I know we're not supposed to feel sorry for politicians and lord knows they usually bring controversy on themselves but this weekend I find myself musing on the old 'damned if you do and even more damned if you don't' problem.
Claire Perry has once again given an interview to a newspaper in which she appears to give parents a hard time. Let's be fair giving parents a hard time is a national sport. Newspapers would have fewer pages if they couldn't find some feckless family to criticise. Parents stand accused of either letting their children run wild and we (the state) should be identifying the parents (actually we still really mean Mothers when we say parents) that are likely to screw up parenting before they even give birth OR parents are so over protective and mollycoddling that we are breeding a generation of young people that will be incapable of surviving adulthood.
And of course the truth sits somewhere in between.
My initial reaction to the Claire Perry interview was one of horror. Once again we had a headline that put the boot into parents. Infact my own 14-year-old son suggested we forego our usual Saturday Times because he knew I would rant and rave about it all weekend. Infact, when I read the article (14 year old only has so much power in my house) I found myself agreeing with some of what she said. It is true that Mothers can over invest in their children. Don't we all? Haven't we always? The difference now is that we have spent so much time telling parents how badly they are failing that we have created a generation of paranoid parents. The last government wagged their fingers at parents so much that they all but persuaded us that parenting was something we had to be taught. Forget maternal instincts, we were fed a steady stream of disempowering messages that lifted parenting to the same dizzy heights as learning car maintenance or cake decorating. We were all supposed to go to night classes.
Did it help? Absolutely not. What happened was that parents worried even more than they always had. The concept of 'good enough' was abandoned under a torrent of expert advice and bossy research papers. Not to mention judgmental columnists and alarmist headlines.
The public conversation about parenting changed from generally supportive to downright critical. Anyone and everyone would castigate any parent that left a child outside the pub with a packet of crisps and a bottle of pop in this day and age. When I was a child a parent that did that was called my Mum. And actually, everyone else's Mum because it wasn't a big deal. So what's changed? Here's my list.
No1. Most parents work. For better or worse, rightly or wrongly in the real world of parenting Mum and Dad are both working damned hard just to pay the bills. Back in the day, one salary was enough at least whilst the kids were small. That means that parents are desperately trying to squeeze 'good enough' parenting into less time. They feel guilty, pressured and they still want to be great parents.
No2. We expect more. Once upon a time, children who got B's and C's in their exams were still doing OK. Not any more. Our society has gone so bonkers that on the one hand you've failed if you don't get 8 A stars and on the other 42% of pupils don't manage to get 5 decent GCSE's. You either over succeed or you fail. The middle ground has disappeared and parents feel the pressure and pass it on.
No3. Policy makers got involved and then buggered off. In 1998 we had the first ever Green Paper on the family. It was groundbreaking because it was the state articulating the need to support families. At last it felt as though the state was recognising that it was important to remember that families were at the heart of our society in all their various forms and getting it right for families really mattered.
No4 It really did get harder. Is there any wonder that parents struggle to get it right when so many external pressures are brought to bear directly on their children? From supermarkets selling special 'children's food' to app developers creating apps specifically for children with pretend fairy food you can buy with your little tiny fingers whilst you're playing the app. We create a world in which it's OK to push products and services directly to children. We disempower parents and then when all the cards are stacked against a parent doing a good enough job. When their confidence is shot and they no longer know what the question is let alone what the answer might be we jump in with a great big dollop of criticism. After all it is bound to be the parent's fault.
Truthfully I'm delighted that Claire Perry is talking about parenting. We need to get parents back on the agenda, but we need to do so with respect. We need to advocate for parents not belittle them. We know being a parent can be difficult (it can and mostly is also the best, most exciting privileged experience anyone could have) so we should be minimizing anything that makes it harder than it has to be. And beating up on parents is one of those things. Sorry Claire. I don't think you meant to sound as though you were parent bashing but please take care when you crash into this debate. We need to go forward this time not backwards.