Family life, UK, 2007
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:
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."