Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Family life, UK, 2007

I'm relieved to see that the new, thriving industry of professional parenting advisors finally came in for serious criticism recently, from various quarters.

The Independent, in its piece The Nanny State: Monstering of the modern mother, says: "The nanny state [is] turning mums into victims with an army of parenting gurus, healthcare experts and government campaigners poised to pounce. As a result many British mothers are feeling anxious, demoralised and unable to trust their own natural instincts."

Professor Frank Furedi of the University of Kent, author of Paranoid Parenting thinks that: "Parents are treated as bumbling amateurs. We are disempowering them. It's a form of mind control." and: "The main thing is that it leads to estrangement. Mothers and fathers become estranged from each other and from their children. Rather than a family developing a strong sense of itself, it is looking too much to the outside. Over the last ten years, virtually every aspect of childrearing is turned into a problem that requires their support or intervention. This undermines parents' confidence. Targeting parents has become a national sport. New Labour politicians appear to take the view that almost every social problem is caused by bad parenting. This allows failed politicians to avoid confronting their policy failures in health, education and community building."

All very true, and I would also argue, of course, that the proliferation of massive impersonal schools and childcare centres exacerbates the problem of alienation between parents and children.

Motivation of students in schools is, as ever, noted as being a problem. This piece on the BBC website, entitled: How to get pupils learning again quotes Maggie Walker of educational charity Asdan: "A lot of pupils who become disengaged lack encouragement from home. In a typical middle class home people are given pats on the back, they're given books. There was an area where I worked where they had very few books - people had maybe 10 books in the home."

Educational achievement (i.e.: learning), in this instance, is seen as being directly related to the social class to which a student belongs, and the number of books in the house. I can pop that particular bubble of a myth straight away: we have over 2000 books, easily accessible in this house and at least one out of three of my teens never even glances at any of them. He learns best from a screen and sources most of his information on the Internet. But even if we had no books in the house at all, we'd have the whole world to explore outside. The children would still receive a good education.

However, Ms Walker's class- and book-related prejudiced observations led me to start wondering what family life, childhood and education all really mean to the vast proportion of UK citizens in 2007.

Frank Furedi again: "All dictating does is to estrange mothers from their role as child-rearers. What they really need is better-resourced childcare and more flexible working." [My italics.]

... So they don't actually want to do parenting at all?

Another BBC news website story, Reluctant pushy parent confesses, cites an unnamed Buckinghamshire mother as follows: "Pushy parent? Who me? I don't think so. But I might occasionally test my daughter's knowledge of the times tables by asking random questions during longer car journeys. Or say, 'Can you look at the clock and tell me what time it is - and what's that in digital?' And maybe I'll test the occasional spelling or three. All parents do that, don't they? But in recent months I've also started timing her on how many trees or pieces of furniture she can name in a minute. Does she know both meanings of words, like guard and lock? And what is the relationship between other words, like wax and wane, ebb and flow? Not to mention Saturday mornings spent slaving over test papers, Monday and Wednesday evening coaching sessions and finally, this week after a certain amount of soul-searching, I've signed her up for a week-long intensive summer school. Oh yes, I nearly forgot. I hear that extra-curricular music lessons are something else that pushy parents pay for. So, yes, she plays the oboe! But I'm not pushy, not by Buckinghamshire standards. ... All we want is for our children 'to achieve their potential' "

"All parents do that, don't they?" Erm.... no. Not this one. Had it done to me as a child. Felt the stress of non-stop education pressure from home and school and even on car journeys between the two. And yes, I also played oboe. And no, I didn't want to. I had chronic stress-related insomnia by the time I was nine, and was being diagnosed with a congenital spine disorder by the age of fourteen, which also turned out to be stress-related. These are not signs of a healthy, happy family life. And what does she mean by "achieving their potential", I wonder? Educational potential, in terms of qualifications? Financial potential, in terms of salary? Do such parents even spend sufficient time getting to know their children to actually find out what their true potential, in its broadest, most genuine sense, really might be? Or do they just spew out terms like "achieving their potential" as euphemisms for "getting loads of qualifications and then a very big salary"?

