Monday 2 February 2009


The mother of all interventions

We should roundly reject the new UK report which argues that time-stretched parents are producing damaged children.

What a shame that the key recommendation of one of the biggest investigations into childhood conducted in the UK is to provide yet more patronising advice to parents about how they should relate to their children. And the unnecessary lectures don’t stop there. The report even makes recommendations on how to ensure that partners relate to each other in an emotionally correct way.

A Good Childhood; Searching for Values In A Competitive Age, a report commissioned by the Children’s Society and produced by the Good Childhood Inquiry, provides a gloomy analysis of life for children in Britain. To be published on Wednesday 4 February, after a two-year inquiry, the report claims: ‘The UK fares exceptionally badly in bringing about the wellbeing of its children. In comparison with other EU member states, children in the UK are found to have poorer relationships, to engage in riskier behaviour and suffer from worse health than their European counterparts… While elsewhere in Europe there seems to be some correlation between a nation’s wealth and the wellbeing of its children, the UK is a notable exception.‘ (1)

A major part of the responsibility for these problems, according to the report, lies with parents who either don’t possess the skills needed to raise children properly, or are too busy to give their kids enough attention. For example, one of the Children’s Society surveys found that 60 per cent of adult respondents agreed with the statement that ‘nowadays parents aren’t able to spend enough time with their children’. But such results should not be taken at face value. It may well be that many adults feel guilty about not spending enough time with their children precisely because they are incessantly told that they should be spending more time together. In reality, there is no evidence that parents and children are spending less time together today than in the past - in fact, it is likely to be the opposite.

Children’s relationships outside the home are also examined in A Good Childhood. The inquiry found that only 43 per cent of British children find their peers ‘kind and helpful’, the lowest proportion in 29 industrialised countries. Is this really so surprising given the way anti-bullying campaigns have encouraged children to assume that their relationships with other children are potentially damaging and therefore to look upon their peers with trepidation and suspicion?

This pessimistic portrayal is reflected in the weekend coverage of the report. The Sunday Times (London) summarises the message of the report as: ‘Britain’s cult of individualism, greed and selfishness has so blighted children’s lives that families and pupils need basic training in love and moral responsibility.’ (2) Elsewhere in the paper, Daisy Goodwin writes that the report demonstrates how ‘parental shortcomings are the hallmarks of British parenting’ (3).

This assumption that parents are incapable of bringing up their children and so we need further state intervention into family life is a recent phenomenon, which reflects the interests of the state and a variety of academics and campaigners rather than the realities of family life.

At a recent conference I attended in Kent, England, a speaker brought up the relatively recent, and rather curious, transmogrification of the word ‘parent’ from a noun to a verb. After all, we would find it rather strange if people started talking about ‘wifing’ their husbands. We don’t tend to subscribe to the notion that there are set ways one should behave ‘as a wife’ or ‘as a husband’. But we are continually told there are set ways parents should behave.

A Good Childhood does not only propose further meddling in adult-child relations, but in adult relationships, too. Elsewhere in The Sunday Times, the authors of A Good Childhood, Professor Judith Dunn and Lord Richard Layard, wrote: ‘It is crucial how the parents get on with each other. It is remarkable how many parents do not realise how important this is for their children. In a survey, teenagers and parents were asked whether they agreed with the statement: “Parents getting on well is one of the most important factors in raising happy children.” Seven in 10 of the teenagers agreed, but only a third of the parents did so.’

So what’s the solution? According to Dunn and Layard, ‘The National Health Service should ensure that parenting classes are available free to all parents around the birth of a child, especially their first. Fathers as well as mothers should be encouraged to take courses in “understanding your child”, and be prepared for the strain of sleepless nights… young people should receive proper and culturally sensitive education in the skills of parenting, relationships and child development.’ (4)

Given its past record, I’m sure the New Labour government won’t have any compunctions in taking on board the report’s recommendations on the need to educate us all about how to relate to each other as partners in a relationship. But such regulation from on high ignores the way in which even situations that look from the outside like they should have negative and painful consequences for children often prove to be rewarding thanks to the resilience and love of parents and children alike. We should have more faith in adults and children working out family lives and relationships for themselves, rather than relying on academics poring over survey results to teach us all how to speak, act and feel within our families.

For example, when I was 16 years old, my parents got divorced and my family was split between Scotland and Norway. This was a tough time for my parents, my four siblings and myself. But my mother, a psychiatrist, did what she needed to do: that was to leave Norway. And a lot of good has come out of it, not least our incredibly close family ties, which I believe are partly a result of having to make that extra effort to see each other.

Of course, if you ask children how they feel when their parents argue, they are most likely going to say that they find it very distressing. I remember having sleepless nights worrying about whether my parents were going to split up. But that does not mean that children are emotionally scarred by the experience. In fact, the long-term effect of separation and divorce on children’s development is far from clear-cut.

Many researchers in the field of psychology are acutely aware of the difficulty in eliminating subjective influence on research about human beings and human relationships. When looking into the effect on children of parental conflict and divorce it is easy to come up with harmful consequences – if that is what is being looked for. The possibility that there may be positive outcomes is often not considered, and thereby the results are distorted.

Having reviewed the research on the effects of divorce, child development expert Rudolf Schaffer concludes that ‘the majority of children experience problems in the months immediately following divorce’, but ‘in the long term children show considerable resilience; they are able to readjust to a large range of new family circumstances’. Although maladjustment is more likely in children of divorced parents than non-divorced parents, the vast majority ‘do not show any severe or enduring problems’ (5).

We lost our mother almost three years ago, and what I wish more than anything is to have been able to convince her that despite breaking many of the contemporary rules of so-called ‘good parenting’ she was a wonderful person who gave her children an immense amount: above all an interest in the world and other people, and an aspiration to make a difference. As her obituary in the British Medical Journal stated: ‘Her intelligence, a very special sense of humour, a memorable personality and colourful life [will long be] remembered and treasured by her family.’ But according to the warnings put forward by Layard and Dunn, my mother did many of those things that were likely to damage us for life (as I suspect very many mothers may be ‘guilty’ of doing).

The Good Childhood Inquiry’s recommendations are an insult to all the wonderful people who raised our generation, without recourse to the current, officially sanctioned parenting advice. Human relationships are about so much more than saying or doing the right things at the right time. Unless our aim is to raise a generation of robots, I strongly recommend opposing all the recommendations for more ‘expert’ intervention in family life coming out of the Good Children Inquiry.

It will not help parents if they are loaded with guilt for behaviours that are as inevitable as they are harmless. And it will do children no good to think that they can for ever blame all their bad behaviour on their parents.

The government, media and army of parenting experts should allow children to carry on loving their parents despite their many flaws, and parents to continue loving their children in their own way. It might be awkward, it might be clumsy, but it’s a million times better than the uptight approach advocated by self-appointed childrearing experts.

Helene Guldberg is managing editor of spiked. Her book, Reclaiming Childhood, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) See A Good Childhood, the Children’s Society

(2) Cure for the Facebook generation, The Sunday Times, 1 February 2009

(3) Our children’s blighted lives, The Sunday Times, 1 February 2009

(4) Parents - pull your socks up, The Sunday Times, 1 February 2009

(5) Schaffer, R. H. (2004) Introducing Child Psychology, Oxford: Blackwell, p 98