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Inappropriate intervention?

Updated Wednesday, 7th December 2011

Sara Bragg from the OU's Faculty of Education and Language Studies discusses when people intervene in parent-child relationships

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Wagging finger Creative commons image Icon By Lara604 via Flickr under Creative Commons license under Creative-Commons license Interfering people “Excuse me,” interrupted the well-dressed woman sitting in front of me on the bus winding its way to the Natural History Museum. “But do you really think that is an appropriate game to be playing? I mean, she [meaning my daughter, then aged four] is just a little girl, and little girls don’t have thoughts about things like that.  It might upset her”.

My jaw dropped. True, my daughter and I had been totally engrossed in a rather complicated imaginary game, involving her sending me to prison because I was a ‘bad mummy’…  but I thought our noisy laughter might have been the key to understanding her experience of it.

In the moment, I lacked the ready wit to mention fairy stories, which surely deal over and over again with wicked (step)mothers and their violent impulses towards children, but I did stumblingly explain my view that all children have aggressive urges that could usefully be addressed through fantasy play. To no avail, however: with a superior smile, my self-appointed arbiter asserted that she ‘knew’ children and therefore ‘knew’ better than me, before – much to my relief - getting off the bus. 

There are many things that might be said about this encounter. One could, for instance, analyse it in terms of different perceptions of childhood ‘innocence’, convictions about gender and what is appropriate to ‘little girls’, the place of fantasy and the unconscious, and so on.

But for now, I’m interested in what’s going on, culturally and socially, when people feel able to intervene in this way in a parent-child relationship. What conception of children in relation to family, the state and society might it involve, for example? We know that these days society is more accepting of ‘alternative’ families, less likely to condemn variety in parenting purely because it differs from some putative norm. Yet this doesn’t mean the habit of judging has gone away. So, I’m fairly obviously a verging-on-elderly and middle-class mother, not a teenager or the progenitor of some vast benefits-dependent brood, those traditional targets of moralizing ire; my daughter isn’t malnourished or dressed in rags and was cuddled up giggling with me rather than being beaten. But none of this protected me from being found wanting within a frame that mobilized a simultaneously specific yet abstruse notion of children’s well-being, focused more on psychic than bodily needs, and not on the immediate present, but on some future point at which psychological ‘scars’ might make themselves felt. 

Such notions are also evident, I think, in the popularity of ‘Baby Einstein’ products and the like, the intensive ‘resourcing’ through which middle-class parents endeavour to equip their offspring for ‘gold-collar’ professional careers even before they are born; and equally, in pessimistic claims that future criminality can be detected in pre-schoolers. They tell us about a different age to one where a universal welfare state dispensed free milk and school lunches to children, undertaking to provide for their education and health in order to furnish the workforce and citizenry of the future.

Recent years have seen the principles of the welfare state and the language of collectivism and solidarity eroded by what is generally termed ‘neoliberalism’ - values and strategies that prioritise individual rights to freedom from interference in a ‘private’ domain. Ironically, this does not mean less ‘state’ intervention, rather a change in its focus and direction; the ‘post-welfare state’ no longer provides goods and services directly but instead acts ‘pedagogically’ alongside many other commercial and non-commercial agencies (including schools, voluntary sector organizations, the media) in governing citizens – or encouraging them ‘freely’ to make the ‘right’ choices to ensure they are ‘self-reliant’ rather than dependent on the state.

From being a collective resource and responsibility as envisaged by the welfare state, children become ‘privatized’ in significant ways under the neoliberal model, whilst still being burdened with symbolizing our hopes and fears for the future. Parents and individual families are now more than ever held responsible for ensuring successful outcomes for children, which they must do by availing themselves of the correct parenting advice, materials and resources (for instance, reading to their child at home, signing up to ‘parent-school contracts’, and the rest) especially if they wish to receive other public benefits such as affordable housing (now reconceived as a ‘subsidy’ from rich to poor, rather than a right to which they are entitled). Failure to do so will provoke censure, which can be blatantly punitive - imprisoning the parents of truanting children, evicting the families of rioters and so on, for example.  It is equally likely to be subtle, as we examine other people’s parenting practices for faults that will confirm that we ourselves are doing it ‘right’ or at least better than they.

This at least is how some scholars have tried to account for the scrutiny to which parenting is now subjected – and it speaks to, helps me make sense of, my own experiences such as in the vignette with which I began. As one result, I attempt to avoid making self-righteous judgements of my own. It’s not as easy to shake off the verdicts of others or the emotional charge they carry, but it helps to remind oneself that it is, after all, as delusional to think that we alone can control what becomes of our children, as to believe in a ‘neoliberal’ idea of individual self-reliance in which we never depend on others or do so only shamefully.

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