Do people really choose have children for this? To apply pressure (sorry, encouragement) to succeed, to compete, to achieve and to attain? To attain what, exactly? Social standing I presume, which - according to my parents - is everything that matters in this life. But I disagree. Social standing does not bring happiness or contentment. It doesn't even engender real learning, or trust or communication or love.

I don't actually object to earning lots of money or having decent social standing per se, if that's how a person freely chooses to spend their life. But I think it's when parents harbour such ambitions on behalf of their children, without even taking the time to ascertain whether said children might prefer a different kind of life, that things can go badly wrong in families because children can start to feel like commodities themselves, expected to perform to a certain standard and branded as defective when they don't.

These are the parenting techniques, I find, which do tend to have the best results:

  • Respect for the child's wishes, preferences and interests;

  • Listening, conversing and asking questions. Nice questions, I mean. Not: "Six sevens?" barked, sergeant-major style, from the front seat of the car. ("Forty-two," squawks the parrot in my head, even now..) No, I mean questions like: "How are you?" "What do you think about this?" and "What would you like to do today?" - and the answers paid attention to and taken seriously.

  • Eye-contact and friendliness. Even genuine compliments, because why wouldn't we actually like our children? I really like mine. They're fantastic company and great fun.

  • Those work for us here, but no doubt every family works out their own way and so they should. I don't want to swell the burgeoning ranks of parenting gurus. They're ten to the dozen nowadays. Common as muck! But somehow, somehow family life has to be about more than rushing around at breakneck speed frantically trying to secure the best qualifications and the best job and best house, car, holiday, sun tan, plastic surgery... jewelry... snippets of silly achievements for the grandparents to boast to their friends about. It's not really about that. When we think about family life, we surely think about shared meals, shared work and shared play time. When does the modern UK school and work system allow for those things?

    I'll leave the last words to Bob Black, in his brilliant Abolition of Work. "Finally, we must do away with far and away the largest occupation, the one with the longest hours, the lowest pay and some of the most tedious tasks around. I refer to housewives doing housework and child-rearing. By abolishing wage-labor and achieving full unemployment we undermine the sexual division of labor. The nuclear family as we know it is an inevitable adaptation to the division of labor imposed by modern wage-work. Like it or not, as things have been for the last century or two it is economically rational for the man to bring home the bacon, for the woman to do the shitwork to provide him with a haven in a heartless world, and for the children to be marched off to youth concentration camps called 'schools,' primarily to keep them out of Mom's hair but still under control, but incidentally to acquire the habits of obedience and punctuality so necessary for workers. If you would be rid of patriarchy, get rid of the nuclear family whose unpaid "shadow work," as Ivan Illich says, makes possible the work-system that makes it necessary. Bound up with this no-nukes strategy is the abolition of childhood and the closing of the schools. There are more full-time students than full-time workers in this country. We need children as teachers, not students. They have a lot to contribute to the ludic revolution because they're better at playing than grown-ups are. Adults and children are not identical but they will become equal through interdependence. Only play can bridge the generation gap."

    17 Comments:

    Anonymous Clare said...

    Hi Gill

    The beginning of your post is an issue I hold close to my heart. NCT BFCs (as I am) are trained not to tell mothers what to do (a la most child care 'gurus') but to empower them to make their own choices. I really believe that this is the root of our society's problems. We are basically told from the minute we have children that we don't know how to parent them - we are bombarded with books and advice and our health visitors check up on how well we are doing by weighing our babies and testing them and us. We then impart that belief onto our children - if we don't know what we're doing, how can they know what they're doing? We disempower them by doing the same thing. I've had a blog post up my sleeve for some time about this issue and maybe your post will spur me on to write it! What I really wanted to put here is that I'm sad that BFCs are often seen in the same light as HCPs and childcare authors - advice giving people. We're not - we give factual information if necessary and use counselling skills to empower parents to make their decisions based on real information, not on advice. Thanks for that little rant :-) When my blog host is up and running again there'll hopefully be a post about it there too.

    9:21 am, May 23, 2007  
    Blogger Allie said...

    I too have been meaning to write something on a similar theme. You have done a fantasic job so perhaps I won't bother. That Bob Black was a good read. I looked him up on Wikipedia and this quote made me laugh out loud:

    "A libertarian is just a Republican who takes drugs."

