Parental determinism: a most harmful prejudice
David Cameron’s proposed parenting classes are built on the bizarre and destructive idea that parenting determines society’s fortunes.
Are there any social problems that aren’t caused by poor parenting? According to the British political class, its policymaking experts and, of course, the parenting industry, the answer is a very definite ‘No’. One reason why prime minster David Cameron’s proposed parenting classes have been so widely endorsed is because many experts now believe that deadbeat dads and slack mums are responsible for all sorts of anti-social behaviour, from last summer’s English riots to drug abuse, child obesity, teenage pregnancy, poor educational outcomes, mental-health problems, community breakdown, and much more.
The so-called ‘parenting deficit’ has become an all-purpose explanation for every social ill. This doesn’t only highlight a failure of political imagination among our rulers – it also points to a profound sense of fatalism. When Cameron lectures the public about the importance of having state intervention into family life, he is promoting the doctrine of parental determinism. This doctrine is based on the prejudice that both a child’s and society’s fortunes are determined by the quality of childcare provided by mums and dads. Not a little bit determined, not partly determined, but overwhelmingly if not totally determined. According to Labour MP Frank Field, one of the most zealous promoters of the parental-determinism prejudice, a child’s future is determined by the amount of stimulation their brains receive in the first three years of life. He qualified his assertion by adding, ‘That is not to say, of course, it is all over by then’. But…
Once the ideology of parental determinism is embraced, and it is accepted that parenting failures are the cause of many of society’s problems, it follows that government has no choice but to assume more and more responsibility for childrearing. It is this assumption – that parenting is too important to leave to mothers and fathers – that underpins government policy on the family today. For the first time, a government has explicitly endorsed the idea that the problem is not simply a tiny minority of irresponsible parents – rather, every mum and dad could apparently benefit from the instruction provided by Cameron’s mate Octavius Black and the company he runs to ‘help’ parents, Parent Gym.
Historically, governments intuitively recognised that the politicisation of parenting was fraught with danger. It could impact on the smooth conduct of family life. This danger was acknowledged in 1998, in the New Labour government’s consultation document, Supporting Families. ‘Governments have to be very careful in devising policies that affect our most intimate relationships’, it warned. In another passage it called on government to ‘approach family policy with a strong dose of humility’. Sadly, policymakers did not heed this advice, and over the past 15 years they have taken it upon themselves to erode the line that once divided private life from public life. Certainly, the current government displays little, if any, humility, as it presumes to teach parents about childrearing.
The parenting programmes promoted by Cameron and others are based on a mixture of prejudice and the pseudoscience of so-called parenting research. Such ‘research’ is underpinned by a fundamental transformation in the meaning of parenting, which has been turned from a relationship into a skill. The core assumption in the government’s proposal for parenting classes is that childrearing consists of a set of practices that need to be learned by mothers and fathers. These practices are depicted as skills which can be taught by those who have the requisite professional qualifications. That is what Cameron meant when he said it is ‘ludicrous’ that parents receive more training in how to drive a car than they do in how to raise children. Rebranding childrearing as an activity similar to driving a car is fundamental to the new moral crusade against parents. That Cameron used the language of training is not incidental; ‘training parents’ is the functional equivalent of training a motorist or even training a dog.
No one could dispute that childrearing is something that is learned by mothers and fathers. Every human relationship involves a continual process of learning and gaining an understanding of the other person. Parents need to learn how to engage with the imagination of their child, how to stimulate her and when and how to restrain her from doing something harmful. Effective parents learn on the job. However, the most crucial lessons we are learning have little to do with abstract skills, but rather are about the relationship we have with our children.
The issue here is not whether parenting has to be learned, but whether it can be taught. Because the fact is that not everything that has to be learned can be taught. Parenting cannot be taught because it is about the forging and managing of an intimate relationship. And it is through the conduct of that relationship that people develop the insights and lessons suitable to their lives and conditions. One reason why professional intervention into family life is really unhelpful is because each relationship contains something unique, which is only grasped by those involved in it. Paradoxically, this point was made in an editorial in the Observer that advocated parent training. The editorial noted that ‘parenting is anarchic’ and that the ‘skills clumsily acquired by trial and error can fluctuate alarmingly from one child to another in the same family’. Very true! But if childrearing involves a unique individual interaction, how could the generic skills provided by parent trainers help anybody?
As it happens, the claims made by parenting experts are more than a little overstated. Parent Gym, the company running the government’s drive to train parents, claims that its methods are ‘grounded in robust science’. In truth, there’s no such thing as ‘parenting science’. Close intimate relationships are not a suitable sphere for expert intervention. Of course, some will claim that there is a ‘science of friendship’ or a ‘science of lovemaking’, but after decades of expert intervention into our informal lives, it is apparent that the new army of life coaches, relationship experts, parenting gurus and sex therapists have not succeeded in enhancing the quality of human relationships.
And yet time and again, advocates of parent training insist that research shows that their initiatives work. Most of this research is policy-led rather than evidence-led, tending to substitute wishful thinking for reproducible scientific outcomes. And even after decades of such advocacy research, it’s still difficult to put a scientific case for any causal link between parent training and the long-term development of a child.
Some might be tempted to argue that, okay, there is little positive evidence that parent training works, but what’s the harm? Some mothers I interviewed who participated in training schemes told me they benefitted from the experience, at least in the sense of having an opportunity to discuss their lives with a sympathetic group of people. Yet while they felt the training had some therapeutic benefit, they were hard-pressed to describe any way in which it had changed their children’s lives. I am in no doubt that they would have had a similar experience if they had joined a local group of mothers run by their peers.
The prejudice of parental determinism actually does real harm to family life. The drive to transform a relationship into a set of skills distances family members from one another. The shift in focus away from mothers and fathers and towards the external professional trainer cultivates a kind of learned helplessness among parents. Through inflating the complexity of parenting, professionals contribute to the diminishing confidence of modern mums and dads. The most destructive thing about the rise of a parenting industry is that parents become less comfortable in relying on their own intuition and experience and therefore become less effective at exercising their authority. There can be no doubt that the main legacy of Cameron’s parent-training scheme will be the impoverishment of family life.
This is not simply a matter of a well-intentioned policy having unintended corrosive effects on family life. The parental-determinism project has become an uber-displacement activity for policymakers. Parent-blaming allows governments to dodge the truth – that the problems facing society have many causes, springing from social structures and cultural attitudes, not a parenting deficit.
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