The parenting trap

25th August 2006 at 01:00
The notion that mum and dad need lessons in how to bring up their child has become insidiously all-pervasive, says Stuart Waiton

hile on holiday in Brighton, I was invited to attend a radio debate on parenting. The question being discussed was: should parenting classes be introduced for adults and children? The taxi driver on the way to the studio told me, to my surprise, that he himself was attending parenting classes. It turned out that he had "voluntarily" decided to go because his 14-year-old son was in trouble - having stolen from a shop and ended up in court.

The lad was found guilty of stealing an item worth around pound;5 from a hardware store, and in court the father was offered these classes. He accepted, not because he felt it would be of any benefit but because it was "the right thing to do in the circumstances".

The dubious idea of these classes being "voluntary" was clear in this case, but so too was the way that the idea of parenting classes has become institutionalised over recent years, and with it the idea that parenting is something that needs to be taught.

Despite the "voluntary" nature of the classes on offer, the clear implication of this boy's court case was that somehow the father was to blame for his son's behaviour. In a sense, the parent as much as the child was on trial - and, by accepting the classes, the father was proving his credentials as a good parent. In today's world, a good parent is one that accepts they need help from an "expert".

Through the courts, but also through the many new home-school link jobs created in the past few years, and also via various Sure Start programmes, parents are increasingly being given lessons in parenting. There is also now the obligatory helpline for parents called "OK to Ask", which was set up in April.

The various "parent experts", many of whom would not describe themselves as such, are, in my experience, often decent people just doing their job.

Unfortunately, built into their work is an assumption that people can't cope with an aspect of life that, until recently, was seen as a basic part of life. Nor do any of these workers appear to consider that, by stepping in as the "expert", they may actually be undermining the authority of the parent who now sees parenting as an activity that needs skills, experts and classes.

An aspect of parenting classes that is rarely considered is the impact that the professionalising of parenting is having on the older generation. This was brought home to me recently when my sister-in-law phoned my mother to ask her about a problem she was having with her son.

My mother, a primary school teacher for 30 years, is a mother of four and now a grandmother of four. She gave the best advice she could - correctly in my opinion. But she then finished the conversation by explaining to my sister-in-law that there were a number of books on the subject and that perhaps she should read them.

At one level, my mother was simply being open-minded and pointing out that there are other views on the subject. But it occurred to me that, in the past, she would have been both more confident in her own opinion and would also have seen family issues as just that - issues to be resolved by the family.

The growing parenting industry contains a hidden danger that in future parents will tend not to bother to phone their own parents for advice but rather turn to the myriad experts for support. By turning parenting into a new specialised expert form of knowledge, the understanding and experience of older generations of parents will be undermined.

At a time when the generation gap is growing and older adults are increasingly feeling redundant in terms of their relationships with young people, the growth of parenting classes not only runs the risk of undermining parents' authority, but of reinforcing the distance that exists between old and young.

Stuart Waiton is director of GenerationYouthIssues.org.

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