    4:26 pm, May 23, 2007  
    Blogger Gill said...

    Hi Clare. Oh, it's good to know there's a non-dictating, non-'professional' support network in place for new mums who want it! I think the home ed support network runs informally on largely the same lines. Hope so, anyway. I'll look forward to reading your post :-)

    Hi Allie. ROFL that's an epic quote, isn't it? I've read a few of BBs essays now, and not found much to disagree with :-)

    4:59 pm, May 23, 2007  
    Blogger Ruth said...

    I was stunned today to discover my sister's child brought home his first report - he is not a year old yet.

    LOL re the books - same thing here - many, many only read by a few.

    6:00 pm, May 23, 2007  
    Blogger Elaine said...

    I agree with everything you say so my response is limited by that fact. So after reading your post I decided to ask google the type of questions a parent would look for answers to, e.g. my child is being bullied, I varied the questions but the only question where the gov(inc councils)/media didnt have the majority in the first 10 results was 'my child is autistic' which technically wasn't a question.

    10:31 pm, May 23, 2007  
    Blogger Allie said...

    Hi Gill,

    Sorry, but I've tagged you on that 'Thinking Blogger' meme.

    11:27 pm, May 23, 2007  
    Anonymous jax said...

    Actually, I've got to say that I thought that Independent article was tosh. I know an awful lot of working mothers who do not feel pressured to rush home to cook from scratch to their brood (they either do it because they want to, or they don't do it at all and don't feel pressured either). I also got the impression that it was just another way of telling parents they are disempowered - you are disempowered because you can't figure out you don't have to listen to all these twits who've never tried raised children.

    Or did I miss something?

    11:32 pm, May 23, 2007  
    Anonymous jax said...

    Oh, and "I can pop that particular bubble of a myth straight away: we have over 2000 books, easily accessible in this house and at least one out of three of my teens never even glances at any of them."

    It doesn't say anything about reading the books, it talks about having books in your house. The presence of books in your house is one way of assessing the overall attitude to books and learning in the ppl who set up the environment. You are displaying a wonderfully open and supportive environment, and it is resulting in your teen learning. Just because he chooses not to read the books, doesn't mean that you've popped any bubble of myth I don't think.

    I'm sorry, I seem to be being extremely combative tonight, not my intention to seem so, your post has been thought provoking though!

    11:38 pm, May 23, 2007  
    Blogger Gill said...

    Ruth, that is truly stunning! Did it say "Could try harder"? Mine all did ;-)

    Elaine.. yup, they have it all taped up don't they? Gotta wonder why.

    Allie - thanks! (..I think!) That looks like a job for tomorrow :-)

    Jax, yay to feeling combative! :-) Right, let's have a look..

    "I know an awful lot of working mothers who do not feel pressured to rush home to cook from scratch to their brood" - yes me too, but sadly I also know a lot who avidly watch Supernanny and do take it as gospel. I even know people who think SureStart is a good idea. Scary, huh? :-/
    *Pulls on flame retardant suit..*

    "The presence of books in your house is one way of assessing the overall attitude to books and learning in the ppl who set up the environment." Yes, it's prejudging my approach to education on the single fact that I have books. Having books proves nothing. I might have a house full of books for show, or for my own use, and ban my children from accessing them, for all anyone knows. I might think: "I'll get loads of books and then everyone will assume I've got the 'right' attitude to my children's education, whether I have or not."

    Similarly I might possess no books at all, yet deliver top notch ed provision, which was then deemed unsuitable because of silly assumptions about book ownership.

    12:20 am, May 24, 2007  
    Anonymous jax said...

    It was a surestart funded breastfeeding support group that I went to when I had Small - not all surestart is bad ;)

    I just think you're possibly attacking the wrong bit of this problem here. Class prejudice is entirely possibly worth going at, but ppl who think books are indicative of a good environment show a certain amount of promise in my mind. I daresay there are houses where there are books that children aren't allowed to touch, but generally speaking if you've got 2000 books in the house, you've gathered them because you've an inquiring mind, and that is going to rub off on your offspring, whether or not they read the books. And in houses where there are few books, I would think it's entirely likely that there isn't nearly as open an environment - the only books in the house I grew up in were readers digest condensed books, until I started buying books for myself, and I was always thought weird for wanting to be off in a corner reading for myself.

