Brought to book on 'tough love'

6th January 2012 at 00:00
Politicians' recent hard line on parenting skills is founded on a study from the 1950s, when the approach to children and discipline was brutal, research argues

The type of "tough love" politicians want parents and teachers to show young people appears to be based on a 1950s book, which recorded that boys were being thrashed and girls stripped, according to a new paper. Judith Suissa, of London University's Institute of Education, suggests that the Government's drive to offer parenting classes - including to teenagers in schools - is built on a surprisingly brutal foundation.

David Cameron's backing for "tough love" approaches to parenting followed a report by the Labour MP Frank Field in 2010 on how to give poor children the best possible chance of avoiding an adulthood of poverty. Mr Field's recommendations included the teaching of parenting skills in schools, including a GCSE qualification in (presumably theoretical) parenting. He also toured the country, speaking to children and their parents.

These recommendations were enthusiastically endorsed by the coalition Government. Good parenting, Mr Cameron argued, would help foster commitment, resilience and empathy among children. It was therefore the Government's - and schools' - responsibility to support families and help parents to develop appropriate skills.

Mr Field drew liberally on the recommendations of 1950s anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, who he said advocated a "tough love" style of parenting. Thanks to Gorer, he said, "England fell in love with becoming a nation of good parents. Child-rearing practices were transformed."

Dr Suissa therefore decided to read the book by Gorer that Mr Field cited, Exploring English Character, published in 1955.

The book draws on questionnaires returned by 5,000 parents. In it, Gorer attempts to explain how the English had become "among the most peaceful, gentle, courteous and orderly populations that the civilised world has ever seen", when in the 17th and 18th centuries they had been "remarkably pugnacious and violent, callous about the sufferings of others, which indeed they often found a source of hilarious amusement".

To examine how this transformation came about, Gorer quizzed parents on their child-rearing techniques. These are quoted liberally, both in his book and by Dr Suissa.

"I do not approve of being brutal," said a young, middle-class mother from Hertfordshire. "But a good tanning I do not frown on."

Others highlighted a clear divide between the treatment of boys and girls. "Boys should be thrashed," said an elderly, working-class father from Nottinghamshire, "but avoiding injuries other than flesh weals. Girls as for boys, but not after the age of puberty, when exposure might be regarded as an outrage. After that, deprive them of allowances and privileges."

A Lancashire father of two teenage girls, meanwhile, advocated thrashing boys with a strap, then forcing them to stay indoors for at least two weeks with minimal food. For a girl, he recommended: "Slapping posterior with hand, while girl is completely naked. Kept without new clothes and pocket money for three months."

That, Dr Suissa points out, is a whole lot of tough with your love.

But rather than suggesting that parenting was the most important factor in the change in behaviour in England, Gorer argues that "the most significant factor in the development of a strict conscience and law-abiding habits in the majority of urban English men and women was the invention and development of the institution of the modern English police force".

Gorer then went on to praise the English policeman as "a model of conduct": he both literally and symbolically holds back the destructive forces within. "The policeman, it would seem, became for many Englishmen the ideal model of masculine strength and responsibility," Gorer said.

Ultimately, however, Dr Suissa believes that the evidence basis for the Government's tough-love strategy is actually irrelevant. She insists that any one-size-fits-all, cause-and-effect assumption would be similarly flawed.

"Because both parents and children are individual human agents, they are not only influenced by, but create, interpret and act on an infinitely diverse and fluid range of social, emotional, political and cultural factors," she says.

Besides, she adds, debates about child-rearing should not be about what works: there should be no expectations that schools and parents work together to generate a particular type of person.

"For the varieties of human flourishing, human goodness and human badness are infinite," she says. "Government's role, in liberal societies, should be to provide the basic preconditions necessary for individuals to flourish."


Judith Suissa is senior lecturer in the philosophy of education at London University's Institute of Education. She is the author, with Stefan Ramaekers, of The Claims of Parenting; Reasons, Responsibility and Society (Springer, 2011).

The full text of Exploring English Character by Geoffrey Gorer is online at http:bit.lyrzt4Iq

Find out more about Frank Field at

THE 1950s VIEW

"The formation of a good English character depends on the parents imposing suitable disciplines as early as possible; the child's character will be spoiled if the discipline is insufficient or not applied soon enough."

Geoffrey Gorer, anthropologist

"A day locked in his bedroom with bread and water was enough to curb naughtiness."

Mother of a son

"I do not approve of being brutal, but a good tanning I do not frown on."

Middle-class mother, Hertfordshire

"Boys should be thrashed, but avoiding injuries other than flesh weals."

Working-class father, Nottinghamshire

For a boy: "Thrashing with a strap, then made to stay in at least two weeks. Minimum of food during that time."

For a girl: "Slapping posterior with hand, while girl is completely naked. Kept without pocket money for three months."

Middle-working-class man, Lancashire.

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