Poor parenting or blaming poor parents?

Threatening the use of water cannon at the tail end of the riots last summer, Eton-educated David Cameron blamed the disturbances on “a complete lack of responsibility, a lack of proper parenting, a lack of proper upbringing, a lack of proper ethics, a lack of proper morals.” The general public seemed to agree with the Prime Minister, with a December 2011 Guardian/ICM poll finding 86 percent of respondents saying “poor parenting” was an “important” or “very important” cause of the riots.


Cameron’s focus on parenting is the latest example of how the debate on poverty, crime and social mobility has fundamentally shifted to the level of the individual and family during the last 30 years of neoliberalism. It’s a bipartisan ideological swing – perfectly highlighted by the 2010 report ‘The Foundation Years: preventing poor children becoming poor adults.’ Commissioned by the Coalition Government and written by Labour MP Frank Field, the report argues that parenting is more important than income or schooling in determining a child’s life chances. “Britain is witnessing a rupturing in its once strong parenting tradition”, Field argues. Citing a sociology text from the 1950s, he goes on to make the extraordinary argument that “tough love” parenting was the agent that transformed England from centuries of brutality into “the most peaceful European nation.” Field seems to be in step with public opinion, with a December 2011 Radio 4 poll finding 77 percent of respondents thought the way parents bring up their children has worsened in the past 10 years.


But when did Britain have this “strong parenting tradition”? Was it in 1816, when the Society for Investigating the Causes of the Alarming Increase of Juvenile Delinquency in the Metropolis concluded that a central cause of delinquency was the “improper conduct of parents”?  Was it in 1913, when the author of a book titled ‘Young delinquents’ lamented that “one of the most marked characteristics of the age” is a “slackening of control in the parents” of “independent” children? Or perhaps it was in 1951, when the Recorder of Bradford noted “parents of this time, unfortunately, do not take sufficient care in bringing up their children. They expect somebody to be responsible.”


Of course, just because concerns about poor parenting have been a constant in modern history, doesn’t mean the argument can be dismissed out of hand. What is the evidence today?


Val Gillies, a research professor in social policy at South Bank University, argues those who see parenting as the central cause of poverty and social mobility, are deploying “the faulty logic of using class-specific parenting practices to account for the inequality they reflect”. Naomi Eisenstadt, the first director of Sure Start, concurs, noting that “it is just significantly more difficult to be a good parent with a minimum level of resources.” Speaking to The Guardian at the end of last year, Eisenstadt criticised the Government’s drift towards promoting good parenting: “To tell the truth, I would rather put food on the table. In the absence of any talk about paying the bills, this focus is disrespectful because it assumes that these are the problems poor parents have, and does not recognise that the main problem poor people have is not having enough money.”


Furthermore, a study of over 11,000 children by the Institute of Education, University of London – released in the same month as Field’s report – found that social class has more of an effect on children’s performance at school than good parenting. “A policy focus on parenting alone is insufficient to tackle the impacts of social inequalities on children”, noted Dr Alice Sullivan, the principle author of the study. “Redistributive economic policies may be more effective than policies directly addressing parenting activities.”


And this is the key. While few would argue against promoting parenting skills, like the red herring that is the Big Society, parenting is a distraction from the larger structural issues that negatively affect an individual’s life chances. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show in The Spirit Level, social mobility is highest in more equal industrialised nations like Norway and Sweden, and lowest in the most unequal nations – the US and UK. Ignoring this evidence, our political masters are asking us to believe it is parenting skills and not inequality, poverty and public spending that is the key determinant of social mobility.


So for all the talk of Compassionate Conservatism and Nick Clegg’s ‘new politics’, we seem to be firmly back with the nasty party. Because if the debate can be successfully framed as one where parents are the main drivers of social mobility, it also means the converse is true – that child poverty is the product of bad parenting.


*Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK http://twitter.com#!/IanJSinclair and ian_js@hotmail.com.

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