Research into practice

What are the roles and responsibilities of parents today? What is their relationship with the state? New research by Clem Henricson of the National Family and Parenting Institute concludes that parenthood is a complex area and that ambiguities emerge in parenting policy.1 There is a tension between the state’s role in supporting families and the preservation of parental authority. This research may be of interest not only for those interested in social policy but also for social workers in considering their role in relation to children and families.

This research shows the tensions and complexity in government thinking and policies. On the one hand the government shows a sustained determination to shrink child poverty – for example, by a range of benefits such as working families’ tax credit and education maintenance allowances. And yet on the other, the government has also emphasised parents’ financial responsibility for raising children. For instance, it requires that parents pay university fees, and it has made the minimum wage payable only to those aged 22 and over. Such measures lead to an increase in young people’s dependency on their parents.

Also, much caring support has been targeted at areas rather than at individuals, such as the Sure Start initiatives which promote the development of babies and young children in deprived areas. The government is also juggling contradictory work-life balance needs. It seeks to provide children with the security of attachment, while reducing social exclusion by encouraging parents to work.

The area of particular interest to social workers may be issues raised by the findings on policies on parents’ rights and their children. It comments that the definition of “parenting capacity” is defined in the Department of Health’s Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need, which includes the provision of basic care, safety, emotional warmth, stimulation, guidance, boundaries and stability. There are also limited statements about parenting responsibilities in school-parent contracts covering education issues such as homework and truancy.

However, the research finds something of a contradiction between the range of variables seen as impinging on parenting in the framework and the more straightforward blaming of parents for failing to control their children’s behaviour that is suggested by the punishment of parents of truants and by parenting orders. The research also finds that recent surveys have revealed parents’ anxieties over losing autonomy.

Another issue highlighted is that, although parents can be prosecuted for neglect for leaving their children alone, there is no guidance as to the age at which a child might be appropriately left alone. Also the defence of “reasonable chastisement” has not been removed, despite the judgement in the European Court of Human Rights, that such a defence caused the government to fail in its duty to protect children.

The research recommends that greater clarity is needed to define parents’ rights in relation to their child and also types of parenthood – genetic parents, resident and non-resident social parents, and adults present in the home long-term or casually. It may be useful to add the role of those in social services who also have “parental responsibility” for a child.

This research highlights the need for regular policy review and a national debate as to whether there should be an official statement of parents’ rights and responsibilities. It could also be useful in the debate over how parenting capacity is assessed, the role of social workers as “corporate parents” and their role in enforcing the more punitive policies.

1C Henricson, Government and Parenting: Is There a Case for a Policy Review and a Parents’ Code?, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2003

Gaynor Wingham is director of the Professional Independents Consultancy.

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