16/09/2011 12:09 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

Are You A Guilty Parent? Time To Ignore The Endless Bossy Studies

Woman frustrated Getty

Here's the golden rule of being a parent: whatever you do is wrong.


Or at least that's how it seems. We do our best. But these days there's always someone shouting at us to try harder.


This is particularly true if you're the parent of a toddler. With all the emphasis on the vital importance of early years, you can end up feeling that one false move will scar your child for life.

'It's making people utterly over-anxious,' says Dr Ellie Lee, a sociologist at Kent University and director of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, who spoke this week at the Moderating Parents conference held at the university.

'Every single day there's some kind of report, like the one from UNICEF telling parents that something's wrong with British children. It's relentless. It makes the experience of having children much more miserable than it should be.'

Right at the moment, there's a huge emphasis on doing the right thing when your child is small.
That's particularly tough if you're making decisions about going back to work.

You would think, in 2011, that we'd be able to stand back and say – 'Do whatever you think is best.' (Maybe you have to work for the money. Maybe you love your job.)

But you won't get off that lightly. You'll be caught in the crossfire of experts arguing about whether small babies should be with their mothers or happily thriving in nurseries.

The argument is that the first three years are crucial. The idea of a small brain being emotionally and psychologically hardwired by early experiences isn't new. But a recent and rather worrying trend is to back up reports with evidence from neuroscience.

It's serious stuff. If you believe everything you read, bad parenting can physically affect the way a child's brain grows. 'The MP Graham Allen,' says Ellie Lee, 'has put out two policy documents which argue that the development of the brains of some children in Britain is held back because of what parents are doing or not doing.' (Look at the cover of his report.) 'Early intervention: the next steps'. Here's the healthy brain of a normal three-year-old child. Here's the brain of a child who has suffered extreme neglect.)

Can this really be true? It's not always easy to get to the bottom of the arguments, says Ellie Lee, because a lot of the recent research drawing on scientific 'evidence' is shoddy and badly done. She's also astonished at the giant leaps being made from research to what she calls 'overbearing bossiness'.


'People seem to have lost any restraint,' she says, 'about using scientific language and partial research findings to dictate to people what they should do in their family life.'


If you're the parent of a small child, it should be possible to take a step back and let all this shouty bossiness just wash over you. But it's not always that easy. There are so many Government pronouncements now about what you should and shouldn't do that you'd have to be wearing permanent earplugs to block it all out.

Working mum greeted by children Alamy

In August, the thinktank Centre Forum produced a report with '5 A Day' parenting suggestions, including reading with your child for 15 minutes and talking to them for 20 minutes with the television off. Children's minister Sarah Teather was all in favour.

No one is against the idea of playing with children. (That would be silly.) But it doesn't really matter whether the Centre Forum report is brilliant or a horrible example of interfering in people's lives. The point is that it piles on the pressure to be the perfect parent. If you don't do the right thing, you'll stunt your child's development and ruin their life chances forever. Be guilty. It's all your fault.

'The idea,' says Ellie Lee, 'is that if something goes wrong in the early years, there's nothing you can do about it later on. It's as if children are fixed forever by their early experiences. But there seems no reason to believe this. It's unwarranted fatalism.'

Maybe this emphasis on early intervention has gone too far. We've got so used to the idea that it's the only way to make a real difference to the lives of families in Britain that we've forgotten to look at any of the alternatives.

Ellie Lee would prefer something a lot more radical. 'The one thing that would make the most difference,' she says, 'is flexible, readily accessible, cheap childcare. It's what adults need. It would give them time to work, and time to reflect on parenthood.

'But more than this, it's a very important idea socially and culturally that it's the general responsibility of all adults to bring up kids. I'd like the government to say, childcare matters, and this is why. It shouldn't just be pushed back on to individual parents – and particularly on to individual mothers.'


But don't hold your breath. We're in a recession. Universal childcare is expensive. It's cheaper to make parents feel guilty.