Friday 17 November 2006


Back to skool

When officials offer parents lessons in singing nursery rhymes, it’s no wonder some are losing confidence in their abilities.

As one of the speakers at the National Family and Parenting Institute conference in London earlier this week, I had the dubious pleasure of hearing firsthand how Beverley Hughes, UK minister for children, young people and families, plans to strengthen the family unit.

The government is doing a grand job, she stressed, and shouldn’t aim to make any fundamental changes to its family policies. ‘Instead, what we need now is more of the same - more money and more practical support’, said Hughes. As parents have lost confidence in their ability to bring up their children properly, ‘the government must take a lead’, she argued, and offer parents ‘empowering support’ to ‘unlock the potential’ of their children.

A noble aspiration, surely? But what does it mean? Well, singing lessons, for a start. The government aims to provide parents with lessons in how to sing nursery rhymes, which, we were told, help to get children off to ‘a flying start’. That’s not all. The government is also funding the creation next autumn of the National Academy for Parenting Practitioners, with the express aim of training a ‘parenting workforce’ to provide reliable child-rearing advice to the mums and dads of the nation.

Not surpisingly, Hughes’ nursery rhyme intervention has been derided by commentators as intrusive and patronising. ‘Think Mao’s cultural revolution, but led by Wee Willie Winkie’, said one columnist for the Daily Telegraph, scathingly. You can’t help but wonder what on Earth the government is going to come up with next.

Where Hughes has got a point, though, is when she says that parents seem to be losing confidence in their abilities. But she should ask herself why this might be the case. Could it be that endless government initiatives intervening in the minutiae of family life – premised on the idea that most adults are ‘emotionally illiterate’ - have contributed to a continuing corrosion of parents’ self-confidence?

As I argued in the session I spoke at – titled ‘Attachment…is a magic bullet?’ – the more parents are led to believe that they are likely to mess up unless they seek expert advice, the more stilted and insecure they are likely to become in the way they relate to their children. Parent-child relationships are shaped and sustained through a unique and enduring love – a love that, in the vast majority of cases, is healthily expressed through spontaneous emotional interactions. If we are led to believe that we need to follow a set script in order to engage with children in a non-destructive way, then ultimately we will be held back from expressing loving, compassionate and empathic feelings.

It makes no sense to make us all sing from the same hymn-sheet. Whatever ‘experts’ and government officials may say, there is no one ‘correct’ way for parents to engage with their children. Yet this is not something the government is willing to concede. According to Hughes, without yet more government initiatives we will be on ‘the road to ruin’, with families finding it much harder to be happy. Governments before 1997 operated in the ‘dark ages’, she argued, believing they had no role in the upbringing of children, and instead regarding such activity as an entirely ‘private arrangement families make’.

But Hughes cannot have it both ways – arguing that parents cannot be trusted to bring up their children without government-sponsored intervention (or ‘support’, as she prefers to call it) on the one hand, and bemoaning the growing insecurity amongst parents in their abilities to bring up their children on the other hand. How about leaving parents to their ‘private arrangements’ – otherwise known as normal family life?

First published by spiked