    11:01 pm, May 24, 2007  
    Blogger Gill said...

    The only reason I don't like Surestart is its government connections. Sure, it will have good people doing good stuff for it, but while ever it's central government managed, I won't like it. I feel very strongly that government should stay right out of family life except for dire emergencies.

    And as for the book thing, yes I do agree with you on the balance of probabilities, but I worry about tickbox officialdom making unfair judgements on some families who don't own a lot of books, and I don't like the implication that all learning can only be found in books, as some people who work in education seem to think is the case.

    And LOL, that came out as 'some people who wonk in education..' the first time round!

    11:06 pm, May 24, 2007  
    Blogger dottyspots said...

    "I feel very strongly that government should stay right out of family life except for dire emergencies. "

    It's a difficult one in my eyes, as, local government has the cash to put into such things as providing breast-feeding support - which might not otherwise happen - of course excellent alternatives do exist, e.g. NCT or La Leche League, however, having something on one's 'doorstep' can be an added incentive to seek that support.

    The local breastfeeding workshop at the Sure Start where we used to live was run by an extended breastfeeding (eldest was around 4 when me moved) autonomous HE-er - which I thought was just fab as a completely 'different' approach for local people to have the opportunity to meet. They didn't own a car, cycled everywhere and were so incredibly different from the majority of people on that estate. Such a lifestyle might be thought to flag up 'concerns' for SureStart, but the set-up seemed to work well.

    I do rile at the perceived assumption (IMHO) that some parts of society are not as capable as others when it comes to parenting - SureStart exists in areas that might be considered to be 'deprived' and it annoys me that it appears that the assumption is, therefore, that because the area is one of families predominantly on low income/benefits, high number of single parents, etc. that that should mean that people are less able to parent than those living in predominantly middle-class areas.

    I think the fact is that Sure Start and Children's Centres do exist - and Children's Centres are apparently being extended to exist in all communities (atleast here) and therefore, for me, it makes sense to try to work with them and educate them about alternative family lifestyle choices, challenging some of the misconceptions that might exist.

    2:00 pm, May 25, 2007  
    Blogger Tech said...

    Children's Centres leave me cold, we have one in our village and going past it gives me heebie geebies! But, at our LA meeting last week we did suggest that the new HE leaflet/booklets they are producing should be put in the centres and the children's services bloke completely agreed. So I suppose I shall have to think more kindly of them, maybe... ;-)

    3:51 pm, May 25, 2007  
    Blogger Gill said...

    I take your points Nikki, but it upsets me that we need government-funded programmes to teach us how to breastfeed! It's like they've taken away the knowledge that was naturally ours and now they're selling it back to us, with free sticks and carrots as a special offer :'-(
    Ditto for education, health.. & every other unnecessary pie in which govt has a finger.

    5:09 pm, May 25, 2007  
    Blogger Gill said...

    Tech, yes that's promising :-)

    5:09 pm, May 25, 2007  
    Blogger dottyspots said...

    "I take your points Nikki, but it upsets me that we need government-funded programmes to teach us how to breastfeed! It's like they've taken away the knowledge that was naturally ours and now they're selling it back to us, with free sticks and carrots as a special offer :'-(
    Ditto for education, health.. & every other unnecessary pie in which govt has a finger. "

    I think that sometimes it's a case that people are so used to being told what to do that they then become incapable of trusting their own instincts :(

    The local Children's Centre has offered us space for a HE group (no strings attached) - the manager knows the old EO local contact here.

    They've also offered space for a babywearing meet.

    The Early Years teacher attached to the centre has asked for literature re. home ed. that she can pass on (and already has to one family). Funnily enough, her old headmaster was the famous local LA HE 'advisor' here - LOL!

    8:26 pm, May 25, 2007  
    Blogger Gill said...

    "I think that sometimes it's a case that people are so used to being told what to do that they then become incapable of trusting their own instincts :( "

    Now THAT's what I'd like to see changed.

    3:09 pm, May 27, 2007  

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