Parents need to accept full responsibility for bringing up their children, because professionals, in truth, can’t help them, argues Michael Fitzpatrick
I often think it is strange that parents ask me – as a GP – for advice on matters of child-rearing.
It is understandable that parents should seek medical advice about their children’s coughs and fevers, even about teething and nappy rashes. But why turn to a doctor for help with sleeping and feeding problems, toilet-training, tantrums and bad behaviour?
As a parent, I have some experience in these matters – though not as much as any of the middle-aged women readily available for consultation at the bus-stop outside my surgery. But I have no professional expertise in child-rearing and family relationships. But the same could be said of the “parenting practitioners” now running parenting classes and family intervention programmes around the country and of the parenting gurus who pontificate in guidebooks and magazines and on television programmes.
Why do parents watch Supernanny and read all these books, and even bring their family problems to their GPs? According to the government’s former “Respect tsar” Louise Casey: “there’s no shortage of people who want to be bossed around a bit”. As journalist Jenny Bristow observes in her provocative new book, Standing Up To Supernanny, “the symbolic success of Supernanny is in cementing the idea that parents really want and need a ‘third person’ in their relationship to help with the allegedly hellish torment of raising their children.”
Parental anxieties and insecurities have reached such a pitch that mothers and fathers are prepared to accept professional intrusion in intimate family relationships – even by people with no particular expertise (if indeed there is such as thing as expertise in parenting). Nevertheless, GPs, nurses, health visitors, social workers and generic “family support” workers are ready and willing to boss parents around in surgeries, children’s centres and Sure Start schemes.
While respectable parents join internet forums and read Gina Ford and attend parenting classes, parents of “chaotic” families are invited to attend residential “family intervention projects”.
According to the senior project worker at a pioneering unit in Dundee, who was quoted in The Guardian, a lot of residents find it “prison-like” and “quite intrusive” to begin with. Yet over the past three years some 2,600 families have voluntarily attended schemes in 170 centres.
Promoters of family intervention claim it is “incredibly cost effective” by keeping children out of the youth justice system and formal state care. But Jenny Bristow objects to the “wider coercive trends” towards “professionalising parenting”, including the national vetting scheme that appears to represent every adult as a potential abuser.
Bristow upholds the privacy of family life against state-sponsored intrusions and respecting family relationships “based on spontaneous affection and authority”. She criticises professional intervention for sapping parental confidence and undermining their ability to raise the next generation of adults.
Parents’ loss of confidence
The fact that parents turn to doctors for help with parenting confirms the extent to which they have come to accept the assumptions at the heart of government policy and media commentary – that they are incapable of rearing their children without professional monitoring, advice and support.
But, as Bristow suggests, it would be better if professionals stopped pretending they have any special wisdom about child-rearing. If parents stopped acting like children and put their trust in themselves – and other adults – when it comes to bringing up children then supernanny would soon become redundant, and GPs would have to restrict their practice to medical matters.
Michael Fitzpatrick is a GP in Hackney and the author of The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle
Published in 12 November 2009 Community Care under headline ‘The drift towards professional parenting must be resisted’