Every parent's duty to disappear

7th November 1997 at 00:00
When Louise Woodward was originally charged with murder, in March of this year, I wrote an article about the fears it raised about irresponsible, or even dangerous, childminders. I told a story about a nanny we had appointed who, we soon discovered, was mentally ill. She may even have been suffering from Munch-ausen's Syndrome. We never discovered the truth because when we arranged for her to seek treatment, she vanished. Scary.

But by the time of the trial, the main public response both in Britain and, much more surprisingly, in the United States had shifted. Instead of being concerned about unqualified nannies, the public was now concerned about irresponsible parents. Matthew Eappen's mother, Deborah, received hate mail accusing her of abandoning her baby because she was working all of three days a week.

It's one of the odder and least expected developments of recent years. Just as more women are working and those with jobs are working longer hours, so the sense of parental responsibility is actually increasing. Think of all the women in earlier generations who stayed at home but didn't breastfeed, and of today's executive mothers running to the lavatory with a breast pump and a shopping bag full of plastic bottles.

The same happens now with parents and education. Obviously this isn't true of everybody. There is a large number of parents who can't be bothered, or lack the resources in one way or another, to make any contribution to their children's education beyond, perhaps, an occasional cleared space in one corner of the kitchen table. Other parents can do much the same thing in a more socially acceptable manner. A friend of mine has announced that she is switching her children to a private school because she simply works too hard to give their education any attention. The school will deal with all that. That's what they'll be paid to do.

Then there are the rest of us in the middle of it. Thirty years ago, when I went to primary school in exactly the same part of London that I still live in, the attitude was completely different. The duties of parents were to get their children to school on time and attend the Christmas concert. There was no jumble sale, no parent governors, no homework. If any parent phoned the headmaster with a worry about their child, they were told not to bother him. These were more paternalistic days.

Today, in the same state primary schools, it's not just that parents are deciding budgets, appointing teachers, raising money for core activities, organising extra activities, taking classes, but that the whole psychological barrier between school and home has been blurred and even dissolved. When I took my O-levels in the mid-Seventies, there were, unbelievable as it may seem, no guides specifically designed to get you through the exam. (The first ones were published at the end of that decade: "rather too late for me", as Philip Larkin said of sexual intercourse.) Today, I am actually learning the violin with one of my daughters, while attending music lessons with two of the other children. Much of the time I used to spend reading books and going to movies is now spent considering projects about Ancient Greece and "My Environment" and "My Body". Holistic education, we might have called it in the Seventies.

It seems the right thing to do, and it's enjoyable most of the time. But just occasionally,when at a violin class I've watched a parent taking notes of every word that the teacher said instead of reading the paper like a normal human being, I've wondered. After all, the patron saint of parental involvement is Ruth Lawrence's father. He got her into university at the age of 12 and then went there with her. When last heard of, she was in the United States, where she is teaching mathematics. And so was he.

Last Saturday morning, I dropped one of the children off at football. We staggered through the ranks of fathers coaching and fathers refereeing. "This is the place," he said. "Now go away." Even for very small children, one of your crucial responsibilities is not to be there.

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