Why Politicians Shouldn't Reach for the Parenting Classes

Commentators from the 'hang-em-and-flog-em' school are having a field day, now they have apparent proof of the sickness created by permissive, liberal values.

I am running a little tally of all the contradictions revealed by the responses to this week's mayhem. One is that the same society that believes that parents smacking children is akin to child abuse now seems to support riot police spraying teenagers with plastic bullets. Another is that the demand to see the looters (rather than 'society') as responsible for their own actions goes alongside an assumption that the parents of the looters must be to blame.

The problem hinted at in both these responses has correctly been identified as an erosion of adult authority. But focusing on weapons for the police, or more parenting classes for everybody, simplifies the problem and its solution in a grotesque and dangerous way. Deputy PM Nick Clegg has been sniffy about having at 'sociological debates' about the riots, on the grounds that what we need is tough action instead of soft theories. But the reality is that the breakdown of adult authority is a generational, cultural, historical problem that needs to be understood in order to be challenged.

No doubt some of the rioters had inadequate parents who didn't discipline them enough at home, or bring them up with a sense of right and wrong. But others surely had perfectly good enough parents, who lived by the rules themselves and expected their kids to do the same. Blaming inadequate parenting for these teenagers' misdeeds is merely a version of blaming 'poverty', or 'society', implying a thoroughly deterministic relationship between what goes on at home and how young adults behave outside it. It's just another form of the parodied insanity defence: 'My mother shouted at me as a child so I had no choice but to become a mass murder'.

For politicians to reach for the parenting classes would not just be inadequate. It would also make the problem of adult authority far worse. The official obsession with parenting techniques has already done great damage to parents' capacity to exercise their authority. It conflates discipline with child abuse, depriving parents of the options needed to discipline their children, then blaming them when they fail to do so. It also discourages parents from doing what they intuitively think is right and instructing them to follow text-book guidelines or TV tips instead. Children quickly pick up on the uncertainty this creates, and internalise the message that Mum and/or Dad are not the 'boss of the family' after all.

Parents themselves are treated like misguided children or recalcitrant teens, with politicians instructing them what to feed their children, what (not) to drink in front of them, how many hours of homework to spend with them per night, and alternately criticising parents for mollycoddling their kids or for not letting them take enough risks. This also fuels the self-centred character of child-rearing that many are bemoaning in the wake of the looting.

'Good parenting' has become far more about ensuring that your children aren't fat and are happy - criteria on which parents are continually judged by those in authority - than on raising them to be decent, morally autonomous citizens as they approach adulthood. No wonder some kids think the world owes them everything: that's what their parents have been taught to teach them.

Commentators from the 'hang-em-and-flog-em' school are having a field day, now they have apparent proof of the sickness created by permissive, liberal values, and carte blanche to bash, in Melanie Phillips' words, not just 'feral children, but feral parents'. In fact, it is the profoundly illiberal trend towards parent training that has fuelled adults' sense of disconnect and powerlessness when it comes their own children.

Within days, proponents of 'early intervention' in child-rearing were quick to stress how the riots prove the need for precisely this policy approach. It is telling that adult society's approach to out-of-control teenagers is to focus even more intently on babies, as if the teenagers are already lost to us and they are too big to handle anyway. With this kind of cowardly opportunism in policy circles, why should we assume these 'experts' have anything to say about parenting at all?

The reasons for the breakdown of adult authority are complex and far-reaching, tied up with wider crises of morality, community, and traditional institutions in modern Britain. Many commentators have noticed this: indeed, the extent to which every element of our society seems to have been labelled 'sick' makes one wonder how they will trump the hyperbole when the next riot/scandal/natural disaster comes along. The riots should prompt some tough questions and difficult - even, dare I say, 'sociological' - discussions. What we don't need is fatalism - or more parenting classes.


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