This latest government initiative, inspired by a popular TV show, will have little effect on parenting since it ignores the underlying problem
There is something entirely fitting about the latest government initiative to recruit a bunch of “supernannies”. It borrows from a popular TV series, it is pitched at what is increasingly identified as a miscreant section of society, and it successfully avoids the fundamental problem: the way in which childhood is changing rapidly and how to confront that fact. There is nothing wrong, of course, with borrowing from a TV series, providing, that is, there is some serious substance in the idea. To judge from the performance of Louise Casey, the government’s respect coordinator, on the Today programme this morning, there is neither substance nor coherence: rarely has a government initiative been articulated with such a gaseous cloud of waffle and with so little argument.
Then there is the small matter that those who are regarded as bad parents are seen as synonymous with the poor living on rundown estates. You could have fooled me. In my experience, there are plenty of bad middle-class parents, those who put their own lives and careers before those of their children and make precious little time available for their offspring, preferring instead to hire in childcare and shower them with the latest and most expensive gadgets. My guess is that good and bad parenting is spread fairly evenly across different social groups. But can you imagine Tony Blair lecturing the middle class on how to bring up their children? He is far more comfortable as a latter-day exponent of the Poor Law mentality.
The fact is that this is just another flashy New Labour initiative designed to grab the headlines, destined to do a little good and a little bad, but basically having little overall effect and, above all, failing to address the main underlying problem: that parenting is becoming far more difficult in a world where time for parenting is increasingly scarce, society is becoming ever more selfish, and childhood has become integrated into the market system and is the object of enormous commercial pressures.
Of course, parenting has always been a tough act. In my experience (I am the lone father of an eight-year-old boy who lost his mother when he was one year old), parenting is the most difficult of all jobs: forget your chief executives, editors, prime ministers and the like, parenting is far more challenging. Whatever the government might imply, there is no rulebook, no simple right and wrong, no school or university that can teach it: it requires an immensely complex combination of a clear philosophy and seat-of-the pants judgment. And the stakes could not be higher: the responsibility of bringing someone into the world and bringing them up as a rounded and worthwhile human being.
Recently there was a quite excellent initiative from a large group of public figures seeking to address the disturbing trends that were transforming the experience of childhood: the increasing scarcity of time, the growing dependence on technology (mobile phones, computers), the hugely inflated concern about safety (denying children their independence), the effects of an increasingly me-orientated society, and much else. The children’s author Michael Morpurgo and the neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, two signatories of an excellent letter to the Daily Telegraph on this subject, had a fascinating discussion on the Today programme several months ago. The Archbishop of Canterbury has also chipped in with some interesting thoughts. And New Labour? It took Jamie Oliver’s energy and social-mindedness to get the government to take fast food and school dinners seriously; now it is supernannies.
For sure, parenting and childhood is one of the great issues of our time, but this government seems intellectually and politically incapable of engaging with the subject.