices on issues that were previously seen as being strictly the preserve of personal and family life. As one study of the rise of ‘experts’ puts it: ‘The authoritative voice of “scientific experts” on child development advised repeatedly that the correct training of children required an expertise that few modern parents possessed.’ (2) From the perspective of these ‘experts’, child-rearing, education and interpersonal relationships all need to be reorganised in accordance with the latest findings of scientific research.

The new cohort of experts, who have been on the rise since the late twentieth century, have a powerful crusading ethos. They do not confine themselves to carrying out research and making observations. As the American child psychologist William Kessen wrote in 1979: ‘Critical examination and study of parental practices and child behaviour almost inevitably slipped subtly over to advice about parental practices and child behaviour. The scientific statement became an ethical imperative, the descriptive account became normative. And along the way, there have been unsettling occasions in which scraps of knowledge, gathered by whatever procedures were held to be proper science at the time, were given inordinate weight against poor old defenceless folk knowledge.’ (3)

But these experts did not merely provide advice. Often with the backing of official institutions, they imposed their proposals on schools and directly influenced the conduct of family life. Measured against the authority of science, the insights and values of ordinary people enjoy lower and lower cultural valuation.

It is worth noting that the record of the ‘science’ in areas such as child-rearing, education and relationships is a dubious one. It has consisted largely of ever-recurring fads that rarely achieve any positive durable results (4). Nevertheless, at a time when adult authority is on the defensive, the scientific expert has gained an ever-increasing influence over intergenerational relations. Typically, educational experts claim that since their proposals are based on purely objective science, only the prejudiced could possibly disagree with them.

Responsible parenting

Contemporary parenting culture exhorts parents to bring up their children according to ‘best practice’. In virtually every area of social life today, experts advocate the importance of seeking help. Getting advice – and, more importantly, following the script that has been authored by experts – is seen as proof of ‘responsible parenting’.

Paradoxically, the most important doctrine that fuels this subordination of the parent to the expert is the idea of parental omnipotence. Outwardly, parents have never been assigned with so much power and influence over the long-term prospects of their children as they are today. Through a process that I have referred to previously as ‘parental determinism’, where everything from one’s job prospects to future happiness is said to be moulded by early-years parenting, parents are represented as demi-gods whose every act has a far-reaching impact on their children’s wellbeing.

However, at the same time as parents are assigned these divine powers, their capacity to use the powers in an effective manner and for the good of their children is always being questioned. In order for it to work properly, parental omnipotence must apparently be mediated through the input of experts. That is why responsible parenting is said to require the authorisation of expertise. Without expert support, parental omnipotence – at least in the sense of doing good – is said to vanish. It is time we challenged this denigration of parental authority and this trashing of parental competence.

Frank Furedi’s latest book On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) The above is an edited version of a speech he will give at the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies event Monitoring Parents: Science, Evidence, Experts and the New Parenting Culture, taking place on 13 and 14 September at the University of Kent.

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Topics Politics


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