The parenting blame game

Can good parenting be taught and are parents as all-powerful as early years education policy seems to suggest? Is the emphasis on parenting to the deteriment of working mums, making them feel guilty for not devoting all their energy to their children in their early years?

man and woman's feet standing next to empty baby shoes


A conference this week seeks to question the whole basis of the parenting lobby. Organised by the Parenting Culture Studies and the Kent Centre for Law Gender and Sexuality, Monitoring Parents: Science, evidence, experts and the new parenting culture will be held at the University of Kent on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The organisers say parenting is now being ‘scientised’ in a new way.

They say: “We have been struck by the presence of claims suggesting that science, in particular neuroscience, prove that a particular parenting style is superior and can lead to better children and a better society. It is in this light that we aim over the coming months to initiate a socio-cultural enquiry into ‘parenting science.”

They are particularly concerned by government interest, led by Iain Duncan Smith, in using neuroscience to justify early intervention in “problem” families.

They say that “while it is true that extreme abuse can damage children’s development, the evidence that it is family life in general that conditions behaviour is limited”. They are worried that parenting training is being rolled out to all parents based on limited data.

Dr Ellie Lee, Reader in Social Policy at the University of Kent, and Director of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies (CPCS), said: “The present case for early intervention can perhaps be best characterised as an example of a ‘good lie’.

Those who consider it has flaws, or even know it to be entirely untrue in fundamental ways, have become prepared to overlook the lies in the hope that schemes they consider to have some good aspects get funding support… is time for more questions to be asked about the prejudice of parent determinism.”

The Centre characterises the new focus on parenting as being about:

  • The construction of the parent as ‘God like’, with what parents do represented as determining an individual child’s development, and also as the underlying cause of a wide range of social problems
  • The construction of children, in general, as ‘vulnerable’ and so far more sensitive than was previously considered to be the case to risks impacting on physical and emotional development
  • The growing validation of the idea that parents need to be trained in effective ways of managing and minimising the manifold risks to the child; the parent is thus viewed as being all-powerful but at the same time as unable to properly exercise power without expert guidance
  • The extension of ‘parenting’ in this form backwards into pregnancy, and even into pre-pregnancy
  • The development of growing gender-neutrality in this area as ‘fathering’ is more and more conceptualised as both a highly important but also problematic activity
  • The emergence of ‘parenting’ as a policy problem and the concomitant emergence of an explicit family/parenting policy agenda in Britain, and elsewhere
  • The increasing propensity to represent good parenting as a skill-set that can be both taught and learned through reference to scientific evidence about how to parent well.

Speakers at the conference include Professor Glenda Wall from the Department of Sociology at Wilfred Laurier University in Canada who will talk about her research with preschool children and their mothers.

She is particularly interested in how mothers in particular are viewed as having a huge amount of control over how their children turn out and children are seen as completely vulnerable.

She says this puts a huge amount of pressure on mothers and extends to their choices about whether they work and for how long.

The conference organisers hope the conference will “encourage discussion of and debate about developments through which ‘parenting’ has been constructed as an activity which can and should be influenced by scientific evidence and expert opinion”.

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