Parenting: you learn it on the job

The government wants to take anxiety out of parenting, but suffering anxiety is crucial to becoming a good parent.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert

Topics Politics

Listening to the announcement of the government’s latest wheeze to spend something like £5million on providing parenting classes made me glad my childbearing days are over. Having to go for my 12-week scan and then be bombarded by text messages, video links and Boots vouchers for parenting classes would probably bring on a huge amount of sickness – morning or otherwise.

Professionalising parenting in this way poses a serious threat to the privacy and autonomy that individuals need in order to develop relationships, feelings, thoughts and actions. Yes, I remember feeling apprehensive at whether my first slithery bundle of joy would slip out of my hands in soapy water, but that moment of anxiety soon passed. As have many other moments (or days) of anxiety since then. That is the point: we parents learn and gain confidence through, and because of, such moments. If giving a baby a bath requires ‘advice’, then what is a parent to do when faced with the hundreds of other more complex situations that are part and parcel of family life? Request a text message from David Cameron?

In justifying Cameron’s parenting classes, the Labour MP Frank Field, author of numerous reports on child poverty, said he has travelled the width and breadth of Britain and has discovered that there is ‘clearly a problem of chaotic families’. Apparently, people are ‘falling out of love with being five-star parents’. His evidence? Well, many reception teachers say they think more children are coming to school less prepared to learn than before. Also, when Field talked to young people at school, apparently they said that, more than anything else, they wanted schools to teach them ‘how to make friends and be good parents’.

As a teacher, my heart sank even further when I heard Field’s comments. All that Field has unwittingly revealed is the extent to which schools are abdicating their responsibility to educate; he has proven precisely nothing about the existence of numerous ‘chaotic families’. Of course reception teachers will say children are less ready for school – that is because, with the amount of observation and monitoring of personal behaviour that such teachers are now required to do, there is precious little time left to educate. If children respond in kind, by appearing ‘unprepared’ to learn, that shouldn’t be surprising.

The displacement of teaching subjects and facts to young children in favour of ‘teaching’ an ever-increasing number of arbitrary skills – from toilet skills to cutlery use – has been one of the most profoundly anti-educational developments of recent years. It is not surprising in this context that some teachers might leap at a chance to take the heat off themselves and instead blame parents for sending children who are not ‘school ready’. That is the real sentiment that Field picked up on.

Of course a child not knowing that poo is something best flushed down the toilet, or not knowing how to use cutlery, are things that must be remedied. But you don’t have to be Einstein to do this; any fairly normal adult can just say, ‘Don’t leave your poo in the loo’ or ‘Don’t worry, you’ll soon get the hang of using a knife and fork’. When teachers have to do these things (in between teaching, please, not in place of it), it is simply evidence that many young children must be told/shown what to do. It should not be taken as hard evidence of ‘family dysfunction’.

There is a highly normative discourse in official interventions into family life. But the idea that there is a correct way to ‘do parenting’ is both illogical and destructive. The notion that parents can be graded with stars is just downright daft, deterministic and dangerous. It can only feed into the natural anxiety that parents feel because they love their children, and promote the totally erroneous belief that children have fixed developmental markers that must be evident at particular stages if a life of future misery is to be avoided.

Such a normative discourse is illogical because there is no causal, determining link between how we are brought up and what we become. Poor children do not necessarily become poor adults, as Field claims. Between the badly behaved child, the rioting youth and the feckless parent, there are many years and many experiences, which allow us to take responsibility for our lives, our relationships and our contribution to society as we mature.

What we really need today is not parenting classes but adults who are prepared to act as adults. Politicians who are prepared to assume some adult-like responsibility for the major economic problems facing Britain and not just dream up family-interfering initiatives instead. Teachers who are prepared to act as adults in the classroom rather than complain about parents sending in children who aren’t ‘school ready’. And parents who are prepared to use their adult voice to tell the ‘experts’ that they don’t need their advice on every little (or big) detail of bringing up a child.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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Topics Politics


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