Labour’s nannying will undermine families

New book shows how the rise of experts has weakened the authority of parents

31st January 2024
Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams reviews a new edition of Parenting Culture Studies and concludes that, far from being ‘common sense’, Labour’s thirst for nannying will cause far more problems than it solves.

With opinion polls pointing to a decisive Labour victory, we need to take the party’s policies seriously. Keir Starmer’s top team rarely gives much away but, earlier this month, they alighted on something to rally behind: the importance of dental hygiene. The Labour leader wants school children trained in how to wield a toothbrush.

Starmer and his Shadow Health Secretary, Wes Streeting, think that Britain’s children are overweight, unhealthy, unhappy, stunted and toothless. In response, Labour’s Child Health Action Plan proposes toothbrushing classes, more child mental health counsellors, breakfast clubs, a ban on flavoured-vapes and a national register of children not in school. Under the guise of ‘health’, a Labour government would go further than ever before in taking responsibility for children’s upbringing. ‘I’m up for a fight over nanny state accusations,’ declared Sir Keir, who clearly thinks a Labour government must substitute for feckless grandmas. When it comes to obesity or tooth decay in children, he added, ‘for a government to say “well that’s none of our business,” I just think is fundamentally wrong’.

But Starmer is tilting at windmills. What’s notable is how few critics have provided this challenge. Rather than championing the importance of parental responsibility and family privacy, the current government has pointed out that it is already providing ‘toolkits’ for toothbrushing instruction and funding for breakfast clubs. Others suggested that far from unwarranted interference, Labour’s proposals did not go far enough. Toothbrushing lessons are all well and good, quizzed one BBC interviewer, but surely they will be ineffective without a sugar tax to boot.

Lack of opposition has not quelled Starmer’s bluster: ‘If anyone wants to fight me on this question of the nanny state or common sense – bring it on.’ Until very recently, overt accusations of ‘nannying’ were seen as something to avoid. Of course, policies designed to nudge our behaviour and shape the way we raise our children have been around for decades, but ‘nannying’ was considered too bossy. The argument that parents were incompetent was not considered a vote winner. This taboo has, it seems, now been busted. Starmer is not only proud to own the nanny tag, he elides it with ‘common sense’. So, what has changed?

It is not the case that children’s health is worse than ever before. As Christopher Snowdon pointed out on Spiked, British children are taller than ever, have better teeth than ever and – when it comes to weight – are pretty average compared with children in other countries. It is not children that have changed then, but adults. And it is not our health that has deteriorated but our sense that parents know what’s best for their own children.

The rise of parenting

A timely new edition of Parenting Culture Studies is vital reading for anyone wanting to understand how raising children has moved from being ‘none of the government’s business’ to a central concern of policy makers. Authors Ellie Lee, Jennie Bristow, Charlotte Faircloth and Jan Macvarish have updated their 2013 book to trace the continuing demise of the sanctity of family life and the replacement of parental authority with the tyranny of parenting experts.

They argue that the whole notion of ‘parenting’ is a relatively recent invention. Prior to the 1970s, bringing up children was less a distinct practice performed by specfic individuals but an everyday part of community and family life. Parenting emerged as families became smaller and home life more privatised. Yet, from the outset, this shift from being a parent to doing parenting was ‘associated with the view that parent–child relationships are problematic or deficient’. Rather than being seen as something mothers and fathers do naturally or instinctively, parenting became problematised as an activity requiring a particular set of skills which was best ‘conducted under the watchful gaze of experts’.

Unlike the authors of most other books on parenting, Lee et al do not tell parents how they should bring up their children. They do not dish out advice to mothers already struggling under a weight of worthy tomes. Instead, they interrogate the broader culture that shapes family life today. They describe this as,

the more or less formalized rules and codes of conduct that have emerged over recent years which reflect this deterministic view of parents and define expectations about how a parent should raise their child.

Today’s parenting culture, they contend, ‘is broadly one that is child-centred, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labour intensive, and financially expensive’. This places an exacting toll on mums and dads. Yet failure is judged harshly. As Starmer’s endorsement of the nanny state makes clear, a ‘parenting deficit’ will not be tolerated.

Parental determinism

As Lee et al explore, the notion of ‘parenting’ as something that can be taught, practiced and monitored was embraced by psychologists, social workers and policy makers as a response to a growing belief in ‘parental determinism’. This ‘construes the everyday activities of parents as directly and causally associated with ‘failing’ or harming children, and so the wider society’. As they point out:

The dominant message communicated to mothers and fathers is that the health, welfare, and success (or lack of it) of their children can be directly attributed to the decisions they make about matters like feeding their children.

Parents are told that doing the ‘wrong’ thing could have lifelong consequences for their child. And yet, other than in the most serious cases of abuse, the existence of a direct, causal relationship between parents’ actions and a child’s future prospects defies reality. It denies social and economic circumstances and our capacity to steer our own life course. Children are not raised in laboratories and families do not exist in a vacuum. For this reason, parenting can never be an exact science: it will always be a cultural practice.

Parental determinism, then, has become accepted not because it has been proven to be true, but because parents fear it might be true. Your child might not end up failing their GCSEs if you give up breastfeeding, but why take the risk? Your child might not suffer Fetal Alcohol Syndrome if you sip the odd glass of wine while pregnant but, again, why take that chance? Add to this the risk of being shamed by those more diligent and being a parent becomes fraught with anxiety.

Risks everywhere

Parenting Culture Studies considers why risk has become ever-present for parents and even parents-to-be. It is there in decisions about drinking alcohol in pregnancy and infant feeding, in discussions about the role of fathers and men in childcare settings, and in concerns about ‘strangers’ and adults outside of the immediate family. It reaches its climax in the view that parents themselves pose a risk to their own children. It is not just that we have a more expansive sense of risk nowadays, but our response to risk has shifted too. We no longer accept risk as an inevitable part of life, or see facing potential danger as an opportunity for growth, instead, risk must be avoided at all costs.

In this way, managing risks on behalf of their child becomes central to a parent’s role. As Lee et al explain: ‘parents are, in effect, seen as risk-managers, tasked with optimizing their children’s outcomes in conjunction with expert advice.’ This has led, they argue, to a new morality of family life, ‘which has “keeping us safe” as its prime value’. Yet this imperative exposes some of the key problems with today’s parenting culture. A heightened awareness of risks posed by others leads to ‘the wider breakdown of adult solidarity’ that ‘fuels the imperative of risk-aversion.’ And the awareness that parents themselves pose a risk to their children robs mothers and fathers of the confidence they need to be authoritative parents. The only winners are the ‘parenting experts’.

The rise of the experts

The problematising of parents goes hand in hand with the rise of the parenting experts. As Ellie Lee explores, both have a long history. As early as the nineteenth century, self-declared experts were beginning to challenge the idea that parents had an instinctive sense of how best to care for their children. There was concern that, left to their own devices, loving mothers would indulge their children. There were concerted efforts ‘to educate and influence the mother and make her ‘instinct’ secondary to their ‘science’’. Experts assumed that moulding model citizens required ‘the displacement of folk knowledge by scientific insight.’

Since this time, the parenting ‘rules’ have changed so often they seem to come full circle. Yet the experts continue to reinvent themselves and declare new sources of authority. By the middle of the twentieth century, ‘attachment’ became a key concern with psychologists such as John Bowlby advising how best to promote secure attachment between mother and child. Such ideas continue to be influential.

Despite this lengthy history, it is only really in the past two decades that parenting experts have become household names and that their ‘theories’, formalised into parenting classes, have been promoted by policy makers as the solution to everything from childhood obesity to poor academic attainment. At the same time, the targeting of expertise has shifted from ‘problem’ families to all mothers and fathers. Lee points to the ‘increasingly consensual assumption that all parents benefit from parent training and parenting support.’

The upshot, as Parenting Culture Studies explores, is a far more ‘intensive’ approach to raising children, involving vast amounts of time, energy, and money, as well as deference to carefully selected self-styled gurus. As Lee et al point out, this intensive parenting is ‘certainly not followed in practice by every mother’ but the prevalence of expert guidance comes to be ‘implicitly or explicitly, understood as the proper approach to the raising of a child by the majority of mothers’. This means that even though parents frequently ‘break the rules’, for example, by switching to formula feeding, using technology to pacify toddlers or ignoring bed times, they do so self-consciously. Awareness of an expert-approved approach to raising children is now pervasive.

Weakening family ties

Parenting experts sow the seeds of their own success. They problematise normal family life before stepping in with the solutions. They heighten our sense of risk before promising the security of knowing the rules have been followed. This is a pernicious industry. As Bristow points out in an exploration of family life under Covid-lockdown, whereas indoor and outdoor play spaces, opportunities to meet with other families, and practical help with education and childcare were all missed by parents, instruction on how to bring up their children was not.

Starmer and Streeting should take note. Pointing out the inadequacies of parents and offering lessons in toothbrushing may no longer seem controversial to families long accustomed to being told that experts know best. But that does not make such interventions helpful. Parents appreciate the practical support of nurseries and playgrounds and the shared wisdom found in the extended family and wider community far more than the hectoring of government ministers.

But this is not just about political popularity. Far more importantly, as Parenting Culture Studies makes clear, expert interventions only ever succeed in undermining parents still further. Policy makers talk about wanting to support families but state interference weakens the authority of families still further. Far from being ‘common sense’, as Starmer would have us believe, ‘nannying’ causes far more problems than it solves. A pledge to keep schools and playgrounds open would be welcome, but parenting experts need reining in.

The Second Edition of Parenting Culture Studies by Ellie Lee, Jennie Bristow, Charlotte Faircloth and Jan Macvarish can be purchased here.

Photo by Tanaphong Toochinda on Unsplash