Thursday 23 November 2006


Down with the Supernanny State

When ministers and TV gurus constantly bang on about the pitfalls of parenting, it is little wonder that some mums and dads feel they ‘can’t cope’.

UK prime minister Tony Blair this week pledged to spend £4million of his Respect Task Force budget on sending a team of ‘parenting experts’ into Britain’s most deprived areas. The 70 or so ‘supernannies’ will help struggling parents control their anti-social children, Blair claimed in an article in the Sun newspaper.

‘There are some families who can’t cope [with being a parent]’, he wrote. ‘That’s a fact. It doesn’t much matter whether it’s their “fault” or not. The fact is, when they don’t cope, the children suffer and then we all suffer.’

Blair tried to pre-empt the response of critics who might claim that this is the action of an interfering, authoritarian government. He denounced such claims as ‘just rubbish’. This is about the government responding to parents’ needs, he insisted: ‘The overwhelming majority of parents would welcome outside help in dealing with difficulties with their children.’

The overwhelming majority of parents? How does he know that? Well, because of ‘the huge popularity of television programmes in which experts help parents with their problem kids’, he said. Given the high ratings for shows such as Supernanny, House of Tiny Tearaways and Driving Mum and Dad Mad, Blair surely has no choice but to act? ‘I don’t believe any government, particularly one determined to tackle anti-social behaviour, can ignore parents’ cry for help’, he wrote.

So I suppose the popularity of I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! is evidence of an overwhelming desire on the part of the public to escape to the jungle and do all kinds of disgusting things, such as eat maggots and cover themselves in mud. Surely it is about time the government put together an action plan to aid people in fulfilling these desires, too?

Blair is being disingenuous when he says he is just responding to parents’ ‘cry for help’. In the next breath he says: ‘No one is talking about interfering in normal family life. But life isn’t normal if you’ve got 12-year-olds out every night, drinking and creating a nuisance on the street, with their parents not knowing or caring.’

Not caring? But I thought they were crying out for help? Can it really be the case that they’re asking supernannies to help them decide when to put their children on the ‘naughty step’, while also not giving two hoots about what those same children are up to while roaming the streets drunk at night?

As it happens, I do think there may be a number of parents who feel unsure about their abilities to bring up their children, and they may welcome some kind of support (although I doubt very much that an ‘overwhelming majority of parents’ would welcome being patronised by experts in parenting classes). This openness to government meddling is a result of parents’ lack of confidence in their own abilities. And in my view, various government initiatives have helped to chip away at this confidence, leaving parents confused and uncertain.

Parents are continually told how difficult parenting is – ‘the toughest thing anyone faces in their personal life’, says Blair – and how likely they are to mess up if they don’t seek expert advice. It makes you wonder how parents have managed through the ages before New Labour and its supernannies came into existence.

The fact is, as well as throwing up all kinds of new challenges, parenting can be immensely enjoyable and fulfilling. Surely all the government pronunciations about the potential pitfalls of parenting only serve to undermine the joys of family life? That is not to say that parents cannot benefit from helpful tips on common challenges – such as how to deal with toddlers throwing tantrums in the local supermarket, or how to deal with a child who refuses to go to bed. But the widespread idea that parents must always seek expert advice or risk raising ‘damaged’ children who will then do damage to society – which is promoted by government officials, TV gurus and numerous newspaper and magazine articles – only contributes to feelings of uncertainty amongst parents. Undermining parents’ common sense, which has been quite good enough for generations, is more likely to damage parent-child relationships than occasional instances of mum and dad doing or saying the ‘wrong’ thing. Parent-child relations are built on autonomy and spontaneity.

Blair is blaming parents for society’s many ills. In his view, crime and disorder exist because many parents are not up to the mark. He says he wants to ‘offer a helping hand to parents who are beginning to struggle with their children, before the problems get out of hand.’ You see, apparently his Respect Task Force knows who is likely to turn to hooliganism and crime in later life, and it has the magic power to nip the problem in the bud – which is nice, because ‘the cost to society of a child going off the rails can run into tens of thousands of pounds’.

Louise Casey, the government’s Respect co-ordinator, recently declared: ‘I think we have got to do everything to make sure we are tackling not just anti-social behaviour today, but preventing the next generation of people growing up with signs of anti-social behaviour in the future.’ Blair has even hinted at the idea of ‘fasbos’ – aimed at identifying fetuses who are likely to face difficulties in the future, and finding a way of targeting and tracking them throughout life.

Whether or not such early intervention schemes are effective – and there is no evidence that they are – we need to question the values of a government that would label a fetus or a child as a potential criminal on the basis of who their parents are. Sorry Blair, but that is ‘just rubbish’.

First published by spiked