The Politics of Parenting

Since the iPhone entered my world, with instant access to a limitless amount of information, I can’t even begin to imagine the number of articles I’ve read about parenting (mostly at 2am). Each day, I flick through at least 10 different opinions, ideas and instructions on how to be the best ever parent. And every so often, one really makes me stop and take pause.

Today, it was this line

“…you need to show children how they fit in to the world, that there is a higher order”

This was in an article in the Telegraph, written by Mumfidential founder Anna Tyzack, about the Latest Parenting Guru Rachel Waddilove and her new parenting ‘manual’ ‘The Baby Book’ (when did we start calling them manuals, by the way? A word suggesting that we need only to follow the instructions within to raise the perfect child). Or rather, her old parenting manual, revised for modern mothers.

But it wasn’t her advice which made me stop to think – I’ve written before about my thoughts on parenting experts, and…well, if you’re reading this you’re probably a parent, aka a grown up, so you can make your own mind up. It was just that one line ‘…show children…that there is a higher order’.

There’s been a shift, in the last forty years or so, raising parenting from an instinctive action to an almost professional pursuit. In’Parenting Culture Studies‘, Dr Ellie Lee and colleagues put this down to an increasing ‘parental determinism’, which implies that every act of parenting directly causes a positive or negative outcome in children – from their health and emotional wellbeing, to their economic prospects. Inevitably, as these outcomes will then reflect the health and welfare of society in general, policymakers have become interested how to increase the positive outcomes for children.

In short, we must raise our children in the BEST way, to make them the BEST they can be, otherwise society is f@*&$d.

The problem is, of course, that we can’t agree on what the best way is. And, it makes me wonder, isn’t that because we can’t agree on what the best version of society is? And aren’t the mummy wars then just another version of the class wars, and the left-right wars, and the north-south wars, and the go-to vs stop the wars…..

If we placed all the parenting experts in the UK on a spectrum, with Gina Ford on one end and Sarah Ockwell-Smith on the other, and placed all their ‘followers’ underneath, I imagine that we would begin to see a clear correlation between them. Would we put Gina on the right and Sarah on the left, do you think? Rachel Waddilove places herself on the spectrum in between Gina Ford and another routine-based parenting guru Tracy Hogg. And this brings me back to that thing about a ‘higher order’. Because of course, in our acts of parenting we’re not just influencing our children’s emotional and physical health, we’re also influencing their politics. Not just their place in society, but their view of what that society should look like.

Isn’t it interesting then, that a ‘parent-led’ parenting guru would advocate teaching children about their place in the world, that there is a pecking order, that there is an authority that should be listened to. While perhaps a more ‘child-led’ expert would consider a more communal approach, where every opinion matters regardless of age. So when we talk about parent-led vs baby-led, are we also talking about what that could create in future generations? Capitalist vs socialist? Authoritarian vs communal? Autocratic vs egalitarian?

Is it any wonder we need a parenting manual? We’re not just raising children here, we’re raising a whole future society.

So what kind of parent are you going to be? Are you going to change society in your choice of spoon fed purees vs baby led weaning? Going to prevent future wars by choosing to baby wear? Prevent another banking crisis by teaching about sharing?

The trouble, of course, with ‘parental determinism’ is that it creates this paint-by-numbers approach to child rearing. If we do x,y and z this will result in a happy, healthy child and therefore adult. But, as every parent knows, what underpins all of it is feeling. Real, passionate feeling. Do babies need to know there is a higher order? Or do they need to know that, regardless of what kind of an order there is, they are deeply cared for and thought of. If they know that, then whether you’re left-leaning or right, a north-dweller or a south, they can make all their future decisions with compassion